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The need for speed

Visitors in CERN

Can faster networks help scientists unlock the mysteries of the universe? 

If it takes a village to raise a child, then studying the deep structure of space and time takes a small town. The construction of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the world’s biggest and highest-energy particle collider, involved more than 10,000 scientists and hundreds of universities. What makes the situation even more challenging is that this is a community spread out over tens of countries and time zones. 

That means that exploring physics’ biggest unknowns – such as whether dark matter might be holding our universe together – is impossible without a network with the ultra-high capacity, resilience and security to enable massive knowledge-sharing on a global scale.

Cosmologists are used to working with big numbers, but even so the networking numbers can raise eyebrows.  While 100 Gbit/s bandwidth seemed extraordinary not so long ago, Nokia recently worked with SURF – The collaborative organisation for IT in Dutch education and research – to test the limits of 800 Gbit/s.

The trial took place over a 1,648 km point-to-point fiber link connecting Amsterdam and Geneva.  It’s part of the SURF network, which connects research and education institutes across the Netherlands and is well connected to other research networks and experiments worldwide, including the LHC experiment, 100 meters underground at CERN (the European Laboratory for particle physics located in Geneva).

SURF wanted to find out whether it could radically increase – from 200Gb/s to 800Gb/s – the amount of data that can be shared in one single channel over its network and among the world’s scientists. 

And why does that matter? Well, according to CERN, the four main LHC experiments have so far produced more than 1,000 petabytes of data – equal to three thousand years of high definition-quality content – and this data is accessed and analyzed by thousands of scientists and ICT companies around the world, who are studying disciplines such as high-energy physics, radio astronomy, meteorology and biomedicine.

And those datasets are only growing. While LHC is a frontrunner in terms of its size, it’s only one of the world’s ongoing research projects. From the Square Kilometre Array, to the Einstein Telescope and the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, a number of other initiatives also have ambitious mandates and massive datasets, while CERN itself is now planning to make the High-Luminosity Large Hadron Collider (HL-LHC) operational by 2029.  That will increase the number of collisions by a factor of between 5 and 7.5 and therefore the datasets produced, so SURF needs to know that its network can be ready with the capacity to transport this data.

If it takes a town to unlock the secrets of the universe, then it takes at least a suburb to build the network these experiments require, and Nokia and SURF worked not only with CERN but also with Nikhef (Dutch National Institute for Subatomic Physics) to conduct the 800 Gbit/s trial. The ingenuity of all the partners was essential to overcome challenges including the fact that CERN’s existing glass fiber is not designed to handle this kind of large data volume. In addition, the trial needed to cross four countries – from CERN in Switzerland, through France and Belgium – to reach the data hub in Amsterdam. Never before had these large data volumes been tested over such a large physical distance using outdated fibers. The trial also needed to take into account that the line systems and transponders used by SURF came from two different suppliers. 

To cope, the existing data stream was transferred to an upgraded connection where the data points were equipped with the latest Nokia transponders, high-speed network equipment and servers. New amplifiers from supplier Ribbon were also installed on the fiber to facilitate the test.

The success of the trial was not only a milestone in the increasingly pressing need to share vast amounts of data for scientific research, it also provided invaluable information about the best methods to accomplish that aim. With SURF successfully achieving 800Gb/s transmission using 16QAM-shaped PCS modulation without any changes or upgrades to the fiber, the trial provided useful information about open line systems and the use of different suppliers in optical networks.  The new amplifiers helped to prepare the line system for higher future speeds, and they will remain in SURF’s network. In addition, the trial increased the confidence of all involved that existing optical fiber can meet the future capacity demands of the huge data streams being generated and shared by scientists worldwide.

In this test scenario, the long distance and fiber optic quality did not negatively impact data quality and the data was transferred responsibly, securely and rapidly to disk – another critical concern for the member organizations. The trial also proved to be an excellent test of the SURF network and its data processing and storage capacity, demonstrating its readiness from advanced projects like the HL-LHC.

Based on Nokia’s photonic service engine technology, the transmission demonstrates how in future massive data can be exchanged between the CERN particle accelerator research project and the NL-T1 consortium, which includes SURF and Nikhef. The data will also be available to several university researchers, mostly within the Netherlands.

As scientific research increasingly relies not only on gathering and storing but also on sharing and communicating vast amounts of data, tests like this 800 Gbit/s trial help to ensure the readiness of organizations like SURF to support scientists’ future needs, with the help of technology advancements and innovations in next-generation mission-critical networks from a trusted partner like Nokia.

Interested in learning more? Read our recent press release:

James Watt

About James Watt

James Watt is Vice President and General Manager for the Optical Networks Division at Nokia. Prior to this, James was the Vice President and General Manager for the Services Business Unit, IP/Optical Networks, at Nokia and its predecessor in Alcatel-Lucent, President of the Optics Business Line in Alcatel-Lucent and Chief Technology Officer (CTO) of the Alcatel-Lucent Carrier Product Group. Until 2008, James held the position of Chief Operating Officer (COO) of Alcatel-Lucent’s IP Business Division and had previously held the role of Vice President Network Strategy for Alcatel. James joined Alcatel in 2000 as Chief Technology Officer of the Carrier Internetworking Division through the acquisition of Newbridge Networks, where he was Assistant Vice President, Access and Network Management Strategy. During his 15 years with Newbridge, James held a variety of positions within the research & development, product management and marketing organizations. James holds multiple patents, primarily in the areas of traffic management and Internet Protocol. He received a B.SC. in Electrical Engineering from Queens University in Kingston, Ontario in 1986.

Harold Teunissen

About Harold Teunissen

Harold is Director Network & Campus at SURF, the collaborative organisation for IT in Dutch education and research. As business owner he is responsible for the product and innovation lifecycle of network and campus service, product development and innovation. His main responsibility is to help SURF’s constituency making the first steps towards a full digital transformation of education and research. SURF develops and delivers a full set of end-to-end innovative infrastructure services for students, researchers, and institutes.

Connect with Harold on LinkedIn

Migiel de Vos

About Migiel de Vos

Migiel is the Team Lead of Network Development at SURF, the collaborative organisation for IT in Dutch education and research. Together with his team, he works on the continuous advancement of SURF's network infrastructure and services, emphasizing the integration of advanced technologies to support Research and Education. Migiel and his team are regularly involved in collaborations with (industry) partners to test, shape, and implement the next generation of technology for the research and education sector.

Connect with Miguel on LinkedIn

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