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Call It The Supernet

Science & Technology: RESEARCH


Because of a production error, most readers did not receive the full text of this story in last week's edition.

The coolest new place in cyberspace is so cool, it's not even on the Internet. It doesn't have chat rooms or car ads or sexy graphics files or a user-friendly interface or nodes in every major and minor city. What it does have is blazing speed--connections at up to 155 megabits per second, or more than 10,000 times the speed of that 14.4-kilobit modem you just bought for your home computer. It's called VBNS, for very-high-speed Backbone Network Service, and it's run by MCI Communications Corp. for the National Science Foundation (NSF).

VBNS, which made its public debut on Apr. 24, is a peek into the future of scientific computing. It's not connected to the Internet because browsers aren't welcome. VBNS is strictly for "Grand Challenge" problems that only networks of supercomputers can hope to crack--problems such as predicting global climate change and designing better drugs. VBNS has been quietly getting up to speed for several weeks. It connects five of the most important concentrations of supercomputing power in the U.S. (map, page 94), with lower-speed links for other "meritorious" users via sites in Chicago, New York, San Francisco, and Washington.

MCI Chairman Bert C. Roberts Jr. says winning the contract to operate VBNS helps burnish the high-tech credentials of MCI, which will pump an unspecified amount of its own money into the network in addition to the $50 million over five years it's getting from the NSF. "Those of us who do science have been bored to death by the Internet and its speeds for about two years," says Richard T. Liebhaber, who is scheduled to retire at the end of May from his job as MCI's chief strategy and technology officer. "Our mind-set now is on full-motion visualization of things," Liebhaber says. "For that, you need a gazillion MIPS of processing power."

Indeed, by networking together two or more top-flight supercomputers, VBNS makes possible some of the largest computations ever attempted. Sure, any single supercomputer could do a big computation alone, but it might be out of date by the time it was completed--as in a forecast today of yesterday's weather. VBNS also promotes collaboration by transmitting ultrahigh-fidelity video images so researchers in different cities can watch a virtual experiment as it unfolds inside a computer. All in all, it has researchers ecstatic: "In problem after scientific problem, it turns out that you're groping in the dark until you get the insights and pictures that you can only get from contemporary computers," says Malvin H. Kalos, director of the Cornell Theory Center, a collection of high-powered iron at Cornell University.

DOUBLE TEAM. One of the first calculations attempted using VBNS illustrated its potential. In mid-April, researchers in San Diego and Pittsburgh yoked together two similar Cray Research Inc. supercomputers--one at each site--to calculate global weather patterns. One computer used software from Princeton University to calculate temperatures and current speeds in the ocean, while the other tended to the atmosphere using software from the University of California at Los Angeles. Every 10 seconds the Crays swapped results and used the data for new calculations. Massaging the two programs so two remote computers could use them together took years of "hand-tuning," says San Diego staff scientist Bilal Chinoy. Eventually, he says, the remote computers will be of different types, so each can focus on the type of calculation it's best at.

The weather at your local airport, rather than over some ocean, is among the VBNS projects planned by the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo. NCAR's Aviation Weather Development Laboratory hopes to use VBNS to aid aviation by improving the ability to predict killers such as wind shear and ice storms. That project, however, is endangered by expected cutbacks in funding by the Federal Aviation Administration, says William P. Mahoney, the aviation lab's manager.

In Urbana-Champaign, Ill., Erik Jakobsson is studying what he calls "a violent electrical microstorm" at the boundary between a human cell membrane and the objects around it. It can take 1,000 hours of calculations on a Cray supercomputer to create just one simulation of what is happening at the molecular level, according to Jakobsson, a senior research scientist at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications. Such research could help identify environmental hazards by figuring out which chemicals are most likely to be absorbed by human tissue. "Right now we're cooperating with other labs in the mode of sending E-mail," Jakobsson says. "What we're looking for now is the next step: a virtual laboratory where people could interact as though they were in the same place."

By the turn of the century, when the NSF contract ends, speeds on the VBNS should rise sixteenfold, to 2.4 gigabits per second. MCI scientists are hoping to achieve those rates without resorting to untested, experimental technology. In today's network, all the equipment is off-the-shelf. Data fly out of supercomputers and are assembled into Internet-style packets by routers made either by Cisco Systems Inc. or a startup called NetStar Inc. Almost instantly, the packets are further packaged into asynchronous-transfer-mode (ATM) cells by switches from Cisco's Lightstream unit. Then they hit MCI's network, passing through cities such as Denver, Houston, and Washington. The cells whiz through optical-fiber transmission gear from Northern Telecom Ltd. and ATM switches from General DataComm Industries Inc. Traveling at two-thirds the speed of light, a bit can cross the country in 1/40th of a second.

For the NSF, the state-of-the-art VBNS is a smooth segue from NSF Net, which is the 45-megabit-per-second backbone of the U.S. portion of the Internet. Now that the Internet has become routine technology, the NSF is reducing direct support for it and telling its users, such as universities, to satisfy their networking needs through private companies. While some funding will continue, NSF Net officially expires at the end of April.

TEST BEDS. VBNS may be three times as fast as the NSF Net backbone, but it's actually slower than another NSF-funded project, the so-called gigabit test beds. Those regional networks, named Aurora, Casa, Blanca, and Nectar, ran at 622 megabits per second and up. Funding for them also runs out this year. The difference is that the test beds were mainly for experiments with high-speed network equipment and software, while VBNS is aimed more at finding uses for relatively well-tested technology.

If this all sounds rather spacey, so did the World Wide Web of interconnected computers a couple of years ago, notes Ralph Z. Roskies, co-director of the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center. Says Roskies: "What we're trying to do here is a similar thing but at the high end, coupling very fast computers together." In a few years, 3-D simulations of wind shears and cell membranes may be as routine as E-mail from the boss.

Way Cool Science on the Next Internet

VBNS connects five U.S. supercomputing centers at a blazing 155 million bits of data per second. The new network is funded by the National Science Foundation and operated by MCI Communications


Global climate model with data from ocean and air currents


Simulation of Shoemaker-Levy comet crashing into Jupiter


Ithaca, N.Y.

Model of enzyme that decomposes neurotransmitters after their work is done


Boulder, Colo.

3-D display of heavy rain (yellow blob) on approach to airport


Urbana-Champaign, Ill.

A scorpion venom molecule descends on a human cell moleculeBy Peter Coy in New York

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