In the first half of 2013, several universities and research institutions in São Paulo State will begin to connect to an experimental network that they will use to test applications of new technologies that could define the internet of the future.
On the national level, another 10 Brazilian institutions, including three in São Paulo State-the Universidade de São Paulo (USP), the Universidade Federal de São Carlos (UFSCar) and the Centro de Pesquisa e Desenvolvimento em Telecomunicações (CpQD)-will be integrated into another experimental network that will be created beginning in early 2012 for the same purpose as its São Paulo counterpart.
The two experimental Brazilian academic networks will join others established in the last few years in other countries to prepare universities and research institutions for the change in technological standards of the internet that is slated to occur in the next few years.
Internet technology, currently based on packet switching, should migrate to flow switching-data packets that have some common characteristics.
As a result of this change, networks will no longer be defined by networking equipment (such as switches and routers) and the software that they contain, but rather will be managed by external applications that will determine the data flow.
In 2008, a group of researchers from Stanford University and the University of California at Berkeley, both in the United States, published an article describing implementation of a new protocol for data traffic management called "OpenFlow." This technology paved the way for "software-based networking" to become reality.
This new protocol allows data traffic control, previously conducted by switches and routers, to be transferred to external servers. OpenFlow made it possible for traffic control software with open codes executed by these servers to be developed. Many startups created by researchers at Stanford and other research institutions around the world have produced software for this purpose.
Many computer technology companies have begun to manufacture and release switches and routers with OpenFlow to be tested initially in experimental networks because it would be impossible to disrupt information traffic on the internet to evaluate the new technology.
"The internet is a fundamental commodity in people"s lives and we cannot stop it from working to test new things. That"s why we are developing projects for experimental networks to support the internet of the future," comments Cesar Marcondes, a professor in the Computer Science Department at the Universidade Federal de São Carlos (UFSCar), in an interview with Agência FAPESP.
According to Marcondes, some technology companies, such as Google, have developed codes that are compatible with OpenFlow and are operating their data centers using the new data traffic management protocol.
Universities and research institutions in the United States and Europe, which were the cradle of the internet, have assembled national networks to allow their researchers to conduct experiments with OpenFlow technology.
Following suit, the São Paulo Academic Network (ANSP), funded by FAPESP, also intends to begin initial testing of OpenFlow in an experimental network in early 2013.
The test in the São Paulo experimental network will have more than 50 participating universities and research institutions affiliated with ANSP. Among them are USP, the Universidade Estadual de Campinas (Unicamp), the Universidade Estadual Paulista (Unesp), UFSCar and the Aeronautics Technological Institute (ITA).
On a national level, the National Education and Research Network (RNP)-which connects Brazilian universities and research institutions and provides access to the international internet-is coordinating creation of an experimental network, in partnership with the European Union, to conduct experiments on new applications based on OpenFlow. Titled "Fibre," the project is being conducted with funding from the National Scientific and Technological Development Council (CNPq) and the European Union"s 7th Framework Programme (FP7).
"Brazilian universities and research institutions have to prepare now because no one knows when the change in internet technology standards will occur, and the sooner they are prepared, the better," explains Luis Fernandez Lopez, general coordinator of ANSP.
"It would be terrible if the information technology systems created at universities and research institutions to support education and research processes suddenly stopped working because they did not keep up with the evolution of IT research," says Lopez.
Innovations in academic networks
According to specialists in the field, Brazilian experimental networks will allow network researchers to develop and test several local solutions based on OpenFlow that eventually could be implemented in academic networks to support both current data traffic and new functionalities.
Because there will be access to switch programming interfaces with the OpenFlow protocol used in the experimental networks, it is possible to develop and install several solutions on the server that controls them. These solutions include innovations focused on rationalizing utilization of networks, making them more secure and less susceptible to error.
Today, networks typically use the same routers-which are sophisticated, expensive equipment that function as servers-both at points where traffic is significant and at points where it is minimal.
On the other hand, OpenFlow allows the use of simpler switches in areas of reduced traffic. These simpler switches consume less energy, but have the same functionalities of other devices, because they are controlled by the same external server.
Furthermore, cloud computer solutions-characterized by sharing of computers and servers installed in a data center through networks-whose management is very difficult and complicated with the technology used today, could be managed by multiple users in a much simpler manner using OpenFlow.
"OpenFlow creates the possibility of programming a network, instead of just configuring it, which is all that can be done today. As a result, a series of companies that develop networking software should emerge, as we are seeing in the United States," estimates Marcondes, who participated in the Fibre project.
More opportunities from Brazilian researchers
In the opinion of Marcondes and other specialists, the Brazilian scientific community will have many opportunities to participate actively and play a more relevant role in changing internet technology standards for software-based networking than when the current version of the web emerged.
When the internet became popular in Brazil in the 1990s, its technology was based on the development of switches and routers for data packet switching that demanded major investments and the involvement of many people. The development of software demands fewer resources and the involvement of fewer professionals.
"It is much easier to stimulate change in a software industry, which depends basically on good ideas by good researchers, than in a hardware industry," compares Lopez.
"We have a golden opportunity with software-based networking. Unlike the early 1990s, when there was no research on hardware at Brazilian universities and no industries prepared to develop this equipment, today we have good ongoing research in the software area and good computer science and engineering," he evaluates.
To stimulate researchers in the field to take advantage of the opportunities and prepare for the changes that are coming in the internet of the future, ANSP has begun a series of actions in the last two years.
At the beginning of 2012, ANSP began to hold monthly meetings with professionals in the IT area at its affiliated universities and research institutions.
At the most recent meeting, held at the end of October and early November at the Institute of Theoretical Physics at Unesp in São Paulo, ANSP conducted an introductory course on OpenFlow, led by Marcondes, and a workshop on router policies.
"If the internet is moving in the direction of software-based networking-and we are convinced that it is- universities and research institutions must be ready to make this transition in the future," explains Lopez.
Source: New Agemcy of the Sao Paulo Research Foundation FAPESP