ORION lights up Ontario research network

In a few months time Ontario schools and research facilities will have access to one of the world’s largest optical research and education networks.

The Ontario Research and Innovation Optical Network (ORION) announced Tuesday

it has received $5.8 million in funding from the Ontario government. The project, valued in total at over $78 million, is a collaborative venture between the public and private sector. The Ontario Ministry of Enterprise, Opportunity and Innovation and Ontario’s SuperBuild Corporation are ORION’s primary funding partners. Once completed, ORION will connect education and research institutions in 21 communities across Ontario.

If ORION’s optical fibre were to be laid end-to-end it would stretch to 8,200 kilometers, the equivalent of one fifth of the Earth’s circumference. According to its owner and operator the Optical Regional Advanced Network Ontario (ORANO), a not-for-profit organization, it will be the world’s largest fully owned and operated optical research and education network. It is expected to not only provide high-speed networking capacity to its own users but to also act as a gateway to other research and education networks and the Internet.

ORION’s private sector partners include Bell Canada, which delivered optical fibre and equipment for the network. Nortel Networks’ OPTera Long Haul 1600 Optical Line System and Cisco System’s 7600 series routers form the network’s backbone. The robust capabilities of the technology deployed will mean that ORION will be able to offer optical wavelength capacities at 10 Gbps, scalable to 320 Gbps, using technology incorporating Dense Wave Division Multiplexing transmission capabilities and Layer 3 routing architecture.

The network will be able to transfer huge amounts of information very quickly, which is what researchers increasingly require, said York University CIO Bob Gagne. Researchers have always worked on a collaborative basis, he says, the ability to hold videoconferences, or transfer large amounts of data quickly will only aid in the sharing of ideas. York University houses one of ORION’s points of presence and is one of the first two live sites together with Laurentian University. Gagne said the University has not yet transferred its research activities onto ORION, but is very much looking forward to doing so over the course of the summer.

“”The speed with which we’ll be able to connect to someone at university or college in Ottawa or Thunder Bay is the same kind of speed with which I can connect to somebody in our computer science building which is a 100 meters away from me,”” he said. “”It becomes this great virtual campus . . . it’s really quite something.””

Because up to now researchers have had to primarily rely on commercial Internet type of bandwidth they’ve been somewhat restricted as to what they can do, said ORION president Phil Baker.

“”That, as you know, has a number of constraints because it’s a shared pipe. With this new capacity, linking those institution, what they can do now is virtually unlimited,”” he said.

One of the projects York University hopes this network will facilitate is the Advanced Broadband Enabled Learning (ABEL) project. ABEL connects education professionals through grid networking in order to provide them with professional development opportunities. It’s one of the projects very much looking forward to the implementation of ORION, Gagne said.

“”One of the things ABEL is trying to do is create new collaborative spaces to connect new teachers with providers of information like TV Ontario . . . independent of where they are,”” he said. “”So you have a teacher in Alberta who can connect with a student teacher in Ontario all in this environment, using videoconferencing or other type of broadband media.””

Other than the available bandwidth, the Canadian research community should be pleased with the low prices of accessing the ORION network, which are quite low thanks to the investment from the Ontario government in the project, Baker said.

“”We have no debt to pay back, that makes a big difference,”” he said.

The ORION network has been getting some attention from the U.S. research community as well, Baker said. The model they’ve chosen, owning the network outright, is now being considered or pursued by a number of U.S. states.

Baker said he expects close to 90 per cent of ORION’s sites to be live and functioning by June of 2003.

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