Thursday, May 19, 2011

ULL Joins Lafayette's 100 meg intranet!

LUS Fiber announced the inclusion of the entire UL Lafayette campus in its city-wide 100 meg intranet today. The press release (copied below—do take a look, interesting quotes from both Durel and Savoie and more) touts this as the "largest collaboration yet." While it is certainly that—there's no larger institution than the university in Lafayette aside from the city itself—the truth is that this is "only" an infrastructure announcement. And infrastructure just ain't all that sexy. But we should excited about this—the real promise of this news is not the bare fact of the instantly larger intranet network but the future such an enhanced infrastructure makes possible.

Infrastructure & Growth Corridors
Infrastructure is always about possibility. The exciting thing about a new highway is not the concrete strip with yellow lines down the middle; it is the growth that occurs along that corridor. (Witness the the ongoing battle between Lafayette, Broussard and Youngsville over annexing the new Ambassador Caffery corridor.)

The new 100 meg superhighway that now tightly links the city and the university will be just as inevitably a growth corridor. The press release emphasizes the benefit to students and faculty who will now be able to access their university based resources with the same huge bandwidth and low latency in their homes that now forces them to come into the office or an on-campus lab. But that is only the most obvious half of the story.

All Lafayette residents will also have the same potential access to the university's intranet resources that faculty and students have. Faculty and students have to get onto the community's intranet to get to the university. So could any other resident. And that is the unspoken possibility here. If you've never worked in a fully wired up university campus you've yet to experience the huge resources that are available there. Universities are the places that have long since gotten used to having a 100 meg (usually ethernet) connection available in every room connecting everyplace and everything. It's wonderful, I know, it used to be how I made a living. Being inside Lafayette's intranet does not, yet, match that experience; the infrastructure is there but content is not fleshed out. By far the largest barrier to full use of Lafayette's 100 meg intranet is that we don't yet have the necessary 20 years to develop the nifty on-network databases, distributed computational power, huge archives of text and video and, most importantly, the habits of casually using such resources that only comes with long familiarity. But university folk do have those habits. And they can teach the rest of us. Then we'd really have a city-wide campus in the best and fullest sense of the word. Universities often talk about doing better by its host communities. Gown-town relations are a perennial problem. This new connection opens up huge areas of possible sharing; sharing that would cost the university absolutely nothing to offer to the rest of Lafayette.

Sure most of those resources will initially be behind passwords but that's just habit born in a day of insecure tech and high costs; today almost any resource that can be exposed to undergraduates could be exposed to the rest of the community. And university students regularly work up projects of community interest that the community would be well-served to know about. Yes, there will be those areas that are rightly cordoned off—certainly nothing that is actively being added to should be exposed to inexpert hands. But those resources are already locked down to keep mere students from fouling the nest. That needn't change.

There is a huge potential here to jumpstart the 21st century community that our stunning city-wide 100 meg intranet proposes. The problem in achieving that goal is not the technology—that problem is solved technically. The problem is not implementation. We here in Lafayette has, with effort, solved that problem. The problem is social. We don't yet know how; we don't have the tools or habits of use that could make our network actively useful to us. That is hugely more difficult to solve than the technical or implementation issues. But we might just have the tools to hand: There could be no better partner in teaching the use of big bandwidth than a university community. And now Lafayette has that. Possibly.

A Note On the Consequences of Generosity:
I've written a bit about generosity and the advantages it entails in the past. This announcement bears witness to the promise of generosity. It would not be possible if LUS had not already generously given the community our 100 meg intranet. If both ULL and the community make the effort this might well turn out to be the agreement that propels the newly enlarged community to a vastly more sophisticated use of its network.

The idea I proposed is that being generous generally leaves open more possibilities for great things happening down the road and so we should be generous where ever we can. But that goes against the grain of received wisdom. Most companies don't give away anything for free. (An exception: look at Google...hmmn?) Not even if they can do it for no cost to themselves. The usual principle seemingly is that selfishness is good—give nothing away. Once LUS realized that it could offer every subscriber, those paying for 10 megs and those paying for 100, access to the same full 100 megs of connectivity within the city for really no more cost they choose to be generous. That's the way we hope our community-owned network will think and LUS Fiber did. It wasn't easy to make that choice because nobody else was doing it that way; almost all internet network providers limit your connection speed at the point at which you join their local network. LUS had to figure out how to instead limit individuals only at the place where our intranet touches the larger internet. It was possible , obviously, but it wasn't the easy no-thought solution to which the rest of the industry was committed. Mostly we all believed that effort would pay off, even if in invisible ways. Small businesses, families and friends would find it easier and quicker to video conference or pass around files. But they'd not much make a big deal out of it. (Nobody expresses much gratitude for "free" stuff, no matter how valuable.)

But in choosing to generously make the entire city a 100 meg campus LUS unknowingly laid the groundwork for this agreement. If all the student in an apartment got was their 10 meg connection this wouldn't have been an attractive deal for the university. As it stands all that LUS and the University had to do was open up a full bandwidth link between the two would have been enormously more difficult and likely impossible if LUS had structured its tiers to speed limit each user at the wall of their home. Cox, for instance, will find this very difficult to match—exactly because they did not choose to be generous with their customers before and don't have a technical architecture that would facilitate it now.

The LUS Fiber Press Release:
LUS Fiber and UL Lafayette Join Forces for Largest Collaboration Yet LAFAYETTE, La. (May 18, 2011) – LUS Fiber is excited to partner with UL Lafayette to bring high-speed fiber connectivity between the university and LUS Fiber subscribers. Students, faculty, and administration now have the benefit of sharing a 100 Mbps peer-to-peer connection when they are transferring information between the university and their home LUS Fiber Internet service. This new partnership is an innovative use of the community-owned network. The LUS Fiber system is now designed to give subscribers a direct path to UL Lafayette when transmitting data. Other network providers have to route data out of their network, onto the Internet and back to the UL Lafayette network. Now, only with LUS Fiber, will information be shared directly between the two systems with no hops out to the open Internet, which provides a faster, more robust experience with extremely low latency. City-Parish President Joey Durel states, “Lafayette is one of only a handful of cities in the nation able to offer 100% fiber connectivity. Our customers are keenly aware of the value of utilizing our 100 Mbps Peer-to-Peer Intranet - at no additional cost. By providing the same type of connectivity to the university, this great community fiber asset will provide our students with a better and faster connection to support their education.” As a result of this new peer-to-peer arrangement, nursing students can view actual live medical procedures in real-time. Graphic design students can share large files with one another in an instant. Engineering and architecture students can upload AND download drawings in a flash, as a fiber system offers symmetrical upload and download speeds. Faculty can communicate to their students faster. And professors can stream their classes online to students that cannot physically be present. “UL Lafayette, Lafayette Consolidated Government and LUS have a long history of cooperation,” said UL Lafayette President Dr. Joseph Savoie. “This partnership will provide direct connectivity between the university and LUS Fiber customers. It’s another successful effort to bring benefits to the university community and the city through cooperation.” In its largest collaboration yet, LUS Fiber hailed this connection as a triumph for university students and faculty who crave higher speeds as apps and programs require more and more bandwidth. And this collaboration is one of the more innovative ways LUS Fiber is seeking to utilize the full potential of its fiber optic network.