Hidden in New Hampshire, networking's coolest classroom

DURHAM, N.H. -- Gerard Goubert was downright giddy. As Susan Fogarty and I were about halfway through our tour of the InterOperability Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire last week, Goubert suddenly bounded around a corner to greet us, beaming like a proud parent.

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Goubert, a manager at the lab, quickly told us that the IOL had just received approval to pre-certify 802.11 products on behalf of the Wi-Fi Alliance. The news is significant because the Wi-Fi Alliance is placing an enormous amount of trust in a testing facility staffed largely by college students -- albeit one that has been unofficially helping the Wi-Fi Alliance verify the interoperability of networking gear for years.

Still, the recognition is long overdue. Chances are that no matter which vendor's gear your shop is running, it was probably tested here.

Peace, love and networking

Makers of enterprise networking equipment see the IOL as a Switzerland of sorts. With the help of the University of New Hampshire and its students, the lab is the most widely used independent networking interoperability test bed in the world. If a Gigabit Ethernet vendor wants to ensure that its gear is interoperable with competing companies' products, it sends its equipment off to the lab.

In somebody's view, [Bluetooth]'s not secure enough, but I think for most people it is.
Gerard Goubert
managerInterOperability Laboratory
Once it arrives, New Hampshire students -- under the supervision of IOL managers -- test devices for standards conformance and then for compatibility with similar equipment. The lab allows students to learn the ins and outs of networking products, and vendors benefit by learning about any interoperability problems well before their products ever reach the market.

Because the lab is largely vendor-supported, tomorrow's cutting-edge technologies and today's more profitable ones get the lion's share of the attention. The interoperability of old-school technology like Token Ring and ATM equipment is no longer a focus.

Now and then, the IOL schedules a Plugfest. During these events, vendors spend a week or so at the lab testing how their latest products work together in any of 16 different technical areas, such as ASDL, Gigabit Ethernet, IPv6 and wireless. While trade secrets are closely guarded, Plugfests represent an unusual opportunity for rival vendors to come together for the good of their customers.

"We'll often have people from Foundry sitting next to people from Juniper, next to people from Cisco, and they're all trying to figure out how their gear can work together on neutral ground," said Chris Volpe, public relations manager for the IOL.

Your lab is a wonderland

To create the various testing environments, participating vendors lend the lab their latest and greatest networking products to keep on hand. With more than 3,600 devices, approximately 50 miles of copper wire and nearly as much fiber-optic cabling, the IOL is perhaps the best-equipped playground on the planet.

"It's very dazzling and it hurts your brain," Goubert said. "It's a constant struggle, because when a new release comes out, you have to learn the new commands and setup procedures. But then again, it enables you to try the latest protocols and technologies as well."

During a tour of the wireless testing area, we saw numerous access points, finished products and unfinished circuit boards, from well-known firms and from smaller companies that are still in "stealth" mode. Around another corner were dozens of PC cards from every manufacturer imaginable.

Nearby was Azimuth Inc.'s W-1000 radio frequency isolation chamber. Goubert said the device, which looks like a meat locker shrunk down to the size of a dorm room refrigerator, simulates a myriad of wireless testing scenarios while blocking interference from nearby cell phones and the like. The unit costs $100,000 and, when it arrived at the lab five months ago, it was only the second one in existence.

Goubert said the W-1000 is most often used to test signal rate, quality and bandwidth in an environment in which a PC card roams from one access point to another. "If you were to do a test like this in real life, you'd need a soccer field," he said.

Over in the IPv6 testing area, students were using a Polycom IPv4 videoconferencing system running a IPv6 native link over Internet2 to connect to remote sites. Gerard said that similar systems will be used in years to come to bridge the gap between IPv4 and IPv6, but "most of the world won't be using anything like this for 10 years."

Later this month, the IOL will be launching a semi-permanent, distributed IPv6 network that more than two dozen equipment vendors will use to test the interoperability of IPv6 products, the largest such test to date.

The passion behind the protocols

There's certainly no shortage of equipment at the IOL, and when it comes to the future of networking, there's no shortage of opinions, either.

When asked about Gartner Inc.'s recent research note advising enterprises to deactivate Bluetooth on their mobile devices, Goubert said the short-range wireless technology is hardly a risk.

"In somebody's view, it's not secure enough, but I think for most people it is," Goubert said. He noted that, beyond 10 meters, it's impossible to "bluesnarf" data from any Bluetooth device, and users can easily put their devices in silent mode to prevent any data theft.

Regarding storage networking technology, Goubert said it's becoming clear that Fibre Channel is on the way out and that iSCSI is gaining momentum, thanks to interoperability advances. This is true even though the Internet Engineering Task Force has created Fibre Channel over IP "to make Fibre Channel more like iSCSI," he said. "It's a dying gasp to make Fibre Channel viable for a few more years" -- primarily because it's entrenched in so many data centers.

Bob Noseworthy, the IOL's manager in charge of 10 Gigabit Ethernet testing, told us that it may seem like the average enterprise may never have a need for 10 Gigabit Ethernet, but larger companies that rely on robust databases or extensive data mining already need it to improve network performance.

For more information

Learn the differences between IPv4 and IPv6.

Read about one of the IOL's iSCSI tests.

"As companies put more storage out on the network and use more video over IP, there will definitely be a need for it," Noseworthy said.

The time students spend cutting their teeth in the lab is always worthwhile. Goubert said that, in return for helping vendors improve the quality of their products, the students are rewarded with full-time job offers. In fact, the lab boasts a 100% job-placement rate since its creation 16 years ago.

However, Goubert, Noseworthy and many of networking's other brilliant young minds have chosen to ignore the money and opportunity that the private sector offers to instead remain at the IOL after graduation. Why?

Goubert said it's because he truly believes in the IOL's mission to advance the networking industry while teaching tomorrow's network engineers. Even though he's worked in the lab since 1997, he said he still learns something new everyday.

"On a given day, you may think everything's going to go smoothly," Goubert said, "but then something goes wrong, and that's what's really interesting."

Read more stories by News Editor Eric B. Parizo.

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