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Feature - Ultra-fast networks: the final frontier

Feature - Ultra-fast networks: The Final Frontier

A network researcher in awe of the billions of dark matter particles simulated on 15 ultra-high definition monitors. Image courtesy Freek Dijkstra

Researchers from Holland have demonstrated a network infrastructure that could potentially help scientists save time and even transform the movie business. This could be done without the need for large computer clusters or grids, just off-the-shelf hardware components combined with human ingenuity and one of the world’s fastest research networks. The team were from SARA, a Dutch supercomputing and e-science support center.


The SARA researchers wanted to show the practicalities of streaming video between two institutions (from SARA, Amsterdam to CERN, Geneva) at 40Gb/second (5GB/s). This link, if successful, would be 16 times faster than the TEIN3 network, which streamed Malaysian dancers over 9,000 kilometers away to a live orchestra performance in Stockholm at 2.5 Gb/s. The SARA team planned to stream an astrophysics simulation demonstrating the motion of 8.6 billion dark matter particles, which is useful for scientists examining how cosmic structures formed after the universe's creation.

The SARA researchers tweaked their equipment late into the night and were saved at the last minute by Edoardo Martelli of CERN. “He gave us the right type of fiber optic cables just before the event, and this saved our demo,” said Freek Dijkstra, one of the SARA network researchers.

Thus, they proved their concept by streaming a complex simulation rendered by supercomputers over 1,600 kilometers away in 8 milliseconds - much faster than the blink of an eye -  to CERN. What made this demonstration a spectacle was the clarity of particle interactions on screen. The researchers used 15 'ultra-definition' Dell LCD monitors, each with a resolution of 2,560 x 1,600 pixels. This is twice the quality of high-definition screens. The screens also have a higher density of dots per inch, (dpi) meaning picture detail is extremely sharp close-up and also very clear from afar. The 15 monitors were set-up in a grid of 5x3 screens with a total resolution of 12,800 x 4,800 pixels or an astonishing 61.44 Megapixels per frame.

Scientists, guests and passers-by are treated with dual simulations by the SARA research network team. Image courtesy Freek Dijkstra


This was the quickest network performance of its kind, achieved from a single server with 32 solid-state drives over a network to receiving servers. Solid-state drives are similar to flash USB sticks, but are capable of storing TeraBytes of data and have no moving parts, unlike traditional hard drives.

To stream the real-time video,  researchers used SURFnet, a Dutch research and education network. They also used high-end Ciena OME 6500 optical switches to manage the huge data transfer and Extreme Networks X650 Ethernet switches to transport the data streams onto all 15 monitors.

Scientists are using larger and more complex data sets, which require increasing computing power, storage, and human resources. Linking these elements does not require complex networks. “Scientists only need to deal with the relatively simple tiled panel displays; the more expensive computer equipment remains in a centrally managed computing center. But, we need to hear from scientists on what their needs are, e.g. visualization on an iPad,” says Dijkstra.

This visualization technology is not restricted to science. One emerging standard is 4k video (four times as many pixels as full HD) in cinema. Even though films are being shot and edited digitally, distribution to cinemas is still done on foot. SARA's technology could reduce costs by enabling cinemas to transfer films via computer networks.

The SARA team are planning their next challenge and will perform another demonstration at SC2010 in New Orleans next month. Although they only achieved 33 Gb/s this time round, they intend to break the 40 Gb/s and 100Gb/s barriers soon. The GEANT project has also successfully trialled a 40 Gb/s network data transmission this year. Matthew Scott, the project's General Manager stated this, “paves the way for the continued development of the network, including more ambitious field trials of the next step in transmission capacity to 100 Gbps." The race is on!

Scientists peering into the mysteries of particle physics, genomes and cosmology require more powerful computer resources. Moreover, the ability to work remotely is becoming more common. This concerns many industries outside of science and perhaps we are seeing glimpses of a future solution for some.

More details about SARA project can be found by clicking here.                                            Choose 'Original' setting to watch 4k video on YouTube: 4k video.  

—Adrian Giordani, iSGTW

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