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Equipment gift makes UVa a leader in Internet engineering education

From Inside UVA
April 9, 1999

By Dan Heuchert and Charlotte Crystal

Using the Internet has become commonplace in modern society -- type in an address, click on a few links, and images, sound and text from all over the world reach the user's monitor in a matter of seconds. Few stop to think about how it all works.

But more than a few U.Va students will be thinking about -- and studying -- the Internet's inner workings in the coming years, thanks to the generous gift of more than $1 million worth of equipment from MCI WORLDCOM, Inc. and Cisco Systems, Inc.

The gift has allowed the Engineering School to set up its own simulated Internet and offer a new course in Internet engineering this spring. The course -- which enrolled about 35 fourth-year Computer Science majors in its debut and turned away more than 60 other students -- could grow into an entire curriculum, or "perhaps even a new field in engineering," Computer Science professor Jorg Liebeherr said at a ceremony Monday marking the official opening of "VINTLab," the Virginia Internet Teaching Lab.

The lab was also named for Vinton G. Cerf, senior vice president of Internet Architect and Technology for MCI and a recognized "father of the Internet," who was one of the guests at the event.

Cerf cut a fiber-optic cable instead of a ribbon at the ceremony, which will eventually be a dozen "routers" and a "switch." The routers -- pine-green boxes about the size of a dorm refrigerator -- were labeled "San Diego," "Denver," "Chicago," "New York," and "Charlottesville," while the switch, closer to the size of a regular refrigerator, was labeled "Dallas."

Think of a router as a sophisticated relay station. Each "packet" of information being transmitted across the Internet bears an address; the router reads the address and forwards the packet along the most direct route it can find.

Thus, a packet being transferred from the University of California to U.Va. leaves Berkeley and hits a router in San Diego. For the purposes of the demonstration, the usual link through Dallas was disconnected, so the San Diego router redirected the information through the other routers to reach Charlottesville and U.Va.

The presence of the VINTLab in the Engineering School's Albert Small Building "allow[s] us to take a major step forward in our drive to be a world leader in information technology education and research," said dean Richard W. Miksad. "Information technology is one of the four key areas of excellence identified in our school's strategic plan. We are hiring faculty and developing programs in computer science and engineering that will be crucial to the development of society in the 21st century. Internet engineering is clearly one of these."

The ease of using the Internet has made it extremely popular, said Thomas Cicchi, regional manager in Cisco Systems' Richmond office. But that ease can be deceiving, masking a complicated infrastructure that requires more and more well-trained engineers.

"Someone needs to know what's happening in the guts of the Internet," he said. "Somebody needs to know how to run these routers. ... Normally, who educates people to do this? Companies like MCI."

Liebeherr's course covers the technologies and protocols of network management and the Internet. In lab sessions, students are learning to set up networking hardware and software, take and interpret traffic measurements, and understand how protocols of the Internet interact. Students experience the limitations of the current generation of Internet protocols and learn how to debug a malfunctioning network.

The task ahead is much more than maintenance, though. Technology is constantly advancing. When one speaker at the dedication ceremony declared "the sky's the limit," Cerf stepped up to correct him.

The sky is no longer the limit, said Cerf, who holds an appointment as a distinguished visiting scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. There he is working on the design of an interplanetary Internet.

Original Article | Local Copy


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