|Updated: May 2003||NATO Publications|
The Virtual Silk Highway Project
3. Project Overview
The SILK Project is a computer networking project. It is designed specifically to facilitate the exchange of information between academic and educational institutions in the Caucasus and Central Asia with peers in the rest of the world, by providing basic and reliable Internet connectivity. The project was approved on 29 October 2001 at the Autumn NATO Science Committee meeting in Georgia and subsequently launched by the Science Committee's Advisory Panel on Computer Networking. Each of the eight participating countries received state-of-the-art satellite technology, linking them to the Internet and creating a modern information network - the SILK Network which was fully operational in Spring 2003.
National Research and Education Networks (NRENs) are being established in each participating country, with the help of NATO, to take care of the national networking needs of the education and research institutions. NRENs are responsible for determining the acceptable use policy for their networks, including who the users are, the eligibility requirements for network use and for what type of research and projects the network can be used. However, to the extent that these NRENs use the SILK Network, they must abide by the acceptable use policy applicable to the European NRENs through which traffic must pass. While these policies are not unduly restrictive, they do constrain the traffic to be non-commercial.
The type of technology used for the SILK Network includes the ability to employ modern data caching techniques. A caching engine is located at each SILK site in the eight participating countries so that when a user requests information, there will first be a check to see whether the information is already in one of these caches. If it is found to be in one of the national caches, the information will be retrieved from there rather than through the satellite connection. These caching techniques allow for further improvements in the effective bandwidth (see "What is bandwidth?") achieved (the time required to transmit and receive bandwidth), resulting in savings of bandwidth of 30 per cent and a generally more efficient and economical network. Information can be cached according to a variety of criteria, including content, ageing policies or size.
The SILK infrastructure also includes an Internet Exchange Point which is a meeting place for local Internet Service Providers. The Internet Exchange Point allows the Internet Service Providers to exchange national Internet traffic, thereby bypassing the use of expensive international connectivity for domestic interactions. This particular feature of the SILK Network has significant financial benefits for the domestic Internet economies of the participating countries.
The whole system is monitored and controlled by the SILK Network Management, Monitoring and Control Centre (NMMC). It is crucial for the system to be monitored for several reasons, for instance to ensure that an accepted quality of service is maintained, detecting when maintenance is required and providing an indication when upgrades are necessary. Effective management of the system is also necessary to make certain that the satellite bandwidth of each user country remains within acceptable limits and they receive the bandwidth levels allocated to them successfully, without depriving the other participating countries of their allocated share. In addition, it will be necessary to allocate supplementary bandwidth to special events and to change the cache characteristics when required. A SILK Network Operations Centre (SNOC) has been set up in Hamburg offering a Help Desk (with Russian-speaking staff) to answer networking questions, to report problems, to provide maintenance support and to liaise with EurasiaSat - the satellite provider. The Help Desk also monitors bandwidth capacity in order to determine whether there is too much or too little available for the network's needs.
NATO has received considerable support from other sources to help make the project a success, including from Cisco Systems and Deutsches Elektronen-Synchroton (DESY). Cisco, a multinational electronics company, has donated US$400,000 worth of equipment to be installed at the eight national stations. DESY, a German research institute based in Hamburg, volunteered to host the European hub and provide technical management of the network - a service valued at US$350,000. DESY has also agreed to connect the SILK Network to GÉANT - the European Union's pan-European Gigabit research network - which will link SILK users to numerous other research networks around the world. This service is valued at US$125,000. In addition, the European Commission is providing funding (at US$220,000) to two European universities - University College of London and Groningen University - to provide project management and infrastructure support services.
What is "bandwidth"?
The term "bandwidth" refers to the ability of a computer network or other telecommunication system to transmit signals. The concept of "bandwidth" can best be understood if you think of trying to fill a bathtub with water from a pipe. A thick pipe (in network terminology: with Megabits per second) will fill your bathtub in just a few seconds (time to download information from the web). A thin pipe on the other hand (in network terminology: with kilobits per second), will take significantly longer to fill the bathtub. Each of the participating countries in the SILK Project will be allocated a minimum bandwidth capacity of 3 Mbps and will also be entitled to make use of the unused bandwidth of the other participating countries. This represents a significant improvement from the existing system and will lead to much more reliable, efficient and rapid Internet connectivity for the eight recipient countries.
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NATO Public Diplomacy Division, 1110 Brussels, Belgium, web site: www.nato.int