NSF FABRIC project completes phase 1, enabling early testing of unprecedented large-scale network experiments

Anita Nikolich
Anita Nikolich, Director of Research and Technology Innovation and Research Scientist

All Phase 1 sites and connections have been successfully installed to create the basis for the international FABRIC infrastructure.

The NSF-funded FABRIC project has made steady progress establishing the groundbreaking network testbed infrastructure to reimagine the way large amounts of data are generated, stored, analyzed, and transmitted across the world. The team recently announced the completion of Phase 1 of the project, marking the successful installation of all Phase 1 sites after overcoming supply chain delays and other challenges due to COVID-19. With the required hardware, software, storage, and fiber optic connections in place, the FABRIC system is available for early users to build and test novel large-scale experiments. 

FABRIC aims to support a wide variety of cyberinfrastructure research activities aimed at reimagining what the future internet may do for distributed protocols, systems, cybersecurity, and science applications. Today, affordable advanced computational and storage technologies are far more accessible and pervasive than when the internet was first built, and FABRIC capitalizes on these technological advances to build an infrastructure where the new internet can be reimagined and tried at scale.

"FABRIC is based on the idea that the 'intelligence' of a network–storage and computational programmability–does not have to be limited to the edges, but rather, data storage and processing can be integrated into the network, something that the internet doesn't support today," said FABRIC principal investigator (PI) Ilya Baldin, director of network and research Infrastructure at RENCI. Baldin further elaborated that incorporating data storage and processing into the infrastructure allows users unprecedented freedom to design new types of experimental networks with different properties and test for improvements over current networks against unique scientific workloads.

The FABRIC infrastructure includes the development sites at the Renaissance Computing Institute (RENCI)/UNC-Chapel Hill, University of Kentucky (UK), and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) and the production sites at Clemson University, University of California San Diego (UCSD), Florida International University (FIU), University of Maryland/Mid-Atlantic Crossroad (MAX), University of Utah, University of Michigan, University of Massachusetts Amherst/Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center (MGHPCC), Great Plains Network (GPN), National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), and Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC). The FABRIC testbed is built on Energy Sciences Network’s (ESnet's) network and fiber infrastructure, with production sites on its backbone in Washington, DC; Starlight; Salt Lake City; and Dallas.

"The team has had a challenging job coordinating the construction of FABRIC over ESnet's fiber network while the network itself was being upgraded simultaneously to ESnet6. The teamwork within the project and collaborations with the research and education network community have been very helpful in completing this phase," said FABRIC co-PI Inder Monga, executive director of ESnet.

FABRIC has over 200 users on the system testing the feasibility of new infrastructure and performing other experiments at the production sites. With the completion of Phase 1, the FABRIC team has made significant progress toward improving and enhancing the user experience–FABRIC now has operational user services, including graphical and programmatic user interfaces for accessing the system, user feedback processes, monthly tutorials to guide new users through registration, and an interactive user forum to encourage community support and engagement. Additionally, the FABRIC team has developed a measurement framework for the purpose of measuring facility operational parameters on a very fine level, and users play an active role in providing feedback on the features of the framework that they find useful.

"This approach of engaging users throughout the development of FABRIC enables continuous optimization of the system, and significant improvements have been made over the past year alone thanks to user feedback," said FABRIC co-PI Anita Nikolich, director of research and technology innovation and research scientist at the UIUC School of Information Sciences. 

Further emphasizing the significance of early users and other key contributors, FABRIC co-PI Kuang-Ching (KC) Wang, professor and C. Tycho Howle Endowed Chair of Collaborative Computing at Clemson University, stated, "FABRIC's true value resides in the scientific experiments it enables. Through engagement with the many early FABRIC users, we have gained valuable understanding of what the researchers need to be productive in developing and running experiments with confident and repeatable results. Our FABRIC student interns have also been highly instrumental in partnering with scientists from different disciplines and creating a wide range of templates that are ready to help early users now."

Additionally, the FABRIC infrastructure can now support much richer experiments than what was possible just a year ago. With the installation of new sites and the completion of control software, experiments are more complex, robust, and realistic, allowing users to tap into more resources at more locations. 

"FABRIC is providing us an opportunity to explore ways to integrate AI-driven security algorithms into the lowest levels of the network infrastructure," said FABRIC user Phil Porras, a program director, SRI fellow, and leader of SRI's Internet Security Group in the Computer Science Laboratory at SRI International. "We envision future networks with the intelligence to combat malicious traffic within the packet switching hardware itself, and FABRIC has been extremely useful in accelerating this research."

Key principles of FABRIC's design include flexibility, scalability, and expandability. In Phase 2, the FABRIC team plans to incorporate additional sites across the country and develop high-speed connectivity between them, allowing for increasingly richer experiments. Additionally, the team is building the functionality for hybrid operation to allow users to scale their experiments beyond the testbed and connect their experiments to the real world. While previous testbeds allowed for either isolated ‘sandbox’ experiments or observational real-world experiments on the internet, FABRIC will provide the ability for both; in addition, FABRIC will help bridge the experiments from a sandbox environment to real-world experiments on the Internet, allowing researchers to test their ideas in a controlled environment and then see how they play out in the real world. As more and more scientists want to work with real-time streaming data, FABRIC will become even more important by providing a place where experiments with scalable real-time in-network processing and filtering of data can be undertaken. This will pave the way to build future production networks friendly to scientific data needs, accelerating discovery and innovation in many disciplines.

"Connecting FABRIC to national research facilities, testbeds, cloud providers, and the current internet will enable a unique environment for experimentation with real-world users and data," said FABRIC co-PI Jim Griffioen, professor of computer science and director of the Laboratory for Advanced Networking at UK. "By interconnecting existing facilities and infrastructure, FABRIC will encourage developers to imagine completely new types of services that can be deployed in support of real-world user communities."

FABRIC is expected to be fully operational and open to researchers in October 2023. 

FABRIC is supported in part by a Mid-Scale RI-1 NSF award under Grant No. 1935966, and the core team consists of researchers from the Renaissance Computing Institute (RENCI) at UNC-Chapel Hill, University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign (UIUC), University of Kentucky (UK), Clemson University, Energy Sciences Network (ESnet) at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab), and Virnao LLC. 

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