Connecting Illinois with the InterCampus Communications Network

This summer, Technology Services expanded the high speed fiber-optic network that links the three campuses of the University of Illinois by connecting it to Bradley University, in Peoria. In doing so, Tech Services has provided Bradley University with more reliable high-speed networking options to support their teaching and learning.

The name of this superfast fiber-optic network is the InterCampus Communications Network (ICCN). It connects the three University of Illinois campuses to each other, to the internet, and to restricted networks like Internet2 and ESnet. The cables that make up the ICCN currently span a massive 3,707,349 feet (700 miles).

ICCN is the University of Illinois’ bridge to networks outside of campus. For almost a decade, the ICCN has made networked collaboration possible between different parts of our state.

Beginnings

Back in 2004, ICCN was merely a pile of “dark fiber” -- unused fiber-optic cable that was leftover from previous networking projects. Putting fiber-optic cable in the ground is expensive, so companies tend to run more than they need. When their projects are done, companies can lease their unused cable to other companies or individuals.

Networking staff at the University of Illinois had the forward-thinking idea of taking that ultra fast dark fiber and putting it to use to connect the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to other universities in the state.

ICCN was originally started to support administrative work. Certain tasks like building Banner--an application used by multiple campuses--and video conferencing between University administrators and administrators around the state, required high-speed, reliable connections between people separated by hundreds of miles.

The first traffic shot through ICCN in 2007.  

But over time, ICCN was adopted by researchers, and now research is now the primary driver of data sent over the ICCN.

It is fair to say that, as we know it, research at Illinois is made possible by ICCN. In a networked world, researchers rely on networked collaboration--between colleagues, between labs, and between data sets--to make their projects happen. Constant collaboration takes a lot of bandwidth, especially when researchers send huge data sets, complete with millions of rows of data, to one another over hundreds of miles. A smaller, slower network would get bogged down under the weight of all that information.

The multiple 100Gbps connections that make up ICCN make sure that researchers at various research institutions can work together at lightning-fast speeds. And having the ability to provision these high-speed connections enables researchers at the University of Illinois to be more competitive among granting agencies, which ensures that their work continues to be funded.

In a world without ICCN, then, research at Illinois would be a lot smaller, a lot slower, and a lot more isolated.

The profound need for these wide-area collaborations have pushed the ICCN across the state of Illinois. Currently, all three University of Illinois campuses--Urbana-Champaign, Chicago, and Springfield--are connected, as well as University Administration. But other educational institutions are also supported, like IlliniCloud, Illinois State University, and as of the summer of 2016, Bradley University.

ICCN also supports connections to restricted networks like Internet2, ESnet, Metropolitan Research and Education Network (MREN), and wide-area collaborations that encompass peer institutions' science demilitarized zones (DMZs).

Benefits

The University of Illinois owns ICCN. But that doesn’t mean that only entities affiliated with the University can benefit from the network. Sandra H. Bury, Interim Associate Provost at Bradley University, notes that the University of Illinois is dedicated to connecting other educational institutions across the state to each other, regardless of whether they belong to the U of I system.

Bradley is one of these institutions. Before getting connected to ICCN, Bradley would experience crippling internet outages.

Whenever a fiber was cut, all traffic on the network--from data sets to YouTube videos--would be routed to a backup network provider. But the backup provided smaller bandwidth. Interstate driving tells us what happened next. When a normal amount of traffic suddenly gets squished into fewer lanes, movement stops. At Bradley, it became so difficult to connect to and use the internet that customers and IT professionals alike declared that they were experiencing catastrophic outages.  

To fix this problem, Tracy Smith, Director of IT Infrastructure at Technology Services at the University of Illinois, and her team, comprised of Chris Skaar, Benjamin Barkin-Wilkins and Subhan Malick, did what needed to be done to get Bradley connected to ICCN.

They worked with ITV-3 to lease some dark fiber strands between an existing ICCN co-location site in East Peoria and an existing ICCN co-location site in downtown Peoria. They worked with the fiber provider Level3 to connect the ITV-3 fiber with ICCN fiber. Throughout it all, the team collaborated with local IT staff at Bradley, the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Peoria, and Caterpillar to get contract changes in place and buy, provision, and install crucial equipment.

The effort to get Bradley connected took a few years, but it paid off. As Bradley announced on its website, the school is now “one of only a small percentage of institutions offering Internet2 access, which provides learning opportunities in collaboration with students and faculty at other institutions.” ICCN is what makes the connection to Internet2, a research entity, possible.

“Not that I'm biased, but the level of support we provide is exceptional,” says Smith.

Smith notes that Technology Services can provide 10Gbps or 100Gbps connections quickly and affordably. And these connections can reach far. Nodes in Chicago can be connected to restricted networks, Big Ten Academic Alliance peers, internet providers, and peering services.

ICCN has also strengthened partnerships between companies like Caterpillar and the University of Illinois. Caterpillar is headquartered in Peoria, but has a big data research site at University of Illinois Research Park. In 2010, the company was having difficulty securing a fast and reliable connection between its headquarters in Peoria and its offices in Research Park. As such, Caterpillar was considering packing up its Research Park location and heading home.  

Technology Services worked with the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) to transition the management of a lateral connection to Peoria, used the path to provide a dedicated 10Gbps path between Caterpillar headquarters in Peoria and their site at Research Park, and negotiated with ITV-3 to get a second fiber path across the Sangamon river.

The result was a redundancy ring to Peoria, which means a fast, reliable connection that allowed massive data sets to be shared between Caterpillar employees working in Peoria and their colleagues working in the Research Park in Champaign.

Smith is thrilled with the many kinds of collaborations--between research institutions, between companies, and between individuals--that ICCN supports.

“My objective has always been to enable collaborations that lead to really cool discoveries and innovations,” she says. “To think about people working in sync with each other and creating research and art, and be able to do that from miles apart, is amazing.”