The first phase of the "Next Generation Internet" (NGI) has been put into operation by turning on the Abilene fibre optic backbone. At present, the network connects 37 universities as well as IBM, which is the first corporate partner to be linked to Internet2. The NGI initiative is being co-ordinated by a non-profit consortium of universities and corporations, the University Corporation for Advanced Internet Development (UCAID). Indiana University will host the control centre for the Abilene Network, which initially will serve as a test bed for innovative Internet applications, such as distance learning, telemedicine and digital libraries.
Abilene spans over 10.000 miles of fibre optic cabling supplied by Qwest Communications and operates at 2.4Gbits per second. Cisco Systems has provided the communications equipment whereas Nortel is offering all of the required network planning and engineering services. The three partners have made a combined three-year investment of $500 million in order to put the Abilene project on the rails. By the end of 1999, over 70 universities and research institutions are expected to hook up to this high speed connection. In the long run, also commercial organizations will be offered the opportunity to join the Abilene flash line. As a first result, IBM's research laboratories in San Jose, California and Westchester County, New York will be connected to the Abilene backbone for the design of advanced middleware to monitor the traffic on high speed networks.
Internet2 was first announced in 1996 as an ultra-fast research network to be developed by United States' universities, profit making organizations and government institutions. As such, it was not intended to substitute today's Internet. Abilene has been envisioned as a platform to produce and test a whole range of new networking technologies to be implemented if possible on the "normal" Internet. These tools include features, such as the latest Internet Protocol IPV6 and advanced ways of video transmission on the Web. The first demonstrations consisted of transferring terabit-size files to illustrate the network's ability for applying quality of service (QOS) attributes to guarantee the timely delivery of electronic data. Also the broadcast of a video stream at a rate of 30 frames per second was performed successfully.
Yet, not everyone seems to be entirely convinced of the Abilene backbone qualities. Several industry observers have uttered their criticism towards Internet2 and cynically refer to it as the publicly funded sandbox exclusively reserved for the benefit of academics and computer science majors. The commercial players think that universities in the end may not have a great deal of knowledge left to share with the real-world implementation specialists of next-generation technologies. Abilene advocates counter this scepticism by indicating that the network might play a key role in the try-out of diverse QOS protocols, which are currently being developed in various standards bodies. In case one particular protocol were to be selected by the community of Internet users, its viability could be tested on the Abilene network.
The greatest value of Internet2 probably consists in the way it can be applied as a gauge to measure the costs and efforts that are at stake to turn today's congested commercial Internet into an ideal instrument for the transmission of confidential data and delay-sensitive information, such as voice and video traffic. Abilene opponents throw back that the old capitalist creed of market demand and pragmatism will be bound to rule the future of Internet instead of academic research. In the past, the academic world and the commercial sector both have contributed to the birth of advanced network technologies. Will the Abilene backbone be able to act as a forerunner of the future market demands generated by the commercial Internet? Only time will tell.
More details on Internet2 are available on the home page of the Next Generation Internet. The launch of the Abilene Network was emphasized by a live demonstration of telesurgery between the remote sites of Washington and Ohio. For an extensive account of this event, please read the VMW article Live surgery performance between Washington and Ohio promotes new and super-fast Internet link in this very same issue.