Network links 3 million computers worldwide

The super computer network Internet is paving the way for fast communication. Dan Gillmor reports for the Detroit Free Press



Doctors in their laboratories at Detroit's Henry Ford Hospital measure the strength of human bones --- on a super computer in Pittsburgh.

Philip Emeagwali (cover photo) (Download for your printer and website.)

A mathematics professor in his office at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology teaches chaos theory --- to high schoolers in Wyoming.

Car designers at their work stations at the General Motors Tech Center in Warren instantly trade their latest ideas --- with colleagues in Australia.

Welcome to Internet, a vast system of more than 3,000 linked computer networks around the world. For the roughly 3 million researchers and educators who regularly use it, the lightning-fast Internet makes distance irrelevant and time malleable.

Michigan, a pioneer in long-distance networking, has become a critical link in the Internet. The state, in a rare partnership with IBM Corp. and MCI Communications Corp., built and operates the heart of today's Internet --- a complex of fiber optic lines and switches that serves as the system's superhighway.


Millions of computer users in the United States use modems to connect their home or office computers through conventional phone lines to other computers or to such low-end network services as Prodigy and CompuServe. But Prodigy is to the Internet as a garden hose is to the Mississippi River.

Internet --- including Michigan's statewide network, called MichNet --- is already playing key role in the ability of states and nations to compete in an information age. Networks help businesses and individuals speedily share information.

As information becomes a larger component of the economy, networks, role will grow. Coupled with more powerful computers, they will spark "a revolution in knowledge and learning that could exceed the impact of the original scientific revolution," says U.S. Sen. Albert Gore Jr., D-Tenn. He is the chief sponsor of pending legislation to build an even more robust national computer network.

"It used to be that nations with deep-water ports and good railroads, or with abundant raw materials, had a competitive advantage," Gore says. "But since the information revolution began to pick up speed, it's become clear that the most important determinant of national competitive advantage is the ability to handle information and knowledge, especially in digital form." By the year 2015, high-speed computer lines are expected to reach into most American homes, schools and offices, revolutionizing the way America works, learns and plays.

But in the here and now, the Internet's users consider it a mighty tool.

Consider Philip Emeagwali, a University of Michigan computer scientist, as he works at his computer workstation, nicknamed Two Brain. "Let's try Boston," he says, typing.

PHOTO CAPTION:Emeagwali working at his computer workstation, nicknamed Two Brain.

Within seconds he and Two Brain are there. From Ann Arbor, they orchestrate the calculations of a Thinking Machines super computer in Cambridge, Mass.

Super computers, the most powerful machines in the world, are helping scientists solve tough problems. One is weather forecasting. Emeagwali wants to help forecasters give people plenty of warning before, say, a cyclone slams into Bangladesh.

Philip Emeagwali, a University of Michigan computer scientist, uses a workstation to link to Internet. "Without this network I absolutely cannot do my work," he says. (Download for your printer and website.)

Super computers are his tools. At $10 million to $30 million a pop, however, they're far too expensive for most universities.

But Internet makes it all possible. Emeagwali's Apollo work station is hooked up to a local campus network. The campus network is hooked up to MichNet, which links universities, government offices and some businesses around the state.

MichNet, in turn, is hooked up to NSFnet, the very heart of the Internet. Funded by the National Science Foundation and built by the Michigan-IBM-MCI partnership, the NSFnet is a hyper-fast information pipeline that connects MichNet to other regional networks.

The Thinking Machines super computer in Massachusetts is hooked up to a network there, which is also hooked up to the NSFnet. Through an elaborate series of connections, then, Emeagwali can sit at his computer in Michigan and use the other, far-off machine.

"Without this network I absolutely cannot do my work," he says.

The key is capacity.

Conventional copper phone lines are relative slowpokes at transmitting computer information, dribbling data to a small computer at several thousand bits of information --- a few dozen words --- per second.

By contrast, networks built around fiber-optic lines --- glass fibers the thickness of a human hair --- and modern message-switching equipment can zap data through at a rate of tens of millions of bits per second. New equipment, now being tested, will raise the rate to over a billion bits per second.

Pictures contain much more data than words. Transmitting digital videos takes enormous capacity.

It's worth it. Scientists use remote supercomputers to visualize things that are almost meaningless when listed in tables of numbers.

A chemist in Detroit, for example, can run a super computer in San Diego to see a three-dimensional view of molecule. Then she can rotate and change the molecule to her heart's content, until it has the properties she needs.

No longer bound by the relatively slow speed of modems and regular phone lines, researchers like Emeagwali complete tasks on Internet in a few hours that would otherwise consume days or weeks.

Another essential part of Internet is electronic mail. Internet's huge capacity lets it handle tens of thousands of messages at a time.

