Larry Smarr, Internet’s grandfather, looking for an encore

In 1985, Larry Smarr started championing the construction of the first National Science Foundation (NSF) backbone, which connected the five NSF supercomputer centers in 1986. The project that involved the likes of Milo Medin (of @Home) rapidly evolved first into the NSFnet, and then into todayÌs commercial Internet. At the time he was the director of the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). On his watch a geeky college student Marc Andreessen and his colleagues developed the first web-browser, Mosaic and unleashed the Internet revolution.

And now he is looking for an encore. SmarrÌs latest project, an OPTIputer, is trying to develop a blueprint of the network of the future. By combining optical networks, super-computing and grid technologies, Smarr believes that OPTIputer will be model for a new improved and supersonic Internet. OptIPuter is a grid put together with fiber-optic network connections that run at speeds that are faster than the individual computers themselves can match

“Today’s Internet could be thought of as a Polynesian model, where you have all these islands, and people use canoes to get from one to another,” he says. “We’re changing that to a jet-age model, where you can get from one city to another traveling at speeds far greater than what you travel at once you get inside the city itself.” There are other implications as well – OPTIputer will also finally take computing into the networking layer and it would also make the world finally OS-independent. It is all driven by commodity components at the edge, open source software and tools, and lots of fiber capacity. It will be first time we will see the large-scale deployment of lambda-switched networking infrastructure.

If SmarrÌs experiment succeeds, he will ensure that North America keeps its lead in the future Internet technologies. Otherwise the technology community here could face some serious threat from Europe and Japan where such large scale projects have been under development for almost two years.