The University Record, May 20, 2002

Network infrastructure upgrade under way

Editor’s note: This article is the first in an occasional series of updates on progress made toward implementing recommendations of the President’s Information Revolution Commission (PIRC) report, issued in May 2001.


By Nancy Ross-Flanigan

Back in the days when bobby socks were in vogue, computers at the University took up whole rooms and were used mainly for keeping track of administrative matters and analyzing scientific data. Today —just a half century or so later—information technology permeates every aspect of campus life, with more than 50,000 computers being used for everything from e-mail to complex mathematical modeling.

In response to the information revolution taking place on campus and around the world—and to the PIRC recommendations—a number of improvements to the University’s information technology infrastructure and environment currently are underway. Among the most tangible is an upgrade of the UMnet backbone, the conduit that links computers on desktops all over the Ann Arbor campus with one another and with the outside world. (UMnet is one of three separate backbones that make up the entire campus backbone network; the College of Engineering and the Health Systems each have their own.)

In the first phase of improvements, UMnet is being upgraded from its current capacity of 622 megabits per second to 1 gigabit per second, with the capability of expanding to 10 gigabits per second when additional capacity is needed. The initial upgrade is something like replacing a two-lane blacktop road with a multilane highway, and just as a superhighway makes travel more efficient, the upgraded backbone will provide users with speedier, more reliable connections. In a recent test of one upgraded backbone segment, physics postdoctoral fellow Shawn McKee achieved a 15-fold increase in bandwidth (the amount of data that can be transmitted in a given amount of time).

The improvements also will mean that users can take greater advantage of multimedia tools and communication services, says Andy Palms, director of IT Communications (ITCom), a unit within Information Technology Central Services that oversees UMnet. “The use of and need for networked voice, data and video services have risen exponentially in recent years,” he says. “The UMnet upgrade, which is well under way, will enable faculty, staff and students from all disciplines to continue to fully participate in a vast range of research and communication projects.”

For example, the improved backbone will enable multicasting, in which a single image, a video stream or a collection of data is simultaneously sent to multiple end points. This capability could be a boon to projects that involve researchers at several different locations, such as the new Ford-University of Michigan Internet2 laboratory (FUMI2). In this project, Business School students and faculty are studying potential uses of Internet2 in business, e-learning and communications, and collaborating with researchers at other universities, corporations, organizations and agencies in the Internet2 consortium. The lab features a suite of collaborative tools known as an Access Grid, which uses multicast network connections to support group-to-group interactions via video and audio.

The new backbone also allows for virtual local area networks (vLANS). Without vLAN capabilities, a college, school or department can create its own local area network—through which users can communicate and access shared programs and data —only by building a physical network. Virtual LAN capability will enable a unit with offices located in several different buildings to create a single local area network, allowing users to tap into shared information no matter where they are housed.

Benefits will be immediate to a number of teaching, learning and research projects that already are under way, such as the Space Physics & Aeronomy Research Collaboratory (SPARC) and the ATLAS Experiment, says Palms. Through SPARC, upper atmospheric and space scientists around the world collaborate on experiments and simultaneously study sets of scientific and environmental data. The collaboratory is itself a subject of study by School of Information researchers who are developing and refining tools and organizational structures that they hope will make such real-time, online collaborative research commonplace. The ATLAS Experiment involves 2,000 physicists working together on a major, high-energy physics project aimed at understanding the fundamental nature of the basic building blocks of nature and the forces by which they interact.

Expanding the backbone network is a two-step process, because it has two main parts: the fiber optic cables through which information is transmitted and the electronic equipment that is interconnected with the fiber, Palms explains. Upgrading the fiber is the most expensive, time-consuming and disruptive part of the process, because it requires excavating at a number of locations around campus. Installation of the fiber optic cables and ducts was completed on Central Campus and North Campus in December 2001; all other areas of campus, outside of the Medical Center, are scheduled to be completed by December 2002.

Once new fiber is installed, the electronic equipment is added. As demand for capacity increases, the network can be upgraded incrementally to 10 gigabits per second and beyond, simply by changing electronic components. Because the upgrade is taking place in steps, not all users will notice a difference at the same time. However, all building networks currently attached to UMnet via fiber will have access to a backbone that meets PIRC specifications by Spring, 2003, says Palms.

In carrying out the PIRC report recommendations, it’s critical that all improvements be driven by user need, says James Hilton, associate provost for academic, information and instructional technology affairs. Campus-wide collaboration and coordination also are essential, he says.

“Over the past five years, we’ve moved toward a highly distributed information technology environment with multiple IT providers, and that’s been a good thing,” says Hilton. “We now have to make sure we can live with that environment and keep it from spiraling off into chaos. Individual units can best determine their own academic missions and information technology needs, but there’s also a need for central coordination. That doesn’t mean central control or dictatorship; it means working collabor-atively with units to help support their agendas.”