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TGen, Arizona Partners Continue to Pursue Funds for Fiber Optic Link

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – A business-academic consortium continues to pursue public and private funds for a high-speed optical fiber network that would link the Translational Genomics Research Institute with several Arizona universities — a project delayed a year by the recession.

Obsidian Strategics has joined with the state's three university systems to develop the network, which would transmit data between TGen and other sites at far faster speeds than possible now using unused or "dark" fiber laid years earlier.

The network would offer speeds of 10 gigabits per second up to 40 gigabits per second, with the potential "in the very near future" of being improved to 100 gigabits per second through Obsidian's Longbow equipment for extending fiber sub-networks based on InfiniBand design rather than Ethernet.

Obsidian disclosed the projected speeds in a five-page brief prepared for state officials and submitted to the National Science Foundation as part of its application for a $2 million grant to fund the network. It would link TGen with Arizona State University, the University of Arizona, Northern Arizona University, and possibly other partners.

Obsidian joined with ASU to announce the network a year ago this month [See GenomeWeb Daily News sister publication Bioinform]. In interviews, the Edmonton, Alberta defense-intelligence contractor and TGen confirmed the network remains unbuilt, but said the project remains alive.

"As much as Obsidian was willing to help for the good of the cause — a half-million dollars on a $2 million project — it just wasn't going to happen," Robert Hooley, Obsidian's vice president of sales and marketing, told GWDN. "The universities were cutting back, and cutting back on top of cutbacks. It became a lot more difficult for the universities to not only help fund it but support it."

"The thought was that there were some programs that were funded by NSF that were looking at moving large amounts of data, terabytes, from sequencing machines at TGen into storage at ASU that could be databased and quantified at U of A, [and] that could be shared by TGen and NAU and their research at Flagstaff."

He said additional members, including some from outside Arizona, could join the network, but how many and how soon they join "depends how it goes with NSF."

"The idea of the network is to go in a second incarnation over to LA and into San Diego, and then on over into Texas and New Mexico as well," Hooley said.

To that end, the consortium has talked with potential partners from outside Arizona — including Darkstrand, which operates the largest private 40 gigabit fiber network for life-sci and other clients; the Corporation for Educational Network Initiatives in California, or CENIC, which operates the California Research and Education Network linking the state's research institutions and schools; and National LambdaRail, which maintains a 12,000-mile optical fiber network linking more than 280 leading research institutions and federal agencies.

"We have had conversations with a lot of people, and there's a lot of interest in doing this stuff. But now it's getting a little political — people like to own it," Hooley said. "We thought, and the universities thought, along with the state of Arizona, that having the fastest optical network in the world was a good thing for Arizona. And being able to actually transfer real genomic data for a university database for researchers to analyze and share, we thought, was a valuable concept.

"We continue to pursue [the network]," he said. "Regardless of how things come together, Obsidian is committed to trying to make this work."

If the NSF grant falls through, he added, the consortium will pursue funding from other sources, as well as continue talks with potential partners from outside Arizona "to ensure usability."

The speeds cited by Obsidian are even faster than those projected by Obsidian, ASU, and TGen when they announced the network a year ago. Back then, the three envisioned a top speed of about 8 terabytes an hour, or 18 gigabits per second. Based on that speed, TGen and ASU projected the network would allow the 7 terabytes of data generated by a typical experiment to travel the 10 miles from TGen in downtown Phoenix to ASU's Saguaro 2 supercomputer in Tempe, Ariz., in about an hour, compared with up to 12 days at present, using conventional copper cables with top speeds of 30 gigabytes per hour.

While the state-funded nonprofit Science Foundation Arizona, and the Arizona Technology Council expressed "tremendous support" support for the project as a catalyst for increased life sciences research statewide, Hooley said, the consortium approached member universities for support but held off asking the state for funding toward the fiber network.

A drop in revenues blamed on the recession forced the Grand Canyon State to plug a $2 billion shortfall in crafting the budget for the fiscal year that started July 1. But tax collections have continued to fall behind projections, and last month Arizona legislative budget analysts raised their forecast of the state's midyear budget gap back up from $1.5 billion to $2 billion — about 20 percent of the state budget.

As a result, Obsidian and its university partners have scrambled this year to fund the network through other public and private sources — hence the pursuit of the NSF grant, said Hooley, who is also managing director of the Greater Phoenix Innovation & Technology Accelerators. The GPITA assists entrepreneurs in the life sciences and other tech specialties by linking them to potential partners, funding sources, and technologies to license.

TGen spokesman Steve Yozwiak said the network would continue the cooperation between the institute and ASU that helped the university secure nearly $2 million from the National Institutes of Health for Saguaro 2.

"In helping them, one of the things we want to do is to continue to use that supercomputer for a lot of our computational needs. In order to do that more effectively, what we need is, essentially, a bigger pipeline, a better way to move more data more quickly between our research facility and the supercomputer on the campus of ASU," Yozwiak told GWDN.

"The anticipation is that there would be bigger conduits, in essence, that would go between ASU and the U of A down in Tuscon, and NAU in Flagstaff, and other universities in other states," Yozwiak added. "We're just waiting for the right opportunity to partner with someone. When it happens, it will be great. And until then, we'll continue to move along."

TGen joined with ASU's Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering, and BioDesign Institute to propose a wide range of activities for the supercomputer, thus doubling the capabilities of ASU's High Performance Computing Initiative.

Similarly, the optical fiber network could have applications beyond aiding life-sci research, according to Obsidian.

"While these new high-speed optical links would initially be used to move research data between universities, they could readily grow to service a commercial world of weather analysis, bioinformatics data transfer/storage, movie editing/downloads, and larger supercomputer networks," Obsidian wrote in its brief.