"We have facilities in Australia and Europe that we can get to because of the Internet," says Jeff VanHoorne, senior research scientist at General Motors Tech Center.

The Internet's electronic mail and conferences, as well as their slow-speed counterparts on other on-line services, have changed the nature of communications for the people who use them.

In the world of electronic communications, users have formed electronic communities; their location doesn't matter.

"People are fundamentally social creatures," says Mitchell Kapor, president of the Electronic Frontier Foundation Inc., a nonprofit organization that is asking some basic question about the electronic future.

A quick peek into the on-line world reveals impassioned discussions on an almost limitless array of topics, including physics, computers, medicine, films, sex and baseball. Some of the chatterers regard some of the chats as pornographic, prompting an even more impassioned debate on the pros and cons of controlling it.

Networks are inherently democratic. Once you're connected, you can get all,or most, of the same information that anyone else can get. And your ideas can be taken as seriously as anyone else's.

Part of Internet's allure is in its decentralized, creative anarchy. But that also has forced users to learn arcane commands and addresses, a failing that proponents agree must be fixed in coming years.

As Internet evolved, "Michigan's role has been absolutely pivotal," says Stephen Wolff, director of networking at the National Science Foundation.

In the age of the automobile, Michigan became known for building a first-rate, statewide networks of highways. In computer circles Michigan is well known for its committment to networks and has become "the best-connected state," says Douglas Van Houweling, vice provost for information technology at the University of Michigan.

Michigan is investing $5 million of taxpayers' money directly in the NSFnet and has sunk millions more into its campus, government and statewide networks.

"We thought it was a good opportunity to get Michigan into the networking game, into information technology at a strategic point," says James Kenworthy, manager of research and technology programs for the Michigan Strategic Fund, of the state's investment in its partnership with MCI and IBM.

Information technology, he says, "will be to white collar what automation was to manufacturing."

Until recently, the government restricted Internet to people in research and education.

Last year, the Michigan-IBM-MCI group formed a not-for-profit company, Advanced Network & Services Inc., to promote wider use of Internet. Other companies have set up services to connect smaller regional networks.

Last month, in a step networkers called extremely significant, Advanced Network itself spun off a for-profit corporation designed to bring in commercial users. Profits will be used to upgrade the network, says Allan Weis, president and CEO.

Several other companies also offer Internet connections. All hope to attract big and little businesses onto the networks in coming years. They say the more users there are on-line, the more useful the network is for everyone.

Grade and high schools, too, will be joining the mix. Few have so far, and worries have arisen that the K-12 schools won't be able to afford the tab. This fear has led some to call for federal help in hooking up the K-12 schools.

For students and teachers, high-speed networks will bring "access to information ... when they need it, to help to help them improve education and the creative process," says Alan Baratz, director of high-performance computing and communications at IBM's Multimedia and Education Division.

The educational role will extend to the home, many hope. Sen. Gore envisions a system that enables "a schoolchild to come home, and, instead of playing Nintendo, plug into the Library of Congress and learn at his or her own pace."

Network growing pains may be inevitable as more and more students, faculty, researchers, business people and others use Internet. So far, the system has been able to handle the load.

People who use the networks can't imagine life without them. And they're excited about the prospect that more users will join them, though a bit alarmed at the potential for electronic clutter.

As the technology improves, networks will transmit much more information at once. This will lead to different kinds of two-way information, including multi-media and video and other sorts of new applications that no one can foresee now.

"The scientific revolution began a quarter century after Gutenberg completed the printing press," Gore says. "This network will lead to similar, revolutionary advances."Philip Emeagwali, biography, A Father of the Internet, supercomputer pioneer, Nigerian scientist, inventor

The super computer network Internet is paving the way for fast communication

Caption: The computer network InterNet links data, ideas and 3 million users around the world. Commercial use of the net is growing.

Caption: Network links 3 million computer users worldwide

Caption: Michigan has become "the best-connected state," says Douglas Van Houweling, vice provost for information technology at the University of Michigan.

Caption: CONNECTING THE WORLD This depicts the major NSFnet connections between regional networks and supercomputing centers around the country, including a hub in Ann Arbor. The data are sent along fiber-optic routes on the ground connecting the various hubs. The NSFnet also has connections to networks around the world.

Caption: IN MICHIGAN... MichNet connects cities around the state. Its principal users are schools and government offices. In the future it is expected to attract more corporate and individual users.

Caption: IN DETROIT... Detroit is a major hub within MichNet. Many networks are connected to the Detroit hub, including Wayne State University, government offices and corporate offices such as GM. Individual computer users can dial into the network by using regular phone lines."

Reported in the Detroit Free Press of Michigan, USA on July 8, 1991.

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Philip Emeagwali, biography, A Father of the Internet, supercomputer pioneer, Nigerian scientist, inventor