Case Western Super Speed Computer Network Breaks New Ground

By PAUL SINGER, Associated Press Writer

CLEVELAND (AP) - The university's technology director calls it "switched-gig to the pillow."

Starting this fall, every dorm room at Case Western Reserve University will be linked to one of the most advanced computer networks in the nation, delivering super-high speed connections to 16,000 computers on campus.

If going to your home computer is like turning on the tap for a glass of water, the $27 million Case system will be like opening a fire hydrant.

"This is clearly one of the most aggressive if not the most aggressive deployments" of computer technology in academia, said Steve Corbato of Internet2, a national consortium of universities working on the next generation Internet.

The system is "switched-gig ethernet," meaning that in every dorm room and classroom, students will have instant access to a computer system delivering 1 billion bits -- one gigabit -- of data per second. By comparison, the average home computer modem delivers 56,000 bits of data per second.

"Many universities are looking into gigabit networking on campus," said Joel Smith, chief information officer at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. "They just proceed more rapidly or less rapidly depending on funding and other concerns."

Carnegie Mellon in the 1970s was one of the first universities experimenting with networked computers and desktop computing capability. The university has some gigabit-speed links between buildings with megabit speed networking within buildings, Smith said, but is constantly upgrading.

For instance, it has installed a wireless system that allows students to log in with laptops from anywhere, even on the shady lawn that runs through the campus.

"Rare is the university that can do this all at once," Smith said.

Case Western, a 9,600-student research university, is contracting with Sprint and Cisco Systems, which is a primary supplier of hardware that carries Internet traffic worldwide.

With the new system, "You can actually do full-screen, full-motion high-definition video with high-definition sound," said the school's technology chief, Lev Gonick. "That's pretty amazing when you think about research science."

Medical students will be able to watch surgery in real time from a remote location yet experience it as if they were in the room, he said.

Vlad Babich, 30, a doctoral student from the Ukraine studying management and operations theory, said the system will remove barriers to complex mathematical calculations.

"Usually we run up against the computer's limitations when we are solving large problems," he said. "Anything you can do faster, it will definitely make a difference."

The project does have some costs for students.

Dorm residents are charged a $400 "technology fee" in addition to the university's $22,500 annual tuition. Each student also must own a computer, although Gonick said most students already own one that can be easily upgraded. Current students will receive free upgrades.

Carbato said the Case system opens up the possibility of new applications. For example, a musician who graduated from a conservatory in New York but now lives in Cleveland could still study with a mentor back home via the Internet, with real-time, high-quality audio.

Of course, that works only if the computer system on the New York end and the cable in between are equally fast.

Corbato said that is why his group is working to develop high speed computing capacity at the regional, state and national levels.

The Case system will take about a year to complete, but it is already operating in several dorms and the new building of the Weatherhead School of Management. The building, designed by renowned architect-artist Frank Gehry, looks from the outside like a pile of metal ribbons.

Inside, audio visual manager George Klippel demonstrates an equally otherworldly classroom.

Each student desk has a data port that links into the switched-gig ethernet. The professor stands at a custom-made computerized podium that looks like a touch-screen teller machine.

Touching the screen enables the professor to control the lights, video projectors and sound system in the room, as well as surf the Internet and link to every other student computer.

Case has agreed to have Sprint provide computing and wireless services for the entire university, using mostly Cisco hardware. With each purchase, Sprint gives the university discounts on future technology upgrades. Sprint also will be able to use Case as a test site for new technologies.

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)