Chicago may net another 'world's busiest' designation - Ameritech operates an Internet O'Hare

March 14, 1999

Reprinted from the Chicago Tribune
By Jon Van, Tribune Staff Writer

The cyberspace that computer enthusiasts visit daily may seem divorced from real geography. But in fact it has a rather solid connection to the physical world that runs right smack through downtown Chicago, which is among the world's busiest Internet connection points.

The techno-gurus who make the World Wide Web work describe the Network Access Point, located in a building in Chicago's Loop and operated by Ameritech Corp., as the information technology equivalent of O'Hare International Airport.

"You can think of the information bits as being like passengers," said Andrew Schmidt, product manager of Ameritech's NAP service. "Lots of airlines fly into O'Hare to bring passengers who never leave the airport. They leave one plane and board another plane to go somewhere else. That's what happens to information bits at our NAP."

Of course, Chicago's NAP doesn't look or sound much like an airport.

Nestled in a corner of a floor in one of Ameritech's downtown office buildings--the company doesn't want to say which one--the facility is a collection of electronics apparatus stacked on racks, humming away quietly. There are few people, and the room's main impression is the steady sound of blowers that keep the equipment cool.

There are dozens of small network access points around the country and other super big ones on the East and West Coasts, but Schmidt said that Chicago's NAP is growing faster than the others and could become the world's busiest sometime later this year.

One reason for this growth, Schmidt said, is that when Ameritech started the NAP earlier in the decade, it selected a network architecture technology called asynchronous transfer mode switching, or ATM, that has since become the industry standard.

The two coastal network access points selected different technology that didn't scale up as well to handle growing capacity demands, said Schmidt, and have since had to remake their facilities to look more like Ameritech's.

Ameritech has 60 Internet service providers that have large capacity information pipes running directly into its NAP and signs up another two to four each month, Schmidt said. But it also serves research universities, national laboratories, government agencies and foreign Internet users that buy connections directly to Ameritech's access point. Schmidt said he expects that soon large companies that use the Internet extensively will buy their own direct connections to the NAP.

The various customers connect directly to the Internet in Ameritech's network room and also connect to each other. Researchers developing the next generation of the Internet say that Ameritech's cooperation boosts their efforts. They also suggest that the NAP represents a huge educational and commercial opportunity just waiting to be tapped.

For example, Japanese university researchers who need to communicate with colleagues in Germany may run a connection directly to Chicago where it hooks into an information pipe running to Europe.

"We're getting everybody to connect up here in Chicago," said Tom DeFanti, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "The universities really provided the first customer base for Ameritech. We're the ones that demonstrated there was a real market for a network access point."

Chicago's research universities, Argonne National Laboratory and the Supercomputing Applications Center in Urbana formed the core of what became a Midwestern research network that formed the hub of the original network access point.

Today, universities from Europe, Canada and Asia are buying connections to the point so they can communicate more efficiently with one another as well as with American colleagues, DeFanti said.

"What Ameritech did was to solve a very difficult problem, providing something that works very reliably," said DeFanti. "People are willing to pay money to get something that works because it's real easy to pay money to get something that doesn't."

The growing popularity of Chicago's NAP bodes well far Chicago's future in the Information Age, said Larry Smarr, director of the Urbana-based supercomputing application center.

"There's a natural emergence of supernodes where high levels of connectivity occur," Smarr said. "Once they lock in, they can stay in place for 50 years. The Internet is really just beginning to gel now."

It is imperative, Smarr said, that a proposal called the Illinois Century Network get under way this year. This project, which has the backing of Gov. George Ryan, will build high-speed connections from schools, libraries and other locations around the state to the network.

The only thing to threaten Chicago's role as a key player in the nation's information infrastructure, said Smarr, is "self-satisfaction. In this business, if you're not constantly driving to be No. 1, you can become an also-ran overnight."

While capacity demands on data networks have multiplied exponentially as Internet popularity has soared, experts expect that really explosive growth is still ahead in the form of high-quality video.

"You have some video on the Internet now, but it's bad video," said Joe Mambretti, director of the International Center for Advanced Internet Research based at Northwestern University, which will open next month. "The future will bring high-quality digital video that wil1 revolutionize the way people do business."

Mambretti's research center will experiment with such video applications as well as with advanced infrastructure such as an all-optical network. The close relationship between Ameritech and the researchers is mutually beneficial, he said, because it gives computer scientists the resources they need to do their work while helping to keep Ameritech up to speed on what future performance demands it is likely to face.

Among the commercial Internet service providers that use Ameritech's NAP, the biggest is Conxion Corp. of Santa Clara, Calif., which accounts for about 12 percent of the traffic that flaws through the Chicago facility. Services like Conxion are attracted to the large access points, said Antonio Salerno, the firm's chief executive, because of all the opportunities for interconnection.

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