A bit more backbone

Internet II is in the wings. US researchers have built a new, superfast network and they love the results. Joseph Gallivan on life in the very fast lane
How fast is it, how big is it and when can I upload a picture of my cat with it? Isn't that what would go through the mind of the average Internet user on being told that the new, improved "Internet II" is on its way?

Well, it won't be handling anyone's moggy Gifs for a while. The "Next Generation Internet" is an initiative that was announced by President Bill Clinton last October, one that would provide seed money for connecting universities, supercomputing centres and other institutions such as Nasa. The idea is to start over again, in the research community and government agencies, and build another Net, this time with the blessing of hindsight.

The basis of this second Internet is already built and comes into its own this month. A high-speed fibre-optic network, called the Very-High- Performance Backbone Network Service (vBNS), has been sponsored by the National Science Foundation and built by MCI, the telephone company that recently merged with BT. While your average university connects to the Internet at 45 million bits per second, this new backbone, which loops in a rough figure-of-eight around the USA, is about to upgrade its capacity from 155 megabits to 622 megabits per second.

The loop was built for research purposes, as scientists were finding they had to wait for weeks to get their data back via the Internet, or even to post magnetic tapes to each other again. Naturally, it links all five of America's supercomputers. It also allows more than two of them to communicate simultaneously, and has great capacity for sending video (video bits traditionally slow down other traffic on the Net because they get priority, as they cannot be easily rearranged).

So far the scientists love it. For example, at the University of Illinois, astronomers can model what would happen if our galaxy collided with the galaxy next-door, Andromeda. The interaction of billions of fluid points could be calculated by computers linked over the old faithful Internet, but to render the results in easy-to-read pictures, the chief astronomer, Michael Norman, needed to link three supercomputers together and let them talk to each other in real time over the fibre-optic phone lines of the vBNS. It may sound like a very big game of multi-player Doom, but it worked.

Other projects in this exclusive fast lane include turbulence studies with respect to aircraft design, hurricanes, ocean currents and solar flares, conducted by Oliver McBryan, a professor of computer science at the University of Colorado.

The bandwidth drought has become the topic of the year on the Net, and MCI's vBNS - with its fibre-optic phone lines, ASZ-1000 switches and Cisco 7500 routers - is only one of many approaches to the problem. According to Dr Michael Dertouzos, director of MIT's Lab for Computer Science, all telecommunications companies around the world are expanding their bandwidth capabilities.

For instance, he has MIT colleagues who get their Internet access at home via their local cable TV provider, using cable modems that are giving them better speeds than ISDN lines. Then there are satellite links - AT&T hopes to do for satellite internet linkages what BSkyB did for TV in Britain.

The problem we all face is the inefficient last mile of phone linkage that restricts bandwidth. The Japanese plan to throw money at the problem: they have slated a staggering $300bn to revamp their phone system.

More than 100 universities are already connected to the vBNS, having satisfied the strict Appropriate Use Policy. But as Mark Luker, a high- speed network specialist at the National Science Foundation, put it: "Internet II will not fix the problems of the commercial Internet." So what about the rest of us? Hope that the new version of HTTP announced last week will speed things up a bit.

Or start saving for one of the upgradeable 56,000 modems that US Robotics and Rockwell are bringing out this year. The problems of brownouts, crashes and the wonderful World Wide Wait will continue, for now