This week, Denver will have what may be the fastest internet network in the world. And next week? It’ll be gone.
The Herculean effort to build a 6.71 terabits per second network — that’s more than 250,000 times faster than the average U.S. household connection — has been years in the making. But it took just three weeks to install it at the Colorado Convention Center for an audience that not only geeks out about eye-popping internet speeds, but needs it.
“There’s certainly a coolness factor,” said Kate Robinson, technical director for SCinet, which builds the temporary network each year for the supercomputing conference known as SC23. “But this is really built off the requirements of researchers.”
SC23 is not your ordinary convention. It bypasses the generic Wi-Fi service that convention centers provide, and builds its own network from the ground up. There’s even a Network Operations Center on the show floor. That’s because SC brings together the high-performance computing industry that craves faster ways to transmit data-intense discoveries and share what they’ve learned.
That includes a massive share from Florida International University in Miami, which has a fiber link to the Vera C. Rubin Observatory in Chile. The telescope in Chile can capture gigapixel images of faraway galaxies and send them to the rest of the world by way of the Miami fiber. AmLight, the network behind the project to speed up the connection, is planning a demo on the SC23 show floor. Staff at SCinet, which is like the ISP of the conference, had to figure out how to get that high speed link from Miami to a booth in Denver.
“We’re giving 400-gig connectivity to (AmLight) this year for a research experiment,” Robinson said. “We reached out to Zayo and some of the larger ISPs and asked, OK, who’d be willing to donate this? And also where are you going to land in Miami and where are you going to land in Denver? And when you’re in Denver, how are you going to get to the convention center?”
It wasn’t even the largest request for fiber to the booth. StarLight, an advanced networking hub located at Northwestern University near Chicago, asked for a 1.2 Tbps connection. At this year’s show, 32 research teams needed more bandwidth, requiring SCinet to install 20 circuits. The average capacity per circuit is 355.5 Gbps, or about 1,700 times faster than the average household service of 213.75 megabits per second, according to speed-tracking site Ookla.
“They gave us a lot of requirements, ‘We need this much bandwidth,’ from wherever it might be, whether it’s Singapore or Japan or CERN with its Large Hadron Collider in Europe,” said Hans Addleman, this year’s chair of SCinet. “We have to take that all into account (and) start building an architecture based on all of that, and also what our contributors are willing to donate to us. (Vendors) might want to do some level of showing off their coolest gear, with the latest and greatest gear that’s never been used before.”
Fast networks and fast computers may be the highlight. But for many, SC is also a place for the network industry to actually network.
Robinson, who lives in Gunnison, credits SC for helping her land her current job as a network engineer for the U.S. Department of Energy’s ESnet, a network dedicated to science. Her first SCinet experience was in 2017, thanks to a grant from Women in IT Networking at SC.
“When I started, I worked for Western Colorado University in Gunnison and I expanded my professional network by 200 people every year,” Robinson said. “I did end up getting a new job and it’s because of my volunteer efforts here.”
Fun fact: What can you do with a 6.71 Tbps connection? Download the Library of Congress’ complete 21 petabyte (ie: 21,000 terabytes) catalog in seven hours. By comparison, downloading the same 21 petabytes on the average U.S. household speed of 213.75 megabits per second would take nearly 25 years, according to the Download Time Calculator.
One giant test ground
Building a terabit network inside the Colorado Convention Center was made possible thanks to about 30 companies that donated $43 million worth of hardware, software, services and support. There were also more than 200 volunteers, including 184 on site who spent the past week rolling out 12.65 miles of fiber-optic cables, setting up 350 wireless access points and figuring out how to get the tech from different vendors to work together. Volunteers often have to figure out interoperability, as they say in the biz.
“A lot of these technologies are based on open standards,” said Nathan Miller, SCinet’s executive director. “(But) it’s often the case that between different vendors, they might adopt this part of the standard but not this other part of the standard. And so when we actually start plugging things in … that’s where we find (similar products) trying to do two different things, essentially. There are lots of opportunities to put different technologies through the paces in our environment.”
Some of the companies providing technology also send staff, a valuable resource as the SCinet team installs the network. They stick around for the show to help resolve any interoperability issues or may even notice some of their own in the experimental environment.
“It’s great seeing those manufacturers and engineers from separate companies working together to get this to work,” said Kevin Hayden, SC Steering Committee and past SCinet chair.
“Normally, they would not do that,” Addleman added, during a conversation with the SCinet leadership team last week.
“It’s good for the companies as well,” Robinson said. “It gives their engineers a lot more real world experience on how an engineer would sit down with their equipment and configure it and have it work with other pieces of equipment.”
