New network puts researchers on the fast track

An ultrafast fiber-optic network that officials hope will turn Hampton Roads into a national magnet for high-tech research and business is up and running.

The $4.8 million network, which became operational in late August, will link six regional research institutions, allowing scientists to quickly share and process massive amounts of information.

The system also connects them with researchers across the country through the National LambdaRail, a new Internet superhighway, and various other optical networks available only to academic and government research facilities.

This week, the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility in Newport News, a federal energy lab that studies the nature of matter, became the latest to connect.

Now, all but one of the six local research institutions are linked to the network. The last - the U.S. Joint Forces Command's research labs in northern Suffolk - should be tied in by the middle of October.

Wayne Jones, who manages the network for partner Old Dominion University, summed up his feelings to the milestone in one word: "Ecstatic."

The fiber-optic network, provided under contract by Verizon, has been under discussion since early 2004. It is expected to be a catalyst for the region's economic growth, Jones said.

The opportunities it offers for sharing research with industry should draw more companies that specialize in computer modeling and simulation, Jones said.

The Joint Forces Command already has spawned a vibrant community of defense contractors that use modeling and simulation to support military research into new ways to train and fight.

Using the new network, Jefferson Lab researchers can transfer large data files over the Internet at speeds 60 times faster than before. The system can move one terabyte of data - equal to a 9-mile-high stack of paper sheets printed on both sides - in 15 minutes. Before, it took 15 hours.

"Our old network was a bottleneck," said Andy Kowalski, Jefferson Lab's deputy computer center director. "It was too time-consuming to transfer data to do any major work" with outside researchers.

Besides Old Dominion, Jefferson Lab and Joint Forces, the other local partners are The College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton and ODU's Virginia Modeling, Analysis and Simulation Center in Suffolk.

The institutions call their partnership the Eastern Litewave Internetworking Technology Enterprise, or E-LITE.

"It's like the second generation of what the Internet is all about - to facilitate research-based and military communications," said Bob Armstrong, director of technology for the Virginia Modeling, Analysis and Simulation Center.