Out of the Dark

Texas higher-education institutions share knowledge at the speed of light.

by / January 1, 2006 0

You may not be able to move mountains, per se, but in Texas, higher education breaks down the geographic barriers separating public and private institutions with a statewide high-speed fiber-optic network. The network enables collaborated research efforts with throughput speeds greater than anything Texas education has ever experienced. 

The Lonestar Education and Research Network (LEARN) -- operated by a nonprofit 501(c)3 organization consisting of members from 33 higher-education institutions --allows participating Texas educational institutions access to the Internet, Abilene (a multistate backbone network for research and educational institutions to access Internet2), and the nation's largest educational research network -- the National LambdaRail (NLR).

The NLR, the inspiration for LEARN, lets scientists and researchers merge brain and computing power to conduct large-scale research efforts through optical data exchange -- creating a national infrastructure for networks across the nation to tie into.

Texas higher-education institutions wanted to access the NLR, but the state needed its own high-speed network to provide the backbone for statewide connection.

LEARN will provide that backbone, though it's in the early phases of implementation. Texas officials said LEARN is expected to be complete this year, and as the network grows, more institutions will connect and gain access to more extensive international research networks.


For the Common Good
The idea for LEARN was sparked at a 2002 meeting after a presentation by Tom West, president of the Corporation for Education Network in California (CENIC), and co-founder and CEO of the NLR. West talked about the benefits of having access to a national education and research network, and offered an active node in Texas and a seat on the NLR's board if Texas could contribute $5 million over the next five years.

If Texas had an active node to the LEARN network, institutions with access to that node would also gain access to the NLR. 

Texas opted in, and 23 schools participated in funding the NLR. A year later, 22 institutions agreed to contribute an annual fee of $20,000 each to support the development and recurring costs of what would become LEARN.

Additionally, Texas granted LEARN $7.3 million from the Texas Enterprise Fund, created by Gov. Rick Perry to boost employment. Within this $390 million fund, $55 million was allotted to technology and biotechnology, with one goal being to support university research. 

The purpose of LEARN is to create and operate a unified, statewide, cost-effective advanced-performance data network for research and education in Texas that is the equal of any in the United States, said Dan Updegrove, vice president of Information Technology at the University of Texas at Austin, and LEARN's chairman of the board.

LEARN's member institutions continue to pay the annual fee to maintain the network and to provide future funding for a dedicated technical staff to replace the current volunteers from member institutions.

LEARN's members collaborate in a way they've never experienced before, said Dave Edmondson, associate provost of Information Services for Texas Christian University and vice chairman of LEARN.

"We sit down around a table together, and we talk about issues and how we might collaborate between them -- not only in networking but in other issues as well," he said. "This is a vehicle to facilitate the possibility of collaboration amongst all of our institutions in the state of Texas."

Although higher-education institutions compete to recruit students, faculty and staff, Edmondson said, those institutions still share knowledge in a way that corporate America doesn't.


Government Interest
Higher-education institutions also contribute to state coffers. With technology driving the education process these days, technology itself is an alluring feature for prospective students, and in turn, a major benefit to state economies.

Students want access to the wealth of information technology and may select a school based on

the technology in place, according to Updegrove.

Perhaps this is partly why the state was compelled to fund LEARN's creation.

"Part of what we looked at when we were asked by leadership -- the governor, lieutenant governor and the speaker -- to make our recommendations on LEARN, was as they build this incredible network, are there opportunities for the state to also leverage the state investment?" said Larry Olson, CTO of Texas and director of the Department of Information Resources (DIR).

One way the state can benefit from LEARN is by having a redundant network. According to Texas law, the DIR may tap into LEARN in emergency situations. In case of a single node or systemwide failure of the state's telecommunications system, the DIR can divert telecommunications services traffic to LEARN to avoid service interruption.

The state also plans to use LEARN as a cost-effective pipe for information exchange between state and local governments. Two services in particular -- managed e-mail and the state's 211 voice over Internet protocol network -- could benefit from LEARN's available resources, Olson explained.

"Managed e-mail is a statewide messaging collaboration procurement in the final throes that looks at e-mail as a managed service," he said. The e-mail service would not only include the 65,000 mailboxes in the voluntary state government program, but also allow e-mail as a contracted managed service to city and county governments. 

The 211 network -- once used solely for the Texas Health and Human Services Commission -- is now a statewide network that could use a portion of LEARN's extra network capacity to tie in counties and cities. 

"We're just finding very cost-effective ways to leverage our existing infrastructure, including LEARN, to provide those services in a very value-added way to our customers, whether they're state agencies, cities or counties, K-12 or universities," said Olson. "The tie to LEARN gives us a broader solution or resource base that enables us to do so much more with what we already have."


A Bright Idea
Aggregate computing technology allows computers on LEARN to share processing power and increases overall available computing capacity.

"In essence, you can build a super computer anywhere you have a network," said Mickey Slimp, executive director of the Northeast Texas Consortium of Colleges and Universities, comprising 15 public colleges and universities, and chairman of the public relations task force for LEARN. 

Slimp said the University of Texas Health Center at Tyler performs molecular diagnostics in which a single calculation may take several weeks to accomplish because of limited computing capacity. With LEARN, similar computations could take only hours or even minutes.

