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New High-Speed Fiber Optic Network Connects Federal Labs, University and City

Benefits of Bran

A new, high-speed fiber-optic network capable of sending the equivalent of scores of encyclopedia sets per second is up and running in Boulder, Colo., connecting researchers at Boulder's federal laboratories with colleagues at the University of Colorado at Boulder and the City of Boulder.

The Boulder Research and Administrative Network, or BRAN, is a $1.5 million cooperative effort involving the Department of Commerce, the National Center for Atmospheric Research, CU-Boulder and the City of Boulder.

"This joint project is an excellent example of the goals of the Administration's information technology Initiative," said Representative Mark Udall (D-Colo.). "It's a wonderful model for partnering among local, state and federal government agencies."

In Washington, D.C., Commerce Secretary William Daley echoed the excitement of Rep. Udall, saying, "The start of the new fiber-optic network marks the latest milestone in a long history of achievements and collaborative research between the Boulder Commerce Laboratories and CU-Boulder. The improved communications ability that the network brings will strengthen an already solid partnership."

The Commerce labs involved are National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

The BRAN project is unique in that it instantaneously links the city, university and major federal research labs in Boulder, allowing them to collaborate on research projects ranging from climate and weather research to the timing of atomic clocks. The 11-mile network consists of a 96-strand bundle of fiber-optic lines—each slimmer than a strand of spaghetti—strung primarily through existing conduits owned by CU-Boulder and the City of Boulder. Each participating institution has been awarded a share of the strands for their particular uses.

"This is a unique project because of the unprecedented cooperation of four large non- profit institutions," said Kent Groninger, executive director of Boulder activities for the NOAA labs. "We have had a gleam in our eyes to interconnect all of these entities for some time now, and we finally got it done."

NOAA's Boulder labs are the focal point of much of the world's atmospheric and weather data, receiving multiple sets of climate information daily, Groninger said. "With BRAN, not only can we send out huge data sets to the Boulder institutions studying global change and other weather-related phenomena, we can make it available to the public at the speed of light."

The BRAN network is dramatically increasing collaboration among researchers at all participating institutions, allowing them to swap huge files instantly and work together in real time. NCAR, which has two large facilities in Boulder located about seven miles apart, is now able to connect researchers instantly through the BRAN network and increase its scientific capabilities.

With NCAR's 28-fiber share of BRAN's 96-fiber total transmitting at maximum capabilities, a federal colleague calculated it would take only 71 seconds to transmit the entire U.S. Library of Congress holdings between NCAR's Mesa Lab and Foothills Lab, Groninger said.

Marla Meehl, a computer supervisor at NCAR, said the institution previously had been leasing fiber-optic circuits from private vendors to swap research information between its Foothills and Mesa labs. "We have one of the largest climate and weather data archives in the world," she said. "BRAN eliminates our need to lease these circuits, saving us upwards of $5,000 a month."

In addition, the type of research being transmitted over BRAN is of great interest to the multitude of Boulder climate and weather scientists.

"We are doing things now like 3-D visualization of weather and turbulence modeling that can be shared by NOAA, CU and the other federal labs," she said. "And because we have our own fiber and facilities in Boulder, we have incredible flexibility for videoconferencing seminars, and other real-time events between our two NCAR laboratories in Boulder."

Larry Warner, plant manager for CU-Boulder's Information Technology Services, said the high-powered BRAN connection linking the institutions will save the university up to $4,000 a month.

Project directors believe there are countless uses for the new network—including the potential for connections with public libraries, fire stations, police stations and recreation centers. "One of the things that I find most exciting is that the limits of BRAN are not known at this time," Warner said.

Leo Hollberg, a scientist at the National Institute for Standards and Technology, said two of BRAN's fiber-optic strands will be dedicated to comparing atomic frequency standards of NIST's atomic clocks with standards at JILA, which is a joint institute of NIST and CU-Boulder.

Prior to BRAN, comparisons of the atomic frequency standards between the two labs have been achieved by global positioning satellites which require averaging signals for times as long as days. "With BRAN's fiber-optic capabilities, we anticipate that these comparisons could be done in less than one second and simultaneously achieve much higher accuracy," Holberg said.

Chris Puccio, assistant director of network services and information technology for the City of Boulder, said BRAN will benefit a number of Boulder citizens. It will allow the city to connect with dozens of remote facilities and help to make some of its resident nonprofit corporations more effective.

Benefits of Bran

  • Improved collaboration between Boulder research institutions, reducing the time needed for results, and improved ability to attract research grants
  • Better service from the City of Boulder to its constituents
  • Importance for future networking, including the Next Generation Internet, the NASA Internet and Internet 2
  • An enhanced and strengthened research community, leading to the retention of high-quality jobs that benefit the city of Boulder
  • An increased capability for telecommuting and video conferencing, reducing driving trips and subsequent costs between sites.
  • An established fiber-optic infrastructure that can be quickly modified to support new projects as needed.
  • The potential of BRAN communication has been likened to building a 100-lane expressway between Boulder and Denver.
  • A project similar to BRAN but lacking the research impact in the city of Seattle has resulted in expanded fiber routes to high schools, several universities, library systems and state information systems
Released May 2, 2000, Updated November 27, 2017