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09/30/2008 - Virtual Doors Open at VPnet 2.0

“VPnet 2.0 is open for business,” says Steve Trabun, Avista Regional Business Manager and VPnet President. VPnet 2.0 has an updated business model and technology plan, but its purpose remains the same – to provide a high bandwidth network for collaborative research and education.. VPnet was made possible by an Avista gift of more than two hundred miles of dark fiber, providing for an ‘unlimited’ bandwidth network. As launched in 2003, VPnet 1.0 was one of the region’s most ambitious higher education collaborative networks involving an unprecedented combination of very broad scope and ultra high bandwidth.

VPnet 1.0 was an entirely lit fiber network that required substantial funding to operate and maintain. Created with the concept of “if we build it, they will come”, users and projects came at a slow rate, and VPnet and its members could no longer justify the expense of maintenance. Therefore, the aging electronic equipment that lit the fiber was sold, and the proceeds were placed in reserve for future development. VPnet continues as an active 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation, with its fiber fabric intact and ready to use.

VPnet 2.0 was precipitated by two complimentary factors – customers emerged with applications for the network, and an EWU graduate computer science class conducted a foundation study for VPnet 2.0 last spring quarter. Avista and VPnet were so impressed by the quality of work done by several graduate students in Dr. Steve Simmons EWU class that VPnet contracted two students, Nate Brantingham and David McCombs, to continue the project throughout the summer. Brantingham and McCombs interviewed current users, previous users, network and technology experts, and vendors. They developed both the business case and the technology architecture for VPnet 2.0, and the specifications for new equipment to light the fiber. Finally, they consolidated all of the information and developed a comprehensive business and technology plan that will be used to re-launch VPnet 2.0.

Basically, VPnet 2.0 will use the original donated dark fiber that extends from North Idaho to EWU in Cheney and from Whitworth to Gonzaga to Sirti in the U-District – connecting through the US Bank building in downtown Spokane. Researchers and educators outside of the Spokane Metropolitan Area Network can be reached through the Inland Northwest Gigapop for research and education only – VPnet does not allow commodity Internet traffic across its network.

The network architecture will use a star topology using layer 2 Ethernet connectivity and many Virtual Local Area Networks (VLANs) supported by a new core switch located in the US Bank building. Use of VLANs means that it is possible to light the fiber one project at a time – hence, keeping project costs down as well as the ongoing maintenance and management of the network. The VLANs will be restricted to predetermined bandwidths, but a project can have as many VLANs as it needs. This architecture allows on-fabric, high bandwidth connectivity with very low latency for point-to-point collaboration between researchers and educators. The network is highly scaleable and the technology plan should be good for at least five years.

The business model calls for pricing based on usage and number of VLANs. Fees will be based on the number of unique projects by a user and the power and bandwidth needed for the projects. Fees will be assessed only for the duration of the project. Essentially, the more VLANs the greater the fee. An institutional fee is also available for education institutions to consider as the number of projects using VPnet increases.

“This project was a ‘triple-win’,” says Trabun. “VPnet benefited by having the business and technology plan updated, the students benefited from a tremendous learning experience, and the community benefits by having VPnet ready to serve the research and education community.” The students appreciated the experience involved in doing the study. “We learned more about how networks really, really work,” says Brantingham. “We learned what could go wrong – from the simple to the difficult – and how network core device chips really work.” The project started with the overall mission and purpose of VPnet, and then drilled down into all of the business and technology details.

WSU’s Applied Sciences Laboratory currently uses VPnet to connect to its high performance computing cluster from Sirti to Steam Plan Square. Dr. Simmons’ music project, MANOME, plans to use VPnet to connect to Stanford University for further research. Gonzaga has identified projects that will need the bandwidth and speed provided by the VPnet network. Both the Spokane Symphony and District 81 have indicated interest. VPnet 2.0 is ready to make it all possible.

To learn more about VPnet 2.0, contact Steve Trabun (509) 495-2829 or e-mail

Billie Moreland
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