CORVALLIS - Through innovative collaboration with other institutions, Oregon State University is now able to provide its students and faculty some of the most powerful Internet access and performance of any college in the Pacific Northwest, while in the process saving about $500,000.
Cooperative arrangements such as the ones just completed, university officials say, will maximize the use of the Internet for scientific research, student education and public service programs in the 21st century, while keeping a tight lid on costs and saving funds for other educational needs.
"What we've developed is an approach to share two 'gigapop' connections with the University of Washington and the University of Oregon, which will complement each other and in combination give OSU some advanced Internet capabilities that most universities don't have," said Tad Reynales, director of network engineering for the Department of Information Services at OSU.
A gigapop, Reynales said, provides a mechanism to exchange network traffic, keep local messages local, and otherwise move information and data more efficiently, accurately and at high speed.
"Our collaborative agreements will bring these capabilities to OSU at a small fraction of the cost of a private connection," Reynales said. "If we had to purchase this type of commodity access the costs might run up to $500,000."
While many people think of the Internet as a free or low-cost service, Reynales said, a major research university such as OSU faces a variety of connection fees, circuit charges and other expenses that can add up quickly. But constantly improved access is literally an educational necessity. In less than a decade the Internet has moved from a novelty to every nook and cranny of OSU - not only classrooms, offices and laboratories, but also Internet availability in literally every residence hall room and even the tables at some university cafeterias.
It's used for everything from student homework to massive studies on global climate change. And for the demands of complex scientific research, speeds that far transcend those of the average home user are essential.
"OSU is a charter member in the development of the new, more efficient Internet2, and we're also using networking technologies such as vBNS, or very high speed broadband network service, that may not mean much to the casual user but are critical to our researchers," Reynales said. "Something basic like e-mail doesn't have to be instantaneous. But when our faculty and students start combining things like multimedia, video and huge data files transmitted over the Internet, we have to have everything working together right on time, down to the millisecond."
The use of some of this new technology, Reynales said, will also get a fair amount of Internet traffic off the local networks, open up more research opportunities to undergraduate and graduate students, and make it easier for scientists to collaborate with their peers all over the world.
For instance, the sophisticated Internet connections now being created at OSU will facilitate one major project under way at the university called the Oregon Coalition for Interdisciplinary Databases, which will bring together a wealth of environmental, biological, geophysical and climatic data from many sources to study the biology and ecology of the Pacific Northwest.
"Each of the investigators involved in this has already built at least one ecological database of national significance," said Cherri Pancake, director of the Northwest Alliance for Computational Science and Engineering at OSU. "This project will make it possible to link those databases and provide a Web-based access to regional ecological data.
"To address environmental issues," she said, "we can't just study data from one specialty or discipline. Instead, scientists need to be able to find and integrate data on species distribution, loss of biodiversity, climatic change, human population dynamics, epidemiology, and even political factors such as land ownership and agricultural zoning boundaries.
"As a nation, we can no longer afford to make decisions that will affect future generations on the basis of incomplete information."
The types of research being done at OSU to improve Internet and Web-based communication will go far to improve that type of interaction, Pancake said, and the new Internet access now being developed will be essential to that process.