At last year’s show in Dallas, the SCinet team installed the new Wi-Fi 6E standard, which expanded Wi-Fi’s capacity to the 6 gigahertz spectrum.That allows more users and their devices to be online at the same time because it adds an additional band of the wireless spectrum. To access Wi-Fi 6E though, compatible hardware was needed.
“It was so new, we had no way to test it,” Addleman said. “We actually had to order brand new Apple iPads. People were waiting for them to come in because they’d just been released. That’s how cutting edge it was. I don’t know if we’re that cool this year.”
This year, the team installed the next generation of internet protocol technology, called IPv6. It’s not that new, though. It has similar speeds to the decades-old IPv4 and most consumers already use it because mobile carriers like T-Mobile adopted IPv6. The older technology was running out of the 4.3 billion unique IP addresses, a requirement for any device to get online. IPv6 expands the number to roughly 340 undecillion addresses, or 340 followed by 36 zeros.
But many SC attendees may not use IPv6 at work because their research institutions or government agencies haven’t made the leap yet. Potential downtime or loss of revenues have delayed rollouts. A federal mandate, however, now requires the bulk of federal information systems to move to IPv6 by the end of 2025. So at this year’s show, attendees can test IPv6 out, troubleshoot interoperability, ask questions and learn how to install it themselves.
“That’s the beauty of it,” said Angie Asmus, next year’s SCinet chair who also handles IT security for Colorado State University. “We can build it from the ground up, whereas all these agencies and institutions don’t have the ability to do that.”
Why SC keeps picking Colorado
While the annual SC conference isn’t always in Denver, the city has been its host five times — and four times since 2013. That’s not a coincidence. This year’s show expects to attract 12,000 international attendees and needed hotel space and access to an international airport. Organizers also needed access to the facility weeks prior to the event to set up the network.
“The conference is a large one with many demands, some obvious and some quite nuanced and this limits the number of cities that can host us,” said Dorian Arnold, chair of this year’s convention and Regis University graduate. “For example, the SCinet team has this tremendous networking infrastructure that they’re laying down that can require actual tunneling and plumbing and such that not all venues will allow.”
Colorado is also a base for internet companies, like Zayo Group in Boulder and Lumen Technologies (previously called CenturyLink). Two very fast broadband networks dedicated to education and research have a local presence: Front Range GigaPop connects universities and federal research labs, while Internet2, the nation’s largest and fastest research and education network, has an office in Denver. Several federal labs and universities are in Colorado and the state was recently named a quantum technology U.S. Tech Hub by the government.
It’s important for commercial companies to get involved since they’ve benefited from decades of research and government support, said Anna Claiborne, Zayo’s senior vice president for packet and product software engineering.
“Research and education is really what has powered technology since the beginning, ever since the government originally funded ARPANET, which became the internet as we know it today,” she said. “And research and education and government programs are still hugely responsible for sponsoring big forward leaps in technology. A lot of people tend to forget this. Sure, Google has been responsible for huge leaps forward in technology, for example, but the fact that they were able to do that was only because the internet existed in the first place.”
Zayo has 17 million miles of fiber connecting facilities throughout North America and Europe, and the company has long supported the SC conference wherever it is. Setting up a network like SCinet has done is very unique, she said.
“It’s an incredibly difficult feat to pull off,” Claiborne said. “One of the main limitations of doing really innovative things like virtual reality around something like the X Games … is streaming the amount of data out of that event venue and getting it to somewhere else to render all this VR data. That’s a huge challenge on an ongoing basis. Doing something like this is super unique.”
Visit Denver, the city’s convention and visitors bureau, estimates that this year’s event will have a $32 million economic impact for the area. The city has supported the supercomputing show by facilitating the vast internet connections that crisscross the world to link to the convention center on 14th Street. SC’s return to Denver is because the infrastructure already exists.
“Long story short, there’s a lot of factors that mean, at this point, there’s a limited number of cities that can actually be the conference city we want to go to,” Arnold said. “Denver has all of those things going for it. It’s just become a place that we’re very familiar with and readily supports the needs of the conference and attendees.”
At the end of the week, after the show wraps, the SCinet team will disassemble the terabit network and salvage the fiber-optic cables and other equipment as best they can for future uses. The fiber connecting the convention center to the world will remain. But the convention center will go back to its usual operation of gigabit ethernet circuits and regular Wi-Fi service.
“We have a tagline that we use every year,” Miller said. “SCinet takes a year to plan, three weeks to build, one week to operate and one day to tear it all down.”