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Saturday June 25th

UNC receives $20 million to explore the future of the internet

Junior Henderson Beck works on his computer using Carolina's academic platform Sakai.
Buy Photos A UNC student works on the school-wide platform, Sakai.

The University’s Renaissance Computing Institute received a $20 million grant from the National Science Foundation to oversee a project exploring potential internet architectures. The newly funded project, called FABRIC, will allow researchers to investigate new approaches to constructing the internet. 

RENCI is a collaboration between UNC, Duke University and North Carolina State University. Its scientists develop advanced technologies for researchers in business, government and academia.

FABRIC will be a testbed for reimagining the ways in which data can be stored, processed and shared, according to a press release issued by UNC.  

“The internet today is an integral part of just about any area of scientific research you can name,” said Ilya Baldin, lead principal investigator of FABRIC and director of network research and infrastructure at RENCI. 

The majority of researchers rely on vast quantities of data, Baldin said. The ability to process and store this data depends on the network that they're using.

“Many researchers still use what they call 'sneakernet,' which is essentially a nice way of saying we ship a hard drive from one facility to another in order to send data there,” Baldin said. 

The goal of FABRIC is for users to be able to store and share data through a shared infrastructure in a faster, more secure manner. 

Collaborators on the project include the University of Kentucky, Clemson University, the Illinois Institute of Technology and the Energy Sciences Network, a high-speed computer network used by scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy.

Because no singular institution possesses the resources or faculty required to complete a project like FABRIC, the project’s main contributors are spread throughout the country, said Anita Nikolich, co-director of FABRIC and computer science research fellow at Illinois Institute of Technology.

“We need people who are geographically distributed across the United States," Nikolich said. "This is a nation-wide, physical infrastructure we’re building. Having people who are spread from North Carolina all the way to California in various cities and states is really important." 

FABRIC allows institutions to share high volumes of data quickly and with less concern for the security issues that can plague current networks, Baldin said. 

Rather than recreating the entire internet, the project aims to build a scalable platform geared toward the storage, security and transfer of data, according to the press release. In addition, the program can be tailored to each user’s specific needs.  

“What we’re offering is a network that is much more programmable compared to the internet today,” Baldin said. 

As the primary institution behind FABRIC, UNC will spearhead the project’s construction efforts, with the hopes of completing this phase in just four years. According to the University's press release, if things go as planned, researchers will be able to attach additional hardware to FABRIC so that it may evolve alongside today’s ever-changing research needs.

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