Science - The Internet
One of the shortcomings
of the commercial Internet
is that certain activities, like natural, normal human
interaction, are impossible -- it's just too darn busy.
But what if you could lease your very own data pipeline?
DAVID AKIN reports
Globe and Mail
Saturday, December 1, 2001
At precisely 11:49 a.m. on Friday, Nov. 9, on a stage at the
University of Montreal, Nathan Picklyk tucked his violin under his chin
and began to play the first notes of the first movement from Andre Lidel's
Duet in D Major for Violin and Viola.
About 11 milliseconds later, Monica Guenter, in a studio a
few kilometres away at McGill University, joined in, playing her part
on the viola.
Watching this concert proudly but nervously, at the side of
the stage near Picklyk, was Jeremy Cooperstock, a McGill computer scientist
who had organized the performance and, in doing so, successfully demonstrated
the world's first performance by two musicians sharing an Internet connection
rather than a stage.
Cooperstock's demonstration was a watershed event for the elite
club of the world's computer network engineers. No one had ever before
been able to demonstrate that, under the right conditions, it is possible
for natural, normal human interaction to occur over the Internet.
The commercial Internet is useless for this kind of activity.
There are too many hiccups and stutters produced by what is called network
congestion -- too much information from too many people trying to squeeze
through too tiny information pipes.
To solve this problem, Cooperstock built his
own network -- a private Internet, if you will -- between the cole des Hautes tudes
Commerciales at the University of Montreal and his studio a few kilometres
away at McGill.
While the high-speed residential Internet services usually
run at speeds of about one megabit per second and many colleges and universities
in Canada use a 10-megabit-per-second connection for their entire campus,
his private network of fibre-optic cables was capable of moving 224 megabits
They say "the medium is the message. Well, today, the
medium must be faster than the message. Latency is the interaction killer," Cooperstock
His accomplishment was figuring out a way to move full-motion,
DVD-quality audio and video through several computers, TV monitors, video
cameras and kilometres of fibre-optic cable in the same time it would
have taken a sound wave to travel from one of a concert stage to the other.
In fact, that was his benchmark. If Guenter and Picklyk had
been standing on either ends of a stage, it would have taken 15 milliseconds
or 15 one-thousandths of a second for sound to travel between them.
And while Cooperstock acknowledges that his test, done under
near-perfect controlled conditions, is a long way off from real-world
conditions, the demonstration pointed to a future where high-capacity
Internet networks can transmit immense amounts of data quickly enough
that they can help in the creation of virtual-reality environments.
These environments would let human beings, separated by hundreds
of kilometres, carry on conversations, conduct master classes, collaborate
together and play with each other as if they were standing a few metres
Still, despite Cooperstock's groundbreaking work, this brave
new world will be impossible given the current economics of providing
pristine high-speed Internet connections.
His experiment was part of a $1.5-million research project.
The Internet connection he used would probably cost hundreds of thousands
of dollars a month, if you could get such a connection at all.
But Bill St. Arnaud thinks he has a solution.
St. Arnaud, senior director for advanced networks at the Ottawa-based
non-profit group CANARIE Inc., was among the hundred or so scientists
who witnessed Cooperstock's demonstration and he is convinced that the
network power used by Cooperstock can, within a few years, be used by
all Canadians, even those in remote and rural areas.
His idea is to let Internet users rent the coloured pulses
of laser light that carry the world's Internet traffic inside fibre-optic
So, rather than pay a telecommunications company tens of thousands
of dollars a month for super-high-speed network services, a school would
just buy a long-term lease for a beam or two of light capable of carrying
gigabytes of data.
St. Arnaud and his colleagues at CANARIE estimate that, after
a relatively small one-time capital cost to buy the computer equipment
that gets hooked to the end of a fibre-optic cable, the monthly bill for
nearly limitless bandwidth could be hundreds of dollars a month.
"I consider Bill St. Arnaud to be one of the great visionaries
of the networking world," said Brian Reid, a professor of the practice
of computer systems at Carnegie Mellon University West in Palo Alto, Calif.
"His vision, and his dedication are extraordinary. When the history
books are written to show how the world got changed by being connected,
Bill St. Arnaud is going to rate a chapter."
St. Arnaud, born to a French father and an English
mother in British Columbia, grew up in Ontario. He speaks only English.
a PÈquiste, is bilingual, but he insists on speaking only French and lives
in Quebec City. Yet another brother is happy to speak either official
language and works for the federal government in Ottawa. "We're a
microcosm of Canada in one family," St. Arnaud jokes.
Like many of those who helped to develop the Internet and computer
networks more generally, St. Arnaud picked up what he needed to know about
computers and networks by fiddling around with them. After finishing an
engineering degree at Carleton University in Ottawa, he ended up working
in Toronto, where he eventually started his own computer-networking business.
