Friday, January 28, 2005

OptIPuter Puts Dark Fiber to Work

That big glut of dark fiber we keep hearing about may soon evaporate now that someone's figured out how to build a computer out of it.

The OptIPuter, as it is called, is a collaboration of universities, industry and some government funding to create a distributed supercomputer. It works something like grid computing. The idea behind the grid is that a lot of regular computers attached to the Internet can be combined to make one large supercomputer using a fairly small server to hand out work packages and merge them into a solution. SETI@Home is an example of this. The architecture assumes that each computer is just a regular PC that has a lot of idle time. It also assumes fairly slow dial-up or residential broadband Internet connections for communications. Both assumptions are reasonable.

The OptIPuter makes quite different assumptions. It makes use of clusters of high speed research computers, large distributed databases, peripherals that are scientific instruments and complex visualization displays, and a bus made up of dedicated fiber optic connections. The computer is essentially spread out over the entire country or even the whole world.

The fiber optic transport is being provided by National LambdaRail, a consortium of research universities and private sector companies. DWDM or Dense Wavelength Division Multiplexing is used to transmit 40 separate wavelengths or lambdas over each strand of fiber. Think of lambdas as colors of light, like a rainbow. Each lambda can carry 10 Gigabits per second of data. The protocol is Ethernet, which puts the IP in OptIPuter. Let's see, 40 lambdas times 10 GB per lambda equals 400 GBps per fiber. Put a few fibers together and we're talking terabits of bandwidth. Now THAT's quite a computer bus.

Learn more about the National LambdaRail (NLR), or read my explainer on grid computing.

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