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Internet II - 2002-03-24

In the 1960s, Pentagon computer experts were looking for a way to share information stored on hundreds of big, so-called "mainframe" computers around the world. They developed a network that came to be called "the Internet." High-tech firms and universities soon tapped into this resource. And thanks to developments like e-mail and websites, people were soon passing thoughts and images around the Internet and using it for research and sales. Now, VOAs Ted Landphair says, there's something called "Internet II" at work in cyberspace.

Internet II is not a replacement. It already exists side-by-side with the Internet. It's an association of universities and high-tech companies using new computer technologies, some of which the regular Internet is taking advantage of as well. Rich Wiggins is an information technologist at Michigan State University who has written about Internet Two in computer and library magazines.

Wiggins: "In the United States the Internet II project has built its own backbone, called 'Abilene'. Part of Internet II is to figure out, how do we make the best use of such very high-speed networks that most of us in conventional use on the Internet aren't used to."
Landphair: "What's a backbone?"
Wiggins: "A backbone is a set of high-speed, long-distance lines, often fiber, that connects these various networks together."

The Abilene name for that backbone comes from an old American railroad. Many of its fiber lines are laid along railroad rights of way. Universities that are part of Internet II are able to move massive amounts of information among themselves on Abilene at phenomenal speeds without the usual bottlenecks that slow down ordinary computer users.

There's a lot of talk about digitizing whole libraries, for instance, and sharing them among clients on the fiber network. "There are a large number of digital library projects around the United States. Here at Michigan State University, for instance, there's a project to build the National Gallery of the Spoken Word. And when you do have high-speed Internet connectivity between these cooperating institutions, you can move things such as voice files around very easily," says Mr. Wiggins. "And so the concept of a digital library, and the notions of an Internet Two, can complement each other very nicely."

The Internet is now clogged with everything from corporate websites to pornography to endless e-mail. What's to prevent the public from intruding into Internet II's Abilene as well? "Abilene is a separate physical network. And so not everybody can just plop a server on Abilene or send content over that network," he says. "The other answer is, Internet Two itself is doing research into this very problem. How do we have multiple classes of users on one network? And how do we serve everyone's needs? How do we reserve bandwidth for those needs that are greatest? So it is a tough problem, and that's an excellent example of how Internet Two research can help the greater Internet."

And there's another sort of Internet Two out there. The Clinton Administration started a project called "Next Generation Internet" under the direction of Vice President Al Gore, a computer enthusiast. "That's similar in philosophy to the notion of Internet II," says Mr. Wiggins. "Let's figure out the new applications and technologies we need to carry the Internet to the next level. Neither Internet Two nor the Next Generation Internet initiative was designed to build physical networks. They were designed to encourage new applications and great ways of using high-speed networks. Abilene is a physical network. Internet Two is a project or a consortium."

Al Gore was fond of using the term "Information Superhighway." "Gore liked that term because his father, years earlier, as a senator, was instrumental in building the interstate highway system in the United States. So this was a sort of father-son thing. I think it was a useful metaphor for its time. But I think maybe a better metaphor is the Internet Highway System. So it's not one highway. It's a bunch of highways, connected to each other with various on-ramps and off-ramps," says Mr. Wiggins.

One of the critical Internet II issues is whether technology can keep up with the demand to move more and more information at faster and faster speeds.

Rich Wiggins says it is keeping up, so far. Even desktop computers using something called "ether cards" are moving data around the Internet and past many choke points at speeds unimagined even five years ago. The end could be near, Mr. Wiggins says, for relics of the early Internet like jerky, low-resolution video. "We sort of have an insatiable appetite for moving larger files, for getting higher resolution, for getting better quality, and for doing it all very rapidly," he says. Rich Wiggins says the Internet Two consortium of universities is re-examining old ideas that were once seen as failures. Electronic, or "e" books, for instance. The first ones were bulky, slow, and hard to read. But Mr. Wiggins predicts that in twenty years everyone will be carrying around compact tablet computers that serve as pleasure-reading e-books, textbooks, appointment calendars, and television monitors, tied together by global networks. On his Michigan State University campus, he believes, students will still carry backpacks, but instead of textbooks and paper notebooks, they'll be filled with water bottles, cell phones, and e-books on those tablet-sized computers.