FREEnet: Russian Association of Academic and Research Regional Networks

A. S. Mendkovich <asm@free.net>
N. D. Zelinsky Institute of Organic Chemistry
Russian Academy of Sciences
Leninskii prospekt, 47
Moscow, 1717913, Russian Federation
Tel.: +7 (095) 1358824
Fax: +7 (095) 1355328

A. I. Rusakov <alex@free.net>
P. G. Demidov Yaroslavl State University
Sovietskaya str.,14
Yaroslavl, 150000, Russian Federation
Tel./fax: +7 (0852) 22 6245

Introduction

One of the typical feature of Russian market of network services is the presence both of numerous domestic and foreign Internet service providers (Relcom, Demos, Sprint, SovAm, etc.), and a rather large group of academic and research networks (FREEnet, RADSIO-MSU, RUNNet, RELARN-IP, RSSI, etc.) as well. The last is caused not only by the size of the market but by some its specific features also.

One of the features is that the most active, large and well-educated group of Russian Internet users is made up of the employees of state scientific, educational, cultural, and health services institutions. Moreover, this group also tends to exploit the most advanced types of network services. At the same time, due to the extremely low level of state funding, it is impossible for these organizations to purchase the network services they need from commercial Internet service providers. These factors stimulate creation and usage of noncommercial computer networks within the institutions. Lower related expenses related to the installation and support of this kind of networks are due to their not being tax deductible. That the institutions are state funded qualifies them for special rates for a number of services--such as leasing telephone lines. Access of these centers to Internet resources can be best provided by one noncommercial academic and research network.

Almost simultaneously with the first commercial network, Relcom, the first noncommercial academic and research network, FREEnet, was established under the Soviet government and continued to develop successfully despite the serious political and economical changes the country faced.

1. General description

FREEnet (the network For Research, Education, and Engineering), a corporate noncommercial computer network, connects the academic and research computer networks of the Russian Academy of Sciences research institutes, universities, higher education institutions and other scientific, educational, and research organizations.

FREEnet was established on 20 June 1991 by N. D. Zelinsky Institute of Organic Chemistry (IOC) of the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) with the Network Operation Center at Computer Assistance to Chemical Research of RAS.

FREEnet's major objectives are:

FREEnet members are provided with basic network services, including:

FREEnet members having computers supporting the NJE (Network Job Entry) protocol (for example, IBM or ES series mainframes) can join the academic and research SUEARN network, the Russian part of BITNET/EARN global network.

These basic network services provide FREEnet end users with:

1.1. Organizational structure and funding

Unlike many other Russian noncommercial networks either established in frameworks of international scientific projects and therefore mission-oriented (such as RSSI [space sciences] or RADIO MSU [high-energy physics]) or created by specific agencies and ministries (for example, RUNNet, X Atom), FREEnet was created as a self-organizing and self-governing structure. Any noncommercial organization can join FREEnet. Member organizations cover all expenses related to their connectivity and internal network infrastructure.

From the organizational point of view, FREEnet is an association of regional networks. According to FREEnet's charter, these regional networks have full scope for their activity and cooperate as peers.

Two factors contribute to FREEnet's strength. First is the absence of rigid, centralized administrative control over the network. Second is its division into regional units that mirror the structure of administrative divisions of Russian Federation. FREEnet is thus able to use regional intellectual, technical, and financial resources efficiently. It is also able to grow much more rapidly than most other commercial and noncommercial Internet service providers in Russia.

The FREEnet activity is both valued and supported by Russian and international academic and research communities. In 1994-95 many FREEnet regional networks were awarded with grants from the Russian Foundation for Basic Research, Ministry of Sciences, and Soros Foundation. The largest grant (US$1 million from Soros Foundation) was awarded to the Yaroslavl regional network. Various domestic and international institutions grants are the primary funding source for the key elements of FREEnet infrastructure, such as international and interregional lines and network backbones.

It should be noted that in some regions FREEnet networks became an important part of the local network and information infrastructure, even attracting the attention of regional administrations, which then began to support the regional networks. The Yaroslavl network even served as a cited example when the support of local Internet infrastructure was included as a special clause in the Yaroslavl regional budget for 1996.

1.1.1. Network Coordination Council

The Network Coordination Council (NCC), which is nominated by FREEnet members, has the overall responsibility for general management of FREEnet. Network operations are based on the FREEnet charter and approved by FREEnet NCC. According the charter, regional FREEnet branches are administratively independent and the regional networks cooperate as peers. The role of NCC is confined primarily to coordination and assistance.

