Public Release: 

'National LambdaRail' will push the limits of computer networking

Duke University

DURHAM, N.C. -- Duke and other universities have joined to establish an experimental new high-speed computing network -- "National LambdaRail" (NLR) -- that will enable researchers across the country to collaborate in advancing research on topics from cancer to the physical forces driving hurricanes such as Isabel. Tracy Futhey, Duke's vice president of information technology and chief information officer, chairs the consortium, which seeks to promote the next generations of high-speed computer networks and related technologies for research and education.

The NLR consortium of universities and corporations, formed over the past several months to develop a network that will eventually include 11,000 miles of high-speed connections linking North Carolina's Research Triangle and other major population areas. The name combines the Greek symbol for light waves with "rail," which echoes an earlier form of network that united the country. Duke and the other NLR participants today formally announced their plans to develop the new system to promote networking advances. NLR's press release is available at

"Those of us who oversee academic computing at Duke and other universities have an obligation to provide our faculty and students with the best possible technology available today," Futhey said. "At the same time, we need to push ahead with even more powerful networks and systems to enable new kinds of research and education."

Researchers at Duke and elsewhere have used the recently created Internet2 as their newest superhighway for speedy networking. But that system's very success has given rise to the NLR project, said Futhey.

"Hundreds of colleges, universities and other research institutions have come to depend on Internet2 for reliable high-speed transmission of research data, video conferencing and coursework," said Futhey. "While Internet2's Abilene network supports research, NLR will offer more options to researchers. Its optical fiber and light waves will be configured to allow essentially private research networks between two locations. The traffic and protocols transmitted over such a 'point-to-point' wave won't affect anything else. In other words, the one NLR network, with its 'dark fiber' and other technical features, gives us 40 essentially private networks, making it the ideal place for the sorts of early experimentation that network researchers need to develop new applications and systems for sharing information."

Besides Duke, which represents a coalition of North Carolina universities, NLR's members and associates include the Corporation for Education Network Initiatives in California, the Pacific Northwest Gigapop, the Mid-Atlantic Terascale Partnership and the Virginia Tech Foundation, the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center, Cisco Systems, Internet2®, the Georgia Institute of Technology, Florida LambdaRail and a consortium of the Big Ten universities and the University of Chicago.

Said Provost Peter Lange "This initiative is important for Duke not only because of the new resources it will provide to our researchers, but also because the university has been among the leaders in organizing such a national effort. Even as Tracy and her colleagues have been working hard to meet the immediate computing needs of faculty, students and staff on our own campus, they've also been helping to create a new national infrastructure to enhance research and education more broadly."

Duke has also worked closely on the project with North Carolina State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Futhey said the initiative would "further strengthen the growing cooperation among academic researchers in North Carolina, providing new resources for them to collaborate with each other and partners elsewhere at the highest levels of science, engineering, medicine other fields."

Emphasizing the collaborative origins and operation of the young consortium, she said the group has taken advantage of the low rates caused by an oversupply of fiber optic networks. NLR has contracted for large amounts of the fiber, which its researchers will be able to "light up" with as many as 40 simultaneous light beams, each carrying data at a different wavelength. Since the beams do not interfere with one another, researchers will be able to safely conduct 40 separate experiments at once.

"A chemist at Duke or an astronomer at Stanford won't have to worry that an experiment gone wrong could take down the whole network," said Futhey. "Even if one experiment crashes, it won't interfere with the other experiments on the network."

Such experiments might range from new data-transmitting protocols that might spawn the next generation of Internet, or a network that enables researchers in different cities to swap data among experimental instruments as if the scientists were in the same room. Research on the NLR will include such diverse areas as neurobiology, genetics, aeronautics, seismology and meteorology.

"For example," said Futhey, "the OptiPuter project will aim to use NLR to create one giant metacomputer extending from coast to coast." The "processor" of this massive virtual computer will essentially combine those of all the participating computers, along with their data storage and memory. NLR's "Biomedical Informatics Research Network" will enable brain researchers in different locations to instantly share brain images - files that can be massively large - for joint study and, eventually, diagnoses of patients.

More globally, said Futhey, the "UltraLight" networking project will enable physicists, astronomers and radiation oncologists worldwide to share vast files with data on everything from astronomical quasars to cancerous tumors.

Futhey cited Cisco Systems for its leadership in providing funding and equipment for the initiative. "Cisco recognizes that universities are a hot spot for networking innovation," she said. "It's making a smart move in giving universities an arena where they can do bold, large-scale networking research."


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