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Research networks: Global connectivity

Networks briefing
The fron page of the e-sciencebriefing. Image courtesy e-Science Talk.

(This is a summary of the latest e-ScienceBriefing)

As science becomes increasingly global and collaborative, researchers' dependence on fast and reliable data and communication links grows. Research and Education (R&E) networks are designed to meet these demands, providing high-speed and reliable Internet links to support applications and experiments crucial to research.

Ultra-fast networks help to minimize the delays that build up as data is transmitted over the Internet. Within Europe, the dedicated pan-European R&E network, GÉANT, transfers huge quantities of data (over 1,000 terabytes per day) for fields as diverse as radio-astronomy and clinical diagnostics.

R&E networks work alongside other e-infrastructures, providing the foundation transport 'layer' for Grid infrastructures such as the Worldwide Large Hadron Collider Grid (WLCG) at CERN in Geneva. "R&E networking is vital to the LHC operations. We transmit many petabytes of data each year to be reconstructed and analysed in computing centres around the world. Without our R&E Networks (National Research & Education Networks as well as GÉANT), we wouldn't be able to produce the results you see from the LHC," said Professor Peter Clarke of Edinburgh University.

GÉANT links provide access to more than 40 million researchers and students at more than 8,000 institutions across 40 countries. It also has extensive links to networks in other world regions including North America, Latin America, North Africa and the Middle East, South Africa and Kenya, the South Caucasus, Central Asia, and the Asia-Pacific Region.

Seamless global connectivity is important as it allows virtual communities of researchers to work together across continents as if they were on the same campus. "Today, research is increasingly collaborative - across institutions but also countries and even continents - and it relies on ever growing amounts of data," said Torsten Reimer, who works for the UK body, JISC (Joint Information Systems Committee).

Worldwide R&E networks have also made an important contribution to speeding up the reconstruction of physical infrastructure after natural disasters. High-resolution satellite images, sent for analysis for rescue teams via GÉANT and the Asia-Pacific TEIN3 network, have helped plan rescues in the aftermath of earthquakes in China.

Experience and knowledge gained from R&E networking in Europe can help to advance e-infrastructure and innovation across other global regions. For developing countries, establishing an R&E network provides a framework for delivering on the United Nations anti-poverty Millennium Development Goals (health, climate, agriculture, education, and the environment).

Research increasingly depends on large-scale databanks and massive processing power to help solve complex scientific or engineering problems. Any network performance issues can significantly impact scientists' ability to perform their research.

Today, astronomers are using networks to connect multiple radio telescopes across Europe and beyond. By exploiting research networks, data can be streamed from each telescope and correlated in real-time. Using a technique called e-VLBI, or real-time, electronic Very Long Baseline Interferometry, astronomers can inspect their results almost immediately, rather than the weeks it takes with the traditional technique of recording data to disk and physically shipping them for processing. The fast turnaround provides astronomers with a better tool for studying supernovae, gamma-ray bursts, and other transient activity that might otherwise be missed.

R&E networks provide connectivity to hospitals and national research networks, allowing doctors to access and upload biomedical images irrespective of location, in order to collaborate and better understand the disease process. The DECIDE (Diagnostic Enhancement of Confidence by an International Distributed Environment) project uses high-speed research links to provide doctors with an easy-to-use online application for the analysis of neurological data (such as PET scans) to aid early diagnosis of Alzheimer's.

What are the future challenges?

Big challenges lie ahead for R&E networking; not only will the networking consortiums have to meet the needs of supporting large scale computing, but there are a number of organizational and technical hurdles to overcome:

· Increasing capacity by moving from 10-Gb/s to 40-Gb/s and 100-Gb/s line speeds.

· Providing 'greener' networks by carrying out environmental impact studies to formulate best practices across the infrastructure.

· Safeguarding and addressing security (privacy and anonymity) issues. As capacities increase and global connectivity advances, it will be increasingly important to develop an integrated security framework in order to safeguard against cyber-attacks.

· Moving towards interoperability - The Open Grid Forum (OGF) is leading the global standardization effort and interoperability between the different technologies used in distributed computing systems around the world.

· Ensuring governance is transparent and inclusive; streamlining the governance arrangements to reflect the European and international dimensions, and allowing users more of a role in the development of governance activities.

· Cutting the costs of data roaming. Expensive data roaming within the commercial mobile networks is a big obstacle to the mobility of scientists.

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