Researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst have received a two-year, $867,040 grant from the National Science Foundation to equip the campus with a high-bandwidth optical data network, dedicated to handling computational research information. This new cyber-physical infrastructure will separate research data traffic from the rest of the data traffic on campus and specifically benefit researchers who require high speed transport of very large data sets. Examples of such research are genomics, remote sensing, severe weather warning and prediction, biostatistics, and planetary science.

In addition, this infrastructure will support UMass activities in the GENI initiative, which has the goal to create next-generation Internet test beds.

“This project is about how we can improve the computer network infrastructure in the university,” explains Co-principal Investigator Michael Zink of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department. “It is aimed at research that requires very large volumes of data.”

The new infrastructure will allow researchers to transport large data sets to and from campus and to the Massachusetts High-Performance Computing Center (MGHPCC) in Holyoke, where significant computing resources will be housed. For example, genomics researchers will be able to transmit very high volumes of data from storage systems at a sequencing center to the computing cluster at MGHPCC, instead of physically shipping hard drives via express mail, as they do now.

The Principal Investigator for the project is John Dubach, chief information officer at UMass Amherst. Other key participants in the project include Yanlei Diao and Prashant Shenoy of the Computer Science Department, Andrea Foulkes of the Public Health Department, Mario Parente of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department, and Rick Palmer, the head of the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department and the principal investigator for the new $7.5-million Northeast Climate Science Center.

The research team will build a dedicated, multi-lambda, 10-gigabit, transport ring connecting the UMass Amherst campus, the MGHPCC, and the Northern Crossroads (NoX) facility in Cambridge, Mass. This high-bandwidth network will allow research traffic to be isolated from the mix of other information by dedicating one of two 10-gigabite wavelengths for the research network only. All other UMass Amherst data traffic will be transported on the second wavelength.

In the present infrastructure, bandwidth is shared by all the entities at UMass on one 10-gigabite connection. Researchers on campus, for instance, are sharing bandwidth with all the students in the residence halls.

Zink explains that “What happens is, if that data pipeline is already full with regular campus traffic, researchers have to wait much longer for their data to go through, possibly hours or even days. With the new infrastructure we’re putting in place, we’re getting an extra pipe that gives us competition-free access. With this new setup, we can speed up the transmission of data by as much as 100 times.”

The NSF funding is an equipment grant, a major part of which will support the purchase and installation of three reconfigurable optical add-drop multiplexes, which cost approximately $150,000 apiece. In fiber optics, a reconfigurable optical add-drop multiplexer (ROADM) is a device which allows individual or multiple wavelengths carrying data channels to be added and/or dropped from a transport fiber without the need to convert the signals on all of the channels to electronic signals and back again to optical signals.

Zink says that most of the remainder of the grant will support the routers required to employ regular Internet Protocol and Software Defined Networks. He envisions that all the hardware will be installed within the next 12 months, and the second year of the grant will be devoted to orienting researchers at UMass Amherst to the new network and how they can work together to utilize it in the most efficient and productive way.

“Anyone who has large data needs in their research is welcome to get in touch with us to see how we can work with each other,” says Zink. (October 2012)