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Wolff's World: Making the Case for NRENs

Feb 10, 2015, by Stephen Wolff
Tags: 100 gigabit Ethernet, Executive Insights, NREN

National Research and Education Networks (NRENs) need to articulate their value proposition not only to the R&E community they serve, but also to society at large who quite rightly ask “Why special networks? Why not get the services you need from an ISP just like the rest of us?” The answers are both technical and social, and while the technical differences between NRENs and ISPs continue to evolve, the social differentiation is at once less comprehensible, more powerful, and more enduring. 

Once significant differences that have largely vanished include:

  •  “Elephant flows,” which are now prevalent in the ISP world (e.g. Netflix),
  • 100 gigabit Ethernet service, and
  • SDN/NFV in core networks, all of which are of growing commercial availability.

However, Internet2’s offering of user/application core network programmability via OESS to set up private networks, whether permanent for virtual organizations such as XSEDE or ephemeral for point-in-time experiments or demonstrations, has (as yet) no commercial counterpart.

This is a specific example of a more general differentiator: NRENs’ agility and nimbleness, as needed to match the often rapidly shifting demands of globally-networked scholarship. Another exemplar-in-the-making is the ability to orchestrate effectively and collaboratively a suite of networking, storage, and high-performance computing resources for any specific scholarly purpose.

But there are enduring social differences between NRENs and ISPs of comparable scale:

  • NRENs serve scholarly purposes; ISPs serve commercial purposes.
  • The environment for NRENs is collegial; for ISPs it is proprietary.
  • NRENs are collaborative; ISPs are competitive.

That is, NRENs and ISPs differ in their goals, in their environment, and in their methods, and these differences lie at the root of NRENs’ ability to serve the needs of global scholarship.

We—the Internet2 community and our partners—exemplify both technical and social differentiation. We have a federated identity management system that we are working to make universal. We have a virtualized network that we are working to fully integrate as a user- and application-controllable virtualized cyberinfrastructure. And we have leveraged the Internet2 network to offer additional technologies through our NET+ initiative, which enables the community to define their own technology services.

In short, the case for NRENs is continuously evolving, but it does so according to the demands and values of the academic communities we serve, rather than those of the marketplace – and that is the ultimate differentiator.

Steve Wolff is principal scientist at Internet2. Wolff brings more than 40 years of leadership in the development, management, and operations of network technologies and is regarded as one of the original visionaries and architects behind the Internet of today, including leading the development of NSFNET, a key precursor to the commodity Internet.