Changing the very FABRIC of computer networking

Written by
Jack Brassil
Nov. 6, 2023

This month, Princeton will join an expanding global research testbed to help shape future generations of computer networks. The “research internet,” called FABRIC, is designed to build and test innovative types of flexible, programmable networks, enabling researchers to run experiments at a scale that was once unimaginable.

Already in operation at 29 other top-tier research universities, cloud providers and laboratories, FABRIC is an unprecedented national network infrastructure, allowing cutting-edge, at-scale exploration of networking, cybersecurity, distributed computing, storage, virtual reality, 5G, machine learning, and a massive set of scientific applications.

Creating a vast computing ecosystem

Each of the 29 FABRIC testbed sites has large amounts of storage and compute (meaning the resources like processing power, memory, etc. needed for computation), and is interconnected with other sites by dedicated, high speed optical links. That allows network users to get accounts on several testbeds and build an experiment using all of them, simultaneously and securely. By connecting researchers to specialized science resources and high-performance computing facilities nationwide and beyond, the network creates a rich and diverse environment for a wide variety of research. 

For Princeton — already among the top research universities in the country — FABRIC may launch ideas that will become building blocks of the next generation internet, and enable bold new applications that depend on large-scale, high-performance networking. 

One example of the possibilities is the ongoing “Scalable Human Genome Analysis Using Fabric (GAF)” project designed by six Missouri researchers and funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and National Science Foundation (NSF). As of late September, there were 73 active projects using the FABRIC network.

The origins, and future, of FABRIC 

FABRIC began with a four-year, $21 million, Mid-scale Research Infrastructure grant from the NSF, with the goal of creating a nationwide, 1.2 terabits-per-second network connecting national research centers and computing facilities. (A terabit, for reference, equals one trillion bits.) That network, in turn, would enable new distributed architectures that were previously thought to be technically infeasible or too costly. By storing and processing information “inside the network” in ways not possible with the current (public) internet, FABRIC would lead to new insights about pressing problems within the internet, like performance, security and adaptability. The infrastructure would also provide access to public cloud systems like Amazon Web Services, Google Cloud Platform and Microsoft Azure.

In keeping with the distributed, but collaborative, nature of the network, the FABRIC project team is varied, led by researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Kentucky, Clemson University, the Illinois Institute of Technology, and the Department of Energy’s ESnet (Energy Sciences Network). Yet its co-sponsor, the NSF, soon recognized that FABRIC could advance research on a global scale, not merely a national one. That realization led to the offshoot FABRIC Across Borders (FAB), which expands the testbed’s connections to four additional, overseas sites: Tokyo, Amsterdam, Bristol and CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research). Already the expansion has allowed a set of scientists across high-energy physics (HEP), astronomy, cosmology, weather, urban science and computer science — along with cyberinfrastructure experts — to conduct advanced cyberinfrastructure experiments. 

The impacts closer to home

Princeton Provost and Gordon Y.S. Wu Professor in Engineering and Computer Science Jennifer Rexford was an early supporter of bringing FABRIC to Princeton, serving as a founding member of the project’s steering committee.

“Linking into FABRIC allows Princeton to support science on a global scale, across multiple domains,” said Rexford. Currently, the capabilities of computer networks are predetermined by their equipment and software, which network researchers and administrators only have limited ability to modify. FABRIC, by contrast, allows researchers to “bring their own device” to the testbed. “FABRIC enables researchers to reinvent the internet by experimenting with novel networking ideas in a realistic setting — at tremendous speed, scope and scale,” added Rexford.

Princeton’s Vice President for Information Technology and Chief Information Officer Jay Dominick agrees. “Bringing Princeton into the terabit networking age is an important part of our commitment to provide world-class research capabilities to our faculty,” said Dominick. “With our partners at NJEdge [the academic research network] our researchers will be able to gain early insights into how high speed, high-capacity terabit-scale networking will transform their work.”

To learn more about the testbed’s capabilities, visit https://whatisfabric.net