MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XXI No. 1
September / October 2008
Silence of the Lions
MIT's New Supercomputing Network
Problems in Evaluating
Four-Year Colleges
Agenda Items: New and Old
An Update on the Educational Commons Subcommittee
Teaching this fall? You should know . . .
Moving From Two Degrees to
Double Majors
MIT 4th Best College,
Top Engineering School
Darwin Bicentenntial Events
Planned at MIT
What is the Global Education and Career Development Center?
The First Step Toward Solving Global Warming: Getting MIT to Listen
MISTI Announces the
MISTI Global Seed Funds
Workplace 2.0: Improving Generativity, Creativity, and Faculty Quality of Life
Why So Few Faculty
are Involved in Service
Research Expenditures by Primary Sponsor (1999-2008)
Printable Version

MIT's New Supercomputing Network

Mark Silis and Piedad Valencia

How long do you think it would take to download 10 full-length, high-definition movies from the Internet? Well, it could take you an hour, several hours, maybe even several days, depending on your type of network connection and its bandwidth. If you have access to one of today’s high-speed supercomputing networks, it would take you only 30 seconds.

There’s the MIT Regional Optical Network, for example. This all-optical network provides connectivity to key Internet exchange points at speeds of 10 Gbps and beyond, making it one of the world’s largest and fastest institutional networks for global research and collaboration.

In its simplest terms, the MIT Regional Optical Network is a computer network comprised of network infrastructure connected to a series of cables – but not just any ordinary type of cable: optical fiber cable. An optical cable is a piece of very thin glass or silica used to transport laser light; in practice, this means it’s transporting Internet data signals.
The cable runs underground, above telephone poles, above and under bridges, and across many other places, too. It connects Boston and multiple points in New York City, where it then connects to many of the supercomputing networks in the world. [Click here for a graphical representation and summary of the Network.]

Extending MIT’s computing network footprint beyond campus

But the optical cable itself isn’t the most noteworthy point, nor is it a first. In fact, the Internet is built on this type of networking infrastructure – with interconnected cables running across the United States, under the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and around the world. Closer to home, we use this type of computer networking infrastructure on the MIT campus every day – most of us just don’t realize it. All you really want, and need, to be able to do is to trust that at some point today when you’re connected to MITnet, MIT’s campus network, your data is being transmitted successfully across optical fiber cable, since MITnet is comprised of optical fiber cables running between buildings and across the MIT campus.

The MIT Regional Optical Network extends the concept of supercomputing more broadly – and literally – beyond the MIT campus. In short, it extends MIT’s computing network footprint beyond MIT’s Cambridge campus.

The need for speed in global research and collaboration

So, what makes the MIT Regional Optical Network so important to MIT? It enables global research work conducted by several MIT faculty and researchers transmitting data over optical fiber at super-computing high speeds. 

Today, research and collaboration are increasingly conducted on a global scale, with colleagues in various countries working together on computationally-intensive projects that span the world.

For faculty and researchers, the MIT Regional Optical Network is like having your own high-speed, dedicated fast lane, a lane comprised of dedicated optical light paths that run across the commercial Internet.

Initially, it is being deployed across the northeast United States, connecting MIT’s main campus to New York, Washington, D.C., and Baltimore via 2500 miles of fiber provided via optical equipment located at seventeen locations across seven states. [Click here for a map showing the connections.] The network is already linked to  LHCnet, the research network maintained by the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN). Next, plans include linking the Energy Sciences Network (ESnet) and the National LambdaRail, which established and maintains a unique nationwide infrastructure owned and maintained by the research community in the United States.

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MIT faculty and researchers working on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) project, for example, have substantial data sets that need to be analyzed and shared with others in near real time. The LHC smashes protons moving at nearly 100% of the speed of light into each other. Faculty and researchers then wait to see what happens; in particular, they are waiting to see what new particulate matter is found. With data transfer numbers at 2-4Gbps and 24 hours/day, each collision produces about 2MB of data – the size of a small digital photo. With so much data being generated, high-speed computing capability is required to analyze it. In fact, the LHC project was the biggest driver early on for the creation of the MIT Regional Optical Network.

For a closer look at how faculty and researchers have been using the MIT Regional Optical Network since it was launched in March 2008, refer to the research project profiles for the LHC and the MIT Darwin Project, a new program to develop computational models of how marine microbes live and evolve in the ocean.

Sample comments by MIT faculty include:

“The MIT Regional Optical Network represents a big leap for the institute, solidifying MIT’s leadership in cutting edge physics. The global, high-speed network connection is critical to the success of the LHC project. By having this network, IS&T makes it possible for MIT to host a major supercomputing facility locally, thereby giving MIT a leadership role in research taking place on a global scale. This network literally puts MIT on the world map.”

- Prof. Bolek Wyslouch, MIT Professor in the Department of Physics, Laboratory for Nuclear Science (LNS)

“The Darwin Project is advancing computational modeling of marine microbial communities, with the generous support of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation Marine Microbiology Initiative. As part of this work, we need to efficiently transfer high volumes of numerical model results across the country and to interact effectively with collaborators on the west coast. The National LambdaRail and MIT Regional Optical Network will provide the very high-bandwidth needed for seamless collaboration.”

- Mick Follows, PI of The Darwin Project and a Senior Research Scientist with the MIT Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences (EAPS)

“MIT is at the forefront of high-speed network delivery, having constructed a network resource vital to our research community today, with flexibility and redundancy to ensure its reliability and growth into the future.”

- Prof. Bruce Tidor, MIT Professor of Biological Engineering and Computer Science with CSAIL, Co-director of MIT’s Computational and Systems Biology Initiative and a Darwin Project participant

Partnering with industry to build the growing network

Information Services & Technology (IS&T) at MIT partnered with Nortel to create this next-generation network, acquiring already-laid fiber-optic lines (“dark fiber”) from Level 3 Communications. The result is an adaptive all-optical intelligent network designed to accommodate faster technologies and upgrades as they become available in the coming decade.

Today, the network offers 10 Gbps connection speeds. MIT and Nortel have 40 Gbps in their sights with 100 Gbps as a possibility within a couple of years.

The ultimate objective – according to Jerrold Grochow, Vice President for IS&T – is to help create the fastest and most flexible network possible to further MIT’s mission on a global scale – a network with the potential to revolutionize education and research. He notes, “With the Regional Optical Network as a resource, educators and researchers at MIT are able to collaborate with peers in new ways. The network’s abundant bandwidth and ability to provide upgrades into the future supports the dynamic exchange of data, whether for seeking new particle matter or explorations of the deep seas.”

If your computationally intensive project or research might benefit from the speed and power of MIT’s regional optical network, contact IS&T’s Infrastructure and Services Team at for more information.

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