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05/31/2004 - VPnet Completes Fiber Fusion, Continues Progress

The nation's largest wireless HotZone and VPnet are two developing technology projects that illustrate why Spokane is the top intelligent city in the USA. VPnet is one of the world's most ambitious and diverse collaborative networks involving higher education. And, for a project of its cost, magnitude and complexity, its progress is very impressive.

On May 11, a SITSA-sponsored panel discussion was presented by representatives of Avista Corporation, Network Design and Management (NDM), and Eastern Washington University (EWU) detailing recent VPnet progress. Highlights included the completion of fiber fusing for all existing fiber (about 200 miles), construction progress on some missing fiber links, and new project partners including EDS and Cisco Systems. Perhaps most important is progress on a business plan that will allow VPnet to become a durable and self sustaining collaborative organization operating a highly available and reliable broadband network.

Steve Simmons of EWU began the report with a brief history and overview of VPnet. He explained that the idea of a collaborative higher education network was first publicly introduced at an EWU/WSU panel presentation in October, 1999, under the name of the Inland Northwest Digital University (INDU). INDU remained a paper tiger until late 2002 when Avista Corporation and Columbia Fiber Solutions made massive donations of dark fiber to form the foundation of a physical network. They also expanded the concept to a multi-purpose economic development network (called the 'Virtual Possibilities Network' or 'VPnet') for educational collaboration, research and development, e-learning and business incubation. The network will be nationally unique in having both industry and academic members and in encouraging collaborative projects that reach far outside academia to stimulate the local economy.

Avista went on to donate additional leased OC3 connections to Seattle and Pullman from Spokane, and DS3 connections between Pullman, Clarkston and Walla Walla so that VPnet now consists of several major parts. These include about 190 miles of fiber along the I-90 corridor (the 'I-90 fabric'), about 10 miles of fiber from Pullman to Moscow, and the OC3 and DS3 links connecting the fiber domains to each other and to Seattle's Westin Building, home of the Pacific Northwest GigaPOP.

Butch Stokes and Dave Moore of NDM then reported on the physical progress and technical aspects of the new network. The largely technical audience learned that the fiber fusion was complete for all the existing fiber. They also learned that key "missing links" were falling into place, including the long-awaited Cheney to Spokane fiber link --- which is expected to be completed in time for fall quarter at EWU.

Stokes and Moore also announced dramatic progress in the hardware design for VPnet --- a second-generation VPnet architecture which optimizes bandwidth and scalability, while holding costs to a minimum. Instead of using Coarse Wave Division Multiplexing (as originally planned) to provide ultra-fast broadband to the member sites, the new design employs a varied mix of gigabit bandwidth rates over the network segments. Greater bandwidth will be allocated to the high traffic links, such as the hub link between the US Bank Building and SIRTI. The new design is highly scalable, and drops the day-one capital cost of linking all VPnet members to an up and running network to an amount under $200,000 --- thanks in part to a significant contribution made by Cisco Systems. For the 15 initial locations, this would mean each location could have "lit" service for only $11,500 --- a remarkably low price.

Steve Trabun of Avista Corporation reported on the VPnet business plan, scheduled for completion this June. The plan has to acknowledge problems and offer solutions to some of the hard choices involved in creating and operating a very large network that will have to serve a very diverse group of members --- private and public, commercial and educational, relatively rich or poor. One hard choice was between reliability and cost. Seeking a realistic middle ground solution, the plan advocates seeking high up-time on the net, but not going so far as to provide physically redundant links between all key points. Through significant contributions by both Avista and EDS, the network will provide network provisioning, QoS, and 24x7 service level agreements, similar to the services provided by commercial carriers. The network will then reliably support research collaboration and distance learning, but lack of redundancy would cause it to be down for a few hours in the unlikely event of a physically cut fiber line.

The plan is very complete, offering deep analysis and recommended solutions for all major business issues looming in the future for VPnet --- construction, operations, funding, and applications. Trabun concluded by sketching some of the very creative and dramatic applications now underway for VPnet, ranging from the original INDU idea of inter-university seminars to cutting edge applications in the arts and homeland security.

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