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Dark fibers: Researchers will use dormant networking resources—which extend through the areas indicated on this map—to perform a variety of experiments.

In a few unused back alleys of the Internet, researchers are testing radical new ways of transferring information, often at speeds almost unimaginable to the home Internet user.

Internet2, a consortium devoted to developing advanced networking applications and technologies, and the Energy Sciences Network (ESNet), which provides powerful data connections for scientists at national laboratories, universities, and research institutes, are putting together experimental networks on top of dormant networking resources known as “dark fiber.” While the researchers say it will be years before the advances reach individuals and businesses, they think the work will ultimately ensure that the Internet functions smoothly in the future. For example, the experimental networks could allow researchers to update protocols, anticipate security needs, try out better hardware, and look at ways of making networks more energy-efficient.

The organizations worked together on two prototype networks. One transfers data at a mind-boggling 100 gigabits per second. (Google made waves last year by announcing its plan to build a one-gigabit-per-second network for a chosen community.) The second is intended for riskier experiments into network architecture. Researchers want to find protocols that transfer data faster and more reliably, try out innovative network hardware, and experiment with ways to handle difficult security scenarios. In other words, they want to do the type of work that could cause problems for regular traffic if it were done on any sort of shared network.

“When you want to do something disruptive, when you want to try something really radical, you can’t do that on a network that people are trying to actually use,” says Robert Vietzke, Internet2’s director of network services. At the same time, it is useful to test these ideas on real network infrastructure. In the past, he says, researchers would buy spools of fiber, install them in their labs, and try to emulate a national network. Using dark fiber lets them test ideas at larger scales, and bring in real traffic (without disrupting it). This makes it much easier to go from experiment to prototype to actual deployment.

Dark fiber refers to fiber-optic cables that are currently lying unused. “With the dot-com bust, this fiber became available at fire-sale prices,” says Steve Cotter, department head for ESNet. Though the price of dark fiber had risen again in recent years, Cotter says, the economic downturn has made it cheap again. ESNet and Internet2 took the opportunity to lease fiber for the next 20 years.

For the 100-gigabit-per-second network, ESNet and Internet2 added equipment and software to allow the network to function. The experimental test bed, however, which is a separate network, gets left dark—open to whatever equipment or protocols researchers want to bring to it.

As an example, Cotter says, it’s well known that the current protocols for transferring information over the Internet, such as TCP/IP, are creaking with age. The decades-old protocols break down in very-high-bandwidth situations in particular. Cotter expects researchers to test new alternatives. 

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Credit: ESNet

Tagged: Communications, Web, security, networks, energy efficiency, hardware, Internet protocols

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