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8. Internet2

While not as earth-shattering as the original, this sequel will move E-commerce to a whole new level.
Marie Leone, | US
October 4, 2002

Brief: Think of the Internet2 as the space program of our generation (stay with us here). In the Sixties, no one but top-notch MIT- and CalTech-trained engineers worked for NASA in its quest to put a man on the moon. Similarly, only top researchers and academics can currently access the superfast conduit known as Internet2. So what's the point of a commercial discussion?

The fact is, the prohibitively expensive technology developed for the space program eventually found plenty of down-to-earth applications. We're not talking Velcro, either. Don't forget, the integrated circuit was a product of the space race, as scientists looked for ways to cram more computing power in smaller and smaller spaces.

What It Is: For the most part, the Internet2 — and the eponymous consortium of 200 universities that runs the network — tests and deploys advanced network applications and technologies in conjunction with the government and industry. Their collective goal is to work out bugs and solve scaling issues using next-generation technology, thereby allowing the battle-tested advances to trickle down into the existing Internet.

Not surprisingly, I2 requires state-of-the-art infrastructure. Internet2 universities are connected to the Abilene network backbone, which uses regional network aggregation points called gigaPoPs. Abilene supports transfer rates between 2.4 and 9.6 gigabits per second.

Skinny: Participants in Internet2 are currently working on some remarkable applications. The University of North Carolina's (Chapel Hill) tele-immersion and tele-cubicle programs, for example, are stretching the boundaries of videoconferencing.

So what's tele-immersion? According to Greg Wood, director of communications for Internet2, tele-immersion enables workers in geographically distributed sites to collaborate in real time in a shared, simulated, hybrid environment — as if they were in the same physical room. In effect, it's where virtual reality meets videoconferencing.

Similarly, the tele-cubicle is a workspace with a videoconferencing wall that, when linked via Internet2, appears as a transparent passage to other cubicles that house occupants who are participating in the conference. The long-term commercial… er… vision, says Wood, is the passing back and forth of virtual objects — contracts, spreadsheets, photos, and the like.

Internet2 developers are also busy trying to figure out what slows down Internet1. The structure of Internet2 allows researchers to study each part of the network, so they can track problems more effectively. Surprisingly, they've debunked the conventional view that slow client connections and network congestion slow down delivery speed. But they haven't hit upon on the real culprit — yet.

Other Internet2 initiatives that will someday be part of the work week include identity authentication, transportable satellite Internet systems, and distributed storage. In addition, Internet2 initiatives to improve voice over IP (Internet protocol) could prove a real boon to telecommunications companies — and corporate users of their services.

Intriguingly, Wood argues that the push for greater Internet products is coming partly from college students entering the job market. He says that these graduates expect to communicate at work the way they did in college — that is, with broadband connections, TV-quality videoconferencing, instant messaging, and in some cases, virtual office mates.

ETA: Five years.