Caltech and Cisco Team to Advance Development of FAST Network
This was the difficulty physicists posed to Steven Low, associate professor of computer science and electrical engineering at the California Institute of Technology, three years ago.
Low, an expert in the field of advanced networking, and his team devised a scheme for moving immense amounts of data across high-speed networks at breakneck speed. Called FAST TCP, for Fast Active queue management Scalable Transmission Control Protocol, the new algorithm has been used by physicists to shatter data transfer speed records for the last two years.
In order to push this work further, the Low group needs an experimental facility to test their ideas. Available test beds are either production wide-area networks that connect physics laboratories around the world such as CERN in Geneva, the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center at Stanford, and Fermi Lab in Chicago or an emulated network in a laboratory.
The first option offers a realistic environment for developing network protocols, but is almost impossible to reconfigure and monitor closely for experimental purposes; the second is the exact opposite.
The Low group proposed to build the "WAN in Lab," a wide-area network with all equipment contained in a laboratory, so that the network would be under the complete control of the experimenters. This unique facility might be described as a "wind tunnel" for networking. And, like FAST TCP, is a collaboration with physicist Harvey Newman and mathematician John Doyle of Caltech.
Thanks to a $1.1 million list value equipment donation from Cisco's Academic Research and Technology Initiatives (ARTI) group, this new lab is quickly becoming a reality. Last-minute work is being done, and the team expects the new facility to be ready this fall.
The ARTI group is part of Cisco's Chief Development Office and is focused on engaging with the research and education community in fostering innovation, research and development opportunities for advanced networking infrastructure in research and education networks and related projects around the world.
The relationship between Caltech's FAST TCP project and Cisco's ARTI group began in the spring of 2002, when Low received a research grant from Cisco's University Research Program (URP). The relationship continued with additional URP funding, which eventually led to this most recent equipment donation for the WAN in Lab project. Throughout the development process for the WAN in Lab, Cisco engineers worked directly with Caltech researchers in designing and implementing the WAN in Lab infrastructure.
"This is an exciting time for us," says Low. "Seeing how scientists actually use our protocol will help us refine our approach. The WAN in Lab is a unique experimental infrastructure critical for exploring many new ideas."
According to Bob Aiken, director of the ARTI group, FAST TCP is designed to address the difficult challenge of meeting the needs of the next generation of networking and computational science researchers. Multidisciplinary research is increasing on a global basis, and the networking requirements of these data-intensive applications require global-scale grids and networks.
"FAST TCP and WAN in Lab, in conjunction with existing research networks with which they connect and peer, such as National Lambda Rail, allow for the measurement of real optical networks and protocols in a tightly controlled environment with true global WAN distances," said Aiken. "Cisco is pleased to have been able to work with Steven Low and Caltech on these projects over the last several years, and look forward to an ongoing research relationship."
The remarkable thing about FAST TCP is that it uses the existing Internet. The secret is in software at the sending point that parses the data into network-compatible packets that avoid typical Internet congestion as they weave their way to their ultimate destination.
In a demonstration at the Supercomputing Bandwidth Challenge last November, FAST TCP set a new world record for sustained data transfer of 101 gigabits per second from Pittsburgh to various research facilities around the world. This phenomenal rate is equivalent to transmitting the entire contents of the Library of Congress in 15 minutes.
Future work in the new WAN in Lab funded by the Cisco equipment donation, the National Science Foundation, the Army Research Office, and Corning will focus on making FAST TCP more robust. The WAN in Lab will also be useful for testing new network theories developed at Caltech and other universities.
Harvey Newman, Caltech physics professor and board chair of the U.S. CMS (the collaborative Compact Muon Solenoid experiment being conducted by U.S. scientists at CERN), expects joint research to lead to even greater performance.
"This new facility will allow scientists and network engineers to collaborate on designing networks that will revolutionize data-intensive grid computing and other forms of scientific computing over the next decade," said Newman. "This will be an enabling force in the next round of scientific discoveries expected when the Large Hadron Collider begins operation in 2007."
The creation of an interdisciplinary research infrastructure based on information is a major focus of the Information Science and Technology (IST) initiative at Caltech. The $1.1 million Cisco equipment donation is part of a $100 million effort to make IST a reality.