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12/31/2003 - VPnet Expands Coverage and Application Plans

At the end of its first year, the Virtual Possibilities Network (VPnet) has grown hundreds of miles larger and far more ambitious in its planned applications. The physical expansion is a major enlargement of the fabric of VPnet, and this expansion has made many of the planned applications possible.

In the beginning, VPnet consisted of two major components --- each a large body of connected dark fiber. The largest of the original components (the "I-90 fabric") consists of about 190 miles of dark fiber running along I-90 from Coeur d'Alene westward nearly to Cheney. This fiber also extends a few miles north and south from I-90, allowing Whitworth, Gonzaga and other I-90 corridor sites to be included. Another large, original component (the "Pullman - Moscow Fabric") is simply 10 miles of fiber connecting those two research university towns.

Thanks to additional efforts by Avista Corp --- the original donor of the 200 mile dark fiber network --- two very large and valuable additional components have been donated to VPnet. These are an OC-3 link from downtown Spokane connecting to the Westin Building in Seattle, and another OC-3 link connecting to the WSU campus in Pullman. These are leased connections donated by Avista, and their cost brings the total value of the VPnet donation above $2.2 million.

The new links open the way to new applications. Dr Steve Simmons, member of the VPnet administrative and technical committees, says over the past year, three large families of planned applications have emerged. "I have nicknamed them the 'pot o' gold' projects, the 'fried egg projects', and the 'tapestry projects', "Simmons states.

The 'pot o' gold' projects use the new VPnet connections to Seattle, Pullman and beyond to access a specific, valuable resource. For example, Dr Robin McRae, of the EWU department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, in conjunction with staff scientists Bruce Garrett and Greg Schenter of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), plans to use the new, very powerful supercomputer at PNNL to compute new models of chemical reactions. The new models are highly realistic but require billions of detailed calculations to work out. A reaction problem will be sent over VPnet's links through Seattle to PNNL. In a few seconds, the supercomputer will carry out the needed computations, and then send the results back over VPnet to McRae at EWU.

The 'fried egg' projects are so-nicknamed to stress that they utilize two different kinds of computer networking structures in two different ways. "Visualize a fried egg," Simmons suggests, "the yolk represents the powerful main fiber fabric of VPnet, where bandwidth is essentially unlimited. The outer egg white represents the outside world of the regular Internet, connected by gateways to the main VPnet fabric --- the yolk." For an application of this type, traffic that does not need massive bandwidth is sent between the regular Internet (white) and the powerful central fabric (yolk). For example, it might be used for a low-cost clinical study of diabetic interactions with over the counter drugs. The participants could send medical data from their home concerning the drug utilized, blood sugar levels and other relevant information. Within the core of VPnet, a very large clinical data set could be eventually obtained via these reports. This data set could then be transmitted to collaborators, elaborately modeled, and statistically manipulated --- using the very large bandwidth and computing power available in the VPnet main fabric.

The 'tapestry applications' are named for the tapestry of fiber that covers the greater Spokane metropolitan area and supports the operations of VPnet. This type of application, historically the first envisioned for the network, makes truly essential use of the vast bandwidth in the main fabric. The use of massive multimedia data streams of video and audio to join separated Inland Northwest classrooms into one 'virtual room' has been envisioned from the beginning of VPnet as a means of uniting regional colleges and universities for research, advanced education, and collaboration. Because the bandwidth cost of this ultra-realistic classroom interaction has been estimated at 400 megabits per second, this application does not lend itself to extensions outside the main fabric of VPnet.

Billie Moreland
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