LEARN can also aid distance learning. Slimp explained that several small networks scattered throughout Texas host interactive video classes. Currently institutions lease T1 lines that cost anywhere from $250 to $3,000 per month. 

"By creating the network throughout the state [with LEARN], we can eliminate a lot of those piecemeal charges and consolidate our cost so we can start running classes between institutions throughout the state and do it on an ad hoc basis -- whenever we need to set it up, we can do it with a lot less effort than we do now."

Additionally, sharing applications would be a financial gain for institutions. Course management systems and software applications currently cost institutions from $25,000 to $5 million to purchase and implement according to Slimp, but pooling resources would cut costs significantly.

"If the University of Houston has a project that involves Southern Methodist University and the University of Texas at Arlington, they'll have real-time communication and can actually set up a virtual network between each other," said Slimp, noting that application sharing isn't currently happening but is planned for the future. "They'll have the capacity to share software,

to share programs, to look at each other by video at the same speeds across the state that they can do across their campus, in essence eliminating the technological distance between them."


Sparking New Light
The nonprofit organization operating LEARN purchased multiple 20-year leases of dark fiber to create the physical layer of the LEARN network. Optical nodes at each member institution enable data transfer over fiber optics at speeds of 1 Gbps to 10 Gbps.

 LEARN's implementation is currently under way.

The initial network infrastructure was formed through combining five existing Texas links to Internet2 -- Texas Gigapop in Houston; North Texas Gigapop in Dallas; University of Texas at Austin; Texas Tech University; and the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.

These links form the foundation of LEARN's network, and LEARN includes three phases of network implementation.

The first phase connected the following: Denton to Dallas; Dallas and Waller to College Station; College Station to Houston; Houston to Austin; Austin to San Antonio; and San Antonio to El Paso. In addition, the NLR now runs through Texas because the new network infrastructure in place provides access points to it.  More interconnections are slated for January and March, and eventually remote sites will receive service as well.

The first cities to provide a point of presence (POP) -- an access point from one place to the rest of the Internet -- include Austin, Beaumont, College Station, Corpus Christi, Dallas/Fort Worth, Denton, El Paso, Houston, Longview, Lubbock, San Antonio, Waco and Waller.

Institutions in and around the POPs must provide their own means to connect to the POP to then connect to the Internet. LEARN is like a highway with multiple access ramps, explained LEARN's Executive Director Jim Williams.

"Each connecting institution will provide the roads that lead to those access ramps," Williams said. 

There's plenty of room to grow because LEARN's fiber has spare capacity, said Edmondson.

"Hopefully fiber strands not being utilized today will allow us to grow and support functionality that we don't even know how to dream about right now," Edmondson said.

Point-to-point links, a two-strand, dedicated fiber circuit to transmit data back and forth between two locations, are possible between any two cities' fiber pairs, said Williams, and such links will allow connections to external resources such as the Internet, or enable people with special needs to access remote data centers at very high bandwidths. Multiple 10 Gbps connections can occur between most LEARN cities, he said.


Texas-Size Endeavor
Several states have built higher-education networks like LEARN, but Texas' size creates a unique challenge.

According to the Texas Almanac, Texas spans 268,581 miles and could fit New England, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and North Carolina within its borders. With a state this size, creating a statewide network is no small feat.

Some institutions in remote areas don't have regional networks to connect to LEARN.

"This is sparking some activity beyond just the basic LEARN backbone," said Slimp, who said some remote colleges are now creating their own networks to tie into LEARN.

As LEARN ramps up, the details of connecting users other than higher education are being worked out. In the meantime, LEARN members are focused on bringing nationwide research networks to higher education and research institutions.

"Our focus is primarily serving higher education, research and health science users in Texas, but if we can find a way to beneficially serve others, we'd like to find a way to do that," said Williams.

With the future expansion of LEARN, Williams said K-12 education institutions could benefit also.

"I'd love to serve K-12, and we will, at least

indirectly later on," he said. "For example, a number of K-12 institutions connect to either the commodity Internet or Internet2 via networks that will use the LEARN fabric as part of their backbone."

But connecting to LEARN may be difficult for some schools, which might not have the technology, equipment and expertise to support the large bandwidths necessary to connect to LEARN. 

"Keep in mind, that at least at present, we aren't really able to provide any direct network service at units smaller than one gig, and that may be a bit much for some institutions to deploy," said Williams. 

Originally LEARN's inception only took into account higher education and research institutions, so they are the first to reap its benefits. 

"LEARN was conceived by and created for institutions of higher education, so we anticipate our primary focus will remain there," said Updegrove. "That said, many of our members have long-established partnerships with the K-12 community, as well as public libraries, independent research institutions, museums, and such, so it is not too much of a stretch to envision that the LEARN network could be used by these partners."

With essentially 33 bosses in both public and private higher education, LEARN members are challenged with reaching consensus each step of the way. 

"The nature of having multiple statewide university systems -- A&M and UT systems -- and all of the independent schools, makes it particularly exciting and challenging to come up with one thing," Slimp said. "Texas, in terms of higher-education institutions, is fiercely independent, so if you can create a model that works in Texas, it'll work anywhere."

Sherry Watkins Contributing Writer