Private fiber optic WAN backbone connects Michigan's universities

Shamus McGillicuddy

Merit Network, a nonprofit regional wide-area network (WAN) that connects Michigan's major universities to one another and the rest of the world, made a major upgrade about five years ago from a carrier-based circuit network to a private, facilities-based 10 Gigabit Ethernet fiber optic network.

The 770-mile fiber ring runs from Detroit to Chicago, with connections in Ann Arbor, Kalamazoo, Grand Rapids and Lansing. Merit delivers multiple high-speed links to universities in each city. Merit manages optical transport using FSP 3000 Wavelength Division Multiplexing systems from Adva Optical Networking.

"We went from being a circuit-based network, where we were buying links from major carriers and aggregating traffic across them, to installing our own fiber and implementing our own fiber network," said Robert Duncan, Merit's director of backbone network

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Merit is able to provide reliable, high-speed connectivity to all the universities, either with private bandwidth or shared bandwidth. In Chicago, it connects to the Internet, the national research network known as Internet2, and various other research networks. For instance, Merit allows institutions to participate in long-distance, data-intensive experiments such as the University of Michigan's involvement in the ATLAS Experiment which is being conducted on the Large Hadron Collider located at CERN in Switzerland. More than two dozen students and physicists at the school rely on Merit for access to reams of data produced by ATLAS, which is smashing protons and other subatomic particles together in order to better understand the physics of matter.

Using the wavelength division capabilities of the Adva FSP 3000s, Merit can offer multiple Ethernet connections on a single fiber line.

"We have eight nodes of fiber optic transport with 32 waves of capability across that," Duncan said. "We have 21 waves provisioned."

Duncan uses a combination of open source and Adva technology to manage the fiber network. For reporting and monitoring, he uses technology from the commercial open source vendor Zenoss. For diagnosing problems, he uses Adva's own network management software. And maintaining this high-performance network does not come without its hiccups.

Cisco had a solid product with a history in the transport arena, but Adva was much less expensive than Cisco and more focused on what we wanted to do.
Robert Duncan
Director of backbone network engineering, Merit Network

"One thing we've learned is that you have to keep the junction points clean," he said. "It's surprising how a little bit of dirt can cause a disturbance in the level of service."

Merit learned that lesson the hard way recently when an international Tier 1 network service provider inadvertently brushed against some of Merit's fiber optic cabling while working on some of its own network gear in a remote shared facility.

"One link started flapping," Duncan said. "It was going up and down repeatedly. We had received a disturbance notification from the carrier the day before, because whenever they go in to do work in an area, they let us know. So we sent one technician out, and by doing a simple clean on the fiber, the service came back. We would have seen it clearly if the fiber [had been] disconnected, but it only got brushed."

Duncan said that Merit looked at a few other optical transport vendors when it started planning its fiber ring in 2003.

"We looked at Cisco and Infinera," he said. "Cisco had a solid product with a history in the transport arena, but Adva was much less expensive than Cisco and more focused on what we wanted to do. Cisco is more of a jack of all trades that focuses on being able to support a lot of fancy interfaces that we didn't need. Infinera was more of a new player at the time, but they did have an interesting product. The Adva gear was aimed more at the high-bandwidth traffic that we were looking for."

Merit's success with the fiber WAN has it thinking about expansion, with an eye on federal stimulus dollars.

"We would like to extend our reach into some of the underserved areas around the state of Michigan -- the underserved counties and rural areas," Duncan said. "We are looking to work with both nonprofit and commercial partners for this. So we will be delivering a fiber backbone into these underserved areas in the state, and we would pick up schools, libraries and government institutions, and the for-profit partner would be servicing homes and businesses. It will be a nice fit if it works out."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Shamus McGillicuddy, News Editor

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