Free access service allows remote networking

High-performance routing permits new communications strategies

A novel networking service has been made available to the research community by computer scientists at Washington University in St. Louis, enabling researchers and students remote, free use of the latest networking technology.

Just opened to external users in June of 2005, the Open Network Laboratory has a short video on their Web site (ONL; that provides a quick introduction to ONL.

A router in the new Open Network Laboratory, funded by NSF.
A router in the new Open Network Laboratory, funded by NSF.

Ultimately, the ONL can lead to innovations that can expand the capability of the Internet and other networking environments, said its director, Jonathan S. Turner, Ph.D., Henry Edwin Sever Professor of Engineering, and professor of computer science and engineering at Washington University.

“It’s been clear for some time that networking research has been hampered by the lack of an open, high-performance routing platform,” Turner said.

“Commercial routers are closed systems that provide limited visibility into their internal operation. This makes it difficult for academic researchers to understand the details of how these systems work and to develop, test and demonstrate improvements.

“Since we had developed an experimental gigabit router as part of our own research activities, it was very natural for us to look for ways to make it available to others as well. We also felt that a facility like this could be a great educational resource for undergraduate and graduate students alike.”

Supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation, the ONL is built around a set of open-source, extensible, high-performance routers that have been developed at Washington University, and which can be accessed by remote users through a Remote Laboratory Interface (RLI).

The RLI allows users to configure the testbed network, run applications and monitor those running applications using the built-in, data-gathering mechanisms that the routers provide. The RLI will also allow users to extend, modify or replace the software running in the routers’ embedded processors and to similarly extend, modify or replace the routers’ hardware, which is implemented largely using Field Programmable Gate Arrays, which can be dynamically reconfigured to support new capabilities.

Remote laboratory interface

The RLI provides support for data visualization and real-time remote displays, allowing users to develop the insights needed to understand the behavior of new capabilities within a complex operating environment. The routers included in the testbed are built around a scalable switch fabric and are architecturally similar to high-performance commercial routers. This environment enables researchers to evaluate their ideas in a much more realistic context than can be provided by PC-based routers using commodity hardware, and operating systems tailored to the needs of desktop computing.

Jonathan Turner
Jonathan Turner

Turner said that it is helpful for researchers seeking to transfer their ideas to commercial practice to demonstrate those ideas in a realistic setting. The Open Network Laboratory provides such a setting, allowing systems researchers to evaluate and refine their ideas, and then to demonstrate them to those interested in moving the technology into new products and services.

Turner discussed the Open Network Laboratory at the Hot Interconnects conference, held Aug. 17-19 in Palo Alto, Calif. Over the next year he will be giving various tutorials on it nationwide. Turner noted that the extensibility of the routers is a key feature.

New communications services

“Each port of the router has an embedded microprocessor, which can host software plugins,” he said. “Users of ONL can write their own plugins to extend the functionality of the router, adding new features and providing new communication services. Such extensibility is becoming an increasingly important part of the networking landscape.

“We believe that as people develop more experience with such extensible routing platforms, we’ll see an explosion of innovative, new communication services that go well beyond the simple datagram service that is at the heart of the Internet today.”

The ONL is the latest example of computer networking innovations from a university known for networking breakthroughs and implementations. “My hope is that this becomes a useful service for researchers and students, both at Washington University and around the country, ” Turner said. “If we succeed at that we can help advance the state-of-the-art, and contribute to the development of better educated graduates.”