In 1993, he joined CANARIE, which was created with federal
and private sector funding to help to develop advanced high-speed computer
networks in Canada.
By 1998, CANARIE, with the help of companies like Nortel Networks,
Bell Canada, and Cisco Systems, was ready to build its own high-speed
research network, CA*Net, which let St. Arnaud try out his ideas about
cheaply setting up and running an advanced network.
CA*Net soon became the network backbone that
links the country's provincial and regional networks. Indeed, the network
used for his demonstration is part of Quebec's high-speed research network,
the RÈseau d'informations scientifiques du QuÈbec.
CA*Net is powerful enough that if a researcher hooked up to
the RISQ network in Montreal wanted to send the entire contents of the
Library of Congress to a colleague at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby,
B.C., it would take less than a second.
But funding for CA*Net runs out in July and CANARIE has petitioned
the federal Liberals for $120-million to continue running and improving
the network. There is some concern that Finance Minister Paul Martin may
block funding for CANARIE's project because Industry Canada -- whose minister
is Martin's leadership rival Brian Tobin -- is responsible for supervising
In fact, some network engineers in Canada and in other parts
of the world worry that CA*Net may be this decade's Avro Arrow, a Canadian
technology project that is admired around the world but died for political
"Most of the folk I know regard CA*Net as the premier
effort in the world," said Gordon Cook, a New Jersey-based computer-networking
expert who publishes the industry newsletter The Cook Report on the Internet.
St. Arnaud is happy to have the accolades, although he and
his colleagues at CANARIE will be happier still to win funding approval
from the federal government.
"I guess what motivates us is we're changing the course
of history," he said. "We're not here for the money. We're
leading the world and we're having an impact that the world is recognizing
that is a powerful motivating thing. Everybody's coming to us and saying,
'Wow! That's neat what you've done!' That's very gratifying.' "
In St. Arnaud's view, it should be possible to buy just one
wavelength, or colour, of laser light that runs through one of the dozens
of strands of glass that make up piece of fibre-optic cable. He calls
his concept condominium wavelengths. Each strand can carry hundreds --
some researchers say thousands -- of wavelengths of light.
Cooperstock is ready for St. Arnaud's future. For his work, which requires
immense amounts of bandwidth, he could lease a wavelength as easily as
making a telephone call. He would -- if the research St. Arnaud hopes
to do works out -- punch in a series of numbers into a Web browser on
his computer to set up a high-speed line to a studio in L.A. and then,
once he has done that, he could set up a link with an orchestra in Paris.
"Now, this is not going to happen overnight," St.
Arnaud said, "but what we want to do is give a handful of wavelengths
to [researchers] and say: 'These are your wavelengths, do whatever you
want with them. You don't have to ever tell us.'
"Science can be carried out anywhere. That
means science can be carried out as easily on a university campus as
well as a school
or, eventually, a home. Now everybody can participate in research."
The idea of taking science out of the lab and putting it on
any computer anywhere, using high-speed research networks, is not just
a pipe dream. As active as CANARIE has been in developing these advanced
networks, it has been just as active encouraging development of things
to do on those networks.
So, for example, high-school students in Canada and the United
States are using high-speed research networks to run the world's largest
cosmic-ray detector, under the supervision of the Centre for Subatomic
Research at the University of Alberta in Edmonton.
Students and their teachers have installed cosmic-ray-detector
dishes on the roofs of about 50 schools across the continent. Each dish
is wired into a computer at the school that, in turn, is connected to
every other computer participating in the project as well as the main
computer at the University of Alberta. That main computer is then linked,
via advanced research networks such as CA*Net, to satellites and other
research centres around the world.
"The students are so enthusiastic because now they're
not being spoon-fed science, they're participating in real research," St.
CANARIE's researchers have had some preliminary discussions
with Environment Canada to move weather modelling and forecasting off
of supercomputers -- analyzing weather dynamics takes immense amounts
of computer horsepower -- and let all Canadians participate in forecasting
the weather using nothing more than a standard desktop computer that is
hooked into a broader research network.
Right now, Environment Canada's weather forecasting supercomputers,
located in Montreal, produce forecasts accurate to about a 50-kilometre
grid. But researchers are now working on a way for home or small-business
users to take that data from Environment Canada's supercomputers, combine
it with weather data gathered locally, and produce weather forecasts accurate
to within about one kilometre -- to the delight of golf course operators,
ski hill owners, farmers, outdoor enthusiasts and sports teams.
Meanwhile, at McGill University this fall, Cooperstock is trying
to bring this future into the present as quickly as possible. He has a
100-megabit-per-second Internet connection installed at his home and he
plans to be a living example of the worth of such high-speed connections.
Among other initiatives, he will be conducting
his classes from his home via his Internet connection. The course he
will teach this
way? "Human-computer interaction, strangely enough."