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Celebrating 25 years of networking innovation

The Granta Backbone Network (GBN) celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. It’s one of the most capable data networks in Europe. It carries data from the Large Hadron Collider at CERN and is preparing to support even more world-class projects, including the Square Kilometre Array.

GBN anniversary logo animated

The first data network at Cambridge was a copper ring network built in 1977, predating the World Wide Web by 14 years. Called the Ethernet Cambridge Digital Communication Ring, it carried around 10MB of data per second – a figure that some domestic customers can still only dream of today!

Plans for an optical fibre network that connected the University’s central mainframe computer with its outlying institutions emerged just ten years later. Work was completed on the first iteration of what we now know as the GBN in 1992, at a cost of £3.9 million. Now the network has expanded to over 200 nodes and 56km of ducting.

The GBN’s underground cables pass through Cambridge’s carriageways, green spaces and even some college wine cellars. When we make maintenance visits to the latter, we have to be accompanied by a member of college staff because of a phenomenon known in Cambridge as 'wine leakage'.

GBN Map V33
The GBN has more than 200 nodes and 56km of ducting.

The GBN is not only used for the internet; it also carries traffic for the LAN, Wi-Fi, High Performance Computing, LORA net, Building Management Systems, Data Centre Hosting and CCTV to the university and colleges. It is also rented out to the MRC, Anglia Ruskin University, Cancer Research UK, City Council and British Antarctic Survey.

The Department of Physics is one of the GBN's heaviest users. The Large Hadron Collider at CERN – the largest science project in the world – currently accounts for 25PB of the data the GBN carries each year. The Square Kilometre Array, which is due to come online in 2020, might be only the second-largest science project in the world, but it promises to generate an exabyte of data per day. If our 40GB connection did nothing but carry data from the project, one day's worth of data would take 6 years and 9 months to download!

The GBN has transported some of Cambridge’s greatest ideas over the last 25 years. We look forward to putting in place the infrastructure to share even more, as Cambridge and the network continue to grow.

Ritchie Carter (GBN Manager)

We’ve also been preparing to support the pharmaceutical company Astra Zeneca, which is moving its HQ to Cambridge Biomedical Campus. Its scientists are hoping to use gene sequencing to tailor drugs to an individual. Their vision is for a person to provide their DNA at a supermarket terminal, which will then be analysed and sent back six hours later. Such a service will involve transferring a terabyte of data per sequence. The GBN fibre connection is already in place for when the building becomes operational in 2018.

The high level of service and continuing expansion of the GBN is managed by Ritchie Carter and Richard Davies.

 

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