Internet2 Expands West Michigan Presence

November 24, 2004
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GRAND RAPIDS — While Ann Arbor still is the state's hub for next-generation technology, burgeoning interest from local institutions and local fiber-optic cable expansion is allowing West Michigan an increased presence in national and international research initiatives.

Within a month, Grand Rapids is likely to have three members in the nation's granddaddy of research collaborations: Internet2.

"What they're doing now will become commercially viable within five to six years," said Steelcase Chief Information Officer John Dean. "We need to be able to understand where technology is going and then we need to understand the implications of that on what we do and how people work."

Steelcase became one of 47 Internet2 corporate members earlier this year, alongside companies like Dell, Compuware and Sprint. With 70 companies involved as members, partners or sponsors, Internet2 is a university-led consortium working in partnership with industry and government to develop and deploy advanced network applications and technologies in hopes of accelerating the creation of tomorrow's Internet.

Based in Ann Arbor, the organization was founded on a principle of recreating the partnership among academia, industry and government that fostered today's Internet in its infancy.

While the 207 university members all share similar goals — to push innovation — other members have diverse interests in the group.

Steelcase is leveraging its involvement through research and development.

"High-performance networks is one of those changes that will have a significant impact on how people work, where they work and where and how they work with each other," Dean said. "The network today is our biggest constraint in computing. With network capacities like (those being developed by) Internet2, the constraint will shift elsewhere.

"That opens up tremendous opportunity for change," he said. "And we've got to stay on top of events like that to plan where we'll want to be in the future."

Dean is most excited about new possibilities in collaboration. As high-speed networks like Internet2's 10Gbps Abilene Network are rolled into the commodity Internet, applications like real-time video conferencing, content sharing and virtual meetings will advance from cumbersome and crude to seamless and efficient.

"We're a global company and we need to connect all of our employees around the globe to work together," he said. "When bandwidth is no longer a problem, we'll have the appropriate applications that leverage a high-speed network so that you won't be able to tell the difference between work groups that are geographically dispersed and those physically in the same place."

Steelcase, along with Western Michigan University and the West Michigan Science and Technology Initiative at GVSU, helped to ensure that the Van Andel Institute was granted access to the Abilene Network and Internet2.

Within the month, VAI will likely become Internet2's newest affiliate member. Discussions are underway to arrange a sponsor into the group –- likely U-M or one of the state's other participating universities — while a $90,000 grant from Grand Rapids' Local Development Finance Authority is facilitating the construction of a fiber-optic bridge beneath Michigan Street up to GVSU's Cook-DeVos Center for Health Sciences. The Cook-DeVos Center is looped to GVSU's Eberhard Campus, where a Merit Network access point provides connectivity to Internet2.

While Steelcase's interest is academic and it has little interest in using Abilene, the network will fill some pressing needs for VAI's bandwidth requirements and research access.

"We'll use it for access to specific research databases and specific research applications that are only available via Internet2 because of the amount of bandwidth necessary for those to run efficiently," said VAI CIO Bryon Campbell. "Once we get it up and running and we have a chance to get all the principal investigators up to speed on what the capabilities are, I'm sure they'll flood the waters with the access and applications available."

Likewise, many researchers will use the expanded network to communicate with collaborators across the nation. Campbell cited one investigator who works with Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois studying x-ray crystallography. Like many VAI projects, the file sizes of the study's initial renderings are quite large, and VAI will be able to leverage the connectivity through the Internet2 network.

One of the smaller corporate members of Internet2 is Grand Rapids-based VoEx Inc.

Specializing in customized applications for communications-intensive businesses, the high-end Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) integrator and network provider has found an entirely different value in its membership.

"We don't use their backbone to transport any traffic," said John Belanger, VoEx senior vice president of sales. "Our involvement is really not as a technology partner but in proving the theory that VoIP can be accomplished outside of a campus environment."

VoEx became exposed to Internet2 through its relationship with Merit Network Inc.

Merit allows its members — Michigan's public universities and community colleges — to use its network to terminate voice traffic. VoEx is interconnected with Merit to facilitate that.

Belanger explained that the universities have become early adopters of VoIP technology, and VoEx is among other service providers helping them and its other enterprise customers to integrate incoming voice traffic with preexisting data through Session Initiated Protocol — the only provider offering this service to upper echelon markets. An example of this emerging technology would be customer data appearing onscreen in a call center as a call comes in without using an automated caller prompt.

As Internet2 pushes VoIP research and development, VoEx hopes to be on the cusp of any new developments, helping members prove their concepts on its platform.

The firm also has other motives for its involvement. It is now the exclusive VoIP provider for U-M, and is in negotiations with five other Internet2 university members.

"It definitely provides a revenue stream," Belanger said. "There is definitely money in it for us, but more importantly it gives our company visibility into these large corporations.

"When Internet2 stands up and introduces you as its partner in the VoIP world, that makes everybody sit up in their chair and recognize that you know what you're doing."

Merit has been extremely active in West Michigan in the past year.

Owned and operated by the state's public universities, it is one of Michigan's largest ISPs and provides connectivity to the majority of the state's schools, colleges and libraries.

Also headquartered in Ann Arbor, Merit's member universities all have access to Internet2, and it is through Merit's network that members gain access to the Abilene Network (which despite its Michigan roots, does not enter the state) and Internet2 applications.

Through dark fiber acquisition and some limited construction this past fall, Merit was able to add a new regional fiber-optic ring around Grand Rapids that will provide a connection of at least 1Gbps between its Grand Rapids members and its point-of-presence facility in Byron Center.

"We're making Grand Rapids a very important hub for us because we will have so many redundant paths running through it," said Jennifer Wolf, manager of Merit Network's dedicated connections. "We hope to eventually have fiber running up the west side of the state from Grand Rapids."

Last week, Merit fired up an Internet2 connection for Grand Rapids Community College. Bob Eluskie, GRCC's networks, telecommunications and information technology director, echoed a statement by GVSU information technology director Sue Korzinek that the school will seldom use the connection.

As nonmembers, GRCC and GVSU have access to the network through Merit for limited connections with other members at no cost. Network fees for regular participants start at $20,000 a year.    

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