Along the 38th Parallel — dividing the center of the Korean peninsula on the border of North Korea and South Korea — lies the Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, which is a landmined, barbed-wired no-man’s land that exists under the constant watch of snipers in guard towers. Created as a buffer between the warring Koreas and their allies at the end of the Korean Conflict in 1953, the DMZ — despite its name — is the most heavily militarized border on the planet.

 

Anything that attempts to cross it faces almost certain death.

 

This concept of a buffer zone — a protected void in a hostile world — is the model being used by the scientific and academic communities to harness an alternative Internet so powerful that it is now reserved only for government agencies, scientists and experimental university networks.

 

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Giant Pipes, Supernetworks and Unimaginable Speed

 

Supercharged networks such as ESnet — which is used by the Department of Energy — and Internet 2 — a non-profit, global collaboration in use by universities, industry and governments — have made enormous, 10 Gbps pipes a reality. These giant pipes can beam huge amounts of data between colleagues or agencies at speeds so blindingly fast that they put to shame the Internet you currently use at home or at work.

 

The following analogy has been used for context: If the pipes connecting the Internet as you know it were a fistful of drinking straws, these supernetworks would be three or four firehoses.

 

Supernetworks have enough bandwidth to transfer astonishing amounts of data with incredible speed — a full terabyte in just 20 minutes. As one analysis of the future of supernetworks pointed out, however, there is a major hurdle standing between us and all the speed and power of unconstrained bandwidth: stateful firewalls.

 

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Stateful firewalls are a common security measure used by administrators to filter and monitor data coming in and going out of a network, and to block any data deemed hazardous. When data travels through this intrusion-detection system, it is slowed down — a lot.

 

Tests have shown that the super-robust 10 Gbps pipes slowed down to a mere 500 Mbps — at best — when a firewall filtered the transient data. Usually it trickled at about 200 Mbps.

 

What do those numbers mean in reality about the drag firewalls put on data?

 

According to an expert in the supernetwork future analysis, “it becomes faster to FedEx” that same terabyte of data, which would have taken just 20 minutes to travel through a supernetwork without a firewall.

 

The Firewall/Security Conundrum and DMZ

So, firewalls provide the simplest and surest protection against malicious attacks and data breaches, but they clog data flow so dramatically that even the biggest pipes on the most supersized networks become, well, not so super. So the conundrum is between fast, powerful supernetworks that are vulnerable and prone to attacks, or safe networks that are painfully slow.

 

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The solution? Like the two perpetually warring Koreas, a buffer zone, or DMZ, can be created to allow a free flow of data through the center of a network. Instead of filtering all passing data, like a firewall, a DMZ allows data to flow unrestricted through a channel that is ferociously guarded on its perimeters.

 

According to PC Mag, a DMZ is “a middle ground between an organization’s trusted internal network and an untrusted, external network such as the Internet. Also called a ‘perimeter network,’ the DMZ is a subnetwork (subnet) that may sit between firewalls or off one leg of a firewall. Organizations typically place their Web, mail and authentication servers in the DMZ.”

 

Designed for the massive data transfers that are routine between colleagues in the academic and scientific worlds, Science DMZ takes the DMZ concept to the next level. Through a complicated series of adjustments and innovations (think non-stateful firewalls run on Linux servers, IP addresses and port numbers blocked by control lists, the introduction of NetFlow analysis and switching IDS clusters from in-line to passive) security is pushed to the perimeters of the network, creating an empty tunnel for data to pour through.

 

Science DMZ for the Business World?

 

The future of Science DMZ is uncertain for traditional businesses and industries. Right now, the technology is relegated to the insular fields of science, government and academia, which have the luxury of blocking out everything except for the collaborators with whom they’re sharing massive piles of data. Most entities using Science DMZ networks are in situations similar to that of the US Department of Agriculture, which recently solicited proposals to construct a Science DMZ network for their chief scientific in-house research agency, the Agricultural Research Service.

 

But smaller, traditional networks that aren’t centered around high-powered computing — or HPC — could eventually benefit. The segmented, modular nature of DMZ means that businesses would have to adapt to networks void of email, e-commerce and Web servers.

 

Many industries could benefit.

 

Take construction, for example. A new technology called building information modeling — or BIM — is replacing old, hand-drawn architecture blueprints and even 3D modeling software. The complex BIM software does much more than draw models. It identifies potential problems with materials and with structural engineering, it unites different trade contractors into a cohesive model and provides complex, detailed analysis for the entire life of a building.

 

BIM models generate mountains of data. With a Science DMZ network, contractors could realistically share the enormous data packages on which BIM models are built with architects, building owners, engineers, etc.

 

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Supernetworks with giant data pipes are a reality. The trick is creating a passable channel for data to flow through that is unimpeded by the drag of firewalls. The Science DMZ concept has revolutionized how everyone from biologists to astronomers to governmental agencies share data. If what we’re witnessing in their niche intellectual communities trickles down to the business world, the future of data transfer is limitless.