Many Vermonters benefit from statewide fiber optic network created by UVM
- By Jeffrey R. Wakefield
On a Saturday afternoon in January, Vermont young adult author Sarah Stuart Taylor found herself immersed in an animated discussion about writing. After sharing writerly wisdom at the Young Writers Project writing workshop she was leading at the Kellogg Hubbard Library in Montpelier, Taylor had asked the 20 teens in attendance to write a short piece of “micro-fiction.” Fifteen minutes later, the bravest souls in the group read their creations aloud, launching a spirited back and forth.
The meeting was typical of the writing workshops the Young Writers Project periodically holds in Vermont in every way but one: Taylor and the teens were located at libraries in five different Vermont towns connected by state-of-the-art videoconferencing software and a blazingly fast broadband network.
“It’s really hard to mimic the feeling of an in-person writing workshop” online, says Doug DeMaio, support and instruction coordinator for the Young Writers Project. “But having that instantaneous connection, and even setting up your chairs and tables in a way that it looks and feels like you're all sitting around one table, it's really powerful,” a night-and-day improvement over the sessions YWP tried to run using conventional internet service. The new setup, says DeMaio, brings an experience to rural teens, like those who participated from the Rockingham Free Public Library, that is usually reserved for their counterparts in Vermont’s bigger cities, where in-person writing workshops are typically held.
The virtual writing workshop was just the kind of outcome a team of University of Vermont faculty and staff envisioned seven years ago when they took steps, first, to connect UVM to a broadband superhighway called Internet2, a national initiative providing warp speed and massive bandwidth to research universities and government agencies, and, second, to link institutions around the state, like the Vermont State Libraries, to the high performance information artery – creating a de facto state network that is benefitting Vermonters in many ways today.
$2 million upgrade
In 2009 IT and research higher ups at the flagship universities in Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, Rhode Island and Delaware decided that the time had come to give their faculty a major internet upgrade, enabling them to easily exchange massive data sets with their colleagues at other institutions – a hallmark of the age of big data – by connecting to Internet2, which was attracting more universities every year.
The group banded together as the Northeast Cyberinfrastructure Consortium and secured funding from the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health to link to the Internet2 network.
UVM received $2 million of the total, which it awarded to telecom company TelJet Longhaul (now FirstLight), to expand its existing network by creating fiber optic pathways to an Internet2 node in Albany to the west and Hanover, New Hampshire, connected to a node in Boston, to the east.
College of Medicine cancer researcher Julie Dragon is one of a many UVM faculty and staff benefitting from UVM’s Internet2 connection. She and her colleagues supplement the relatively small number of cancer samples available in Vermont with large downloads of publicly available genomic data – up to eight terabytes a week are possible – from the Cancer Genome Atlas at the National Institutes of Health, giving their analysis of the mutations that may cause the disease statistical validity in the context of the larger population. Each terabit is the equivalent of about 150 DVD’s; download times would be impossibly long using the commercial internet.
The land grant network
As crucial as the network was to its faculty, though, university leaders like then-chief information officer David Todd wondered if it could also give an information-age slant to UVM’s role as the state’s land grant university.
“David and others took a look and said, now that UVM faculty can do the work they need to do, how can we share this great networking capability with the rest of the Vermont,” says Patrick Clemins, cyber specialist at Vermont EPSCoR, a UVM-led research consortium of Vermont colleges, which played an integral role in winning the Internet2 grant.
When a new National Science Foundation grant program was announced in 2011 to enable Internet2 universities to do just that, UVM saw its chance.
EPSCoR applied for and won a $1 million grant from NSF and hired Clemins to broadly expand UVM’s Internet2 connectivity to other institutions in the state.
“My role was to start that conversation rolling, and then perpetuate the follow-up,” he says.
Clemins became an Internet2 evangelist, meeting with Vermont colleges and universities, school districts, state government agencies and commercial internet service providers, singing the praises of interconnectivity and, once an organization was sold, handing off to Randy Spooner, director of UVM’s Office of Telecommunications and Networking Services, and his team of network engineers to plot out the technical details of where and how connections could be made.
When all was said and done, all five campuses of the Vermont State College system, St. Michael’s College, Norwich University and Vermont state government, including the state libraries, were brought into the Internet2 fold. So were ISP’s like Burlington Telecom, Sovernet and FirstLight, who extended the reach of Internet2 to their education and research-oriented customers, including Champlain College, Middlebury College and nearly 80 public schools in eight supervisory unions.
At the end of the day, UVM had created more than a series of discrete on-ramps to Internet2, as valuable as those were in and of themselves. With UVM at the center of the hub, the crisscrossing connections to and between the various Vermont institutions and ISPs also constituted a de facto statewide fiber optic network.
Jefferson letters, real time forensics, leapfrogging to the future
Today, the benefits of UVM’s buildout of Internet2 and the statewide network are increasingly visible.
At the Windsor Schools in Windsor, middle school teacher Keighan Chapman uses Internet2 to pipeline directly into the Teacher Resources division of the Library of Congress.
There she hunts down original source material – like Thomas Jefferson’s letters to his ambassadors in Paris when he was negotiating the Louisiana Purchase – that she can bring directly to students’ laptops, engaging them like no textbook could, she says.
Jonathan Rajewsky and his team at Champlain College’s Leahy Center for Digital Investigation use Internet2 to work directly with police in other states to investigate crimes that involve computers and electronic devices. The bandwidth and speed allow them to analyze huge data files in real time, dramatically accelerating investigations in places that don’t have access to trained digital forensics personnel.
At Lyndon State College, meteorology professor Jason Shafer is working with UVM and VELCO, the Vermont Electric Power Company, to scan past weather conditions preceding power outages to create a predictive model many gigabytes in size that could help the utility forecast future power failures. Shafer uses Vermont’s statewide network to send his huge models to research collaborators at UVM.
The UVM-built statewide network has also helped Burlington’s BTV Ignite, one of 20 cities in a National Science Foundation-sponsored partnership funded by American’s leading technology companies called U.S. Ignite, leapfrog many of its sister Ignite cities.
While Internet2 itself can only be used for education and research, the state network can accommodate commercial traffic, provided the data transmitted stays in state and doesn’t venture out onto the national highway.
Connecting Vermont’s so called “islands of gigabit” – the state colleges, Champlain College, Sovernet, Burlington Telecom, and the rest of the nodes in the state network, each of which offer high-performance gigabit connectivity within their own boundaries -- as UVM has done, creates a unique network, what U.S. Ignite calls a “digital town square.” The high speed collaborative work between statewide institutions it makes possible is central to U.S. Ignite’s mission of developing next generation apps that exploit the full capabilities of fast networks.
Other Ignite cities are just beginning to contemplate building this infrastructure.
"Thanks to the work that was done by the folks on the hill,” says BTV Ignite director Michael Schirling, “we are poised to create the next generation of applications and technology that leverage this infrastructure in a way that very few cities and states in the United States can do.”
The Young Writers Project certainly appreciates that work. Running a virtual workshop over the commercial internet is an iffy proposition at best, DeMaio says.
“When you're trying to share your work and you’re a young kid, and everybody is like, ‘What did you say? Can you read that again?” it really messes with that whole feel of the workshop.”