1.1.2. Network Operations Center and Technical Council

The Technical Council takes the responsibility for general engineering and development of FREEnet. Daily technical management and operations as well as backbone control and support of the basic services are performed by Network Operations Center, hosted by the N. D. Zelinsky Institute of Organic Chemistry of RAS.

1.1.3. UNICOR

FREEnet itself is a technical organization, not a legal entity. Therefore, in national and international activities it is represented by its executive body, Universities Network Corporation (UNICOR). UNICOR was established by the State Committee for Higher Education in 1992 as a nonprofit association of higher education and research institutions, similar to the EDUCOM consortium in the United States.

UNICOR focuses on:

At present UNICOR has more than 150 member institutions, both research institutions and universities. UNICOR plays a remarkable role in coordinating the network for the Russian Academy of Sciences and State Committee for Higher Education. UNICOR coordinates projects being developed by its members in the frameworks of various grants provided by Russian Foundation for Basic Research and the Ministry of Science and State Committee on Higher Education.

UNICOR is responsible for an ambitious project dedicated to the development of the National System of Academic Databases. This effort involved more than 40 universities in its first stage (1994-95). A projected 500 organizations will join the project during its second stage in 1996.

At the international level, UNICOR cooperates with academic and research national network organizations in Azerbaijan, Austria, Belarus, Denmark, Georgia, the Netherlands, Poland, and other countries, as well as with international network associations. In particular, UNICOR represents Russia in CEENet, TERENA, and UNICOM.

2. Current status

2.1. Network development

FREEnet grew substantially in 1995, essentially doubling in size. This increase is due partly to the many regional network centers, FREEnet NOC, grants from the Russian Foundation for Basic Research, and financial support within the framework of the State Committee for Higher Education program "National Academic System of Databases and Bases of Knowledge of Russian Higher Education."

By the end of 1995, 77 class C networks were registered in 15 regional branches of FREEnet. The overall number of scientific and research organizations using FREEnet services exceeded 350.

Network topology is presented in Figure 1 and embraces the FREEnet backbone and regional branches in Moscow, Yaroslavl, Chelyabinsk, Chernogolovka (CHGnet), Perm, Novgorod, Nizhnii Novgorod, Voronezh, Kaliningrad-Mytischi, Penza, Kazan, Tver, Rostov on Don, Ufa, and Kemerovo.


Figure 1. FREEnet infrastructure.

Regional networks vary widely in size and internal structure. Some involve only a few organizations; others exhibit a developed infrastructure with hundreds or thousands of active users. Yaroslavl Regional Network, for example, encompasses more than 30 important regional organizations; CHGnet has 14 large LANs of research institutions interconnected by a city optical fiber backbone; the Southern Ural regional network is being used by approximately 50 organizations.

The year 1995 was marked by vast expansion of FREEnet's external connectivity. New direct interconnections (10 Mb) with a number of other Russian networks were established via the Southern Moscow Backbone Network (SMBN) and Internet Exchange at the main Moscow telephone switch (M9).

2.2. International lines

Until April 1996, the main line connecting FREEnet to the global Internet was a terrestrial digital 64 Kbps channel to the Polish Academic and Research Network (NASK). That channel was provided within the frameworks of RFBR's project "Telecommunications Support of RFBR projects." Recently a new terrestrial digital channel with a higher capacity (256 Kbps) was established between Moscow and Munich, cooperatively funded by RFBR and DT AG (Germany).

Two other international channels were established in 1995:

2.3. Backbone development

In 1995 the main backbone node systems as well as the main network servers were upgraded. New Cisco 4000 and Cisco 516 routers installation enable connections for numerous new organizations and regional nodes. They also provide the reliable transfer of large data volumes with minimal delay. At the same time, parameters of a backbone node system such as interfaces, sizes of routing tables, relaxation time of route switching, network management protocols, and so forth, have been raised to the level appropriate for a network of FREEnet's size and substance.

The telecommunication hardware at all interregional lines was upgraded as well. Now the lines are equipped with modern Motorola Codex 326x modems, which provide increased data transmission rates up to 28.8 Kbps and substantially improve the quality of communications despite the low quality of the available telephone lines.

2.4. Network traffic analysis

FREEnet NOC has performed an analysis of network traffic on international and interregional lines. Data were collected on the net management host using Sun Net manager software v.2.2 and analyzed with a set of routines developed by FREEnet NOC specialists.

2.4.1. Regional network traffic

In terms of line capacities, the investigating network infrastructure is rather uniform. All regional branches are interconnected by 28.8 Kbps channels, except Yaroslavl, which has two parallel channels with a load-balancing technique implemented.


Figure 2. Traffic of FREEnet regional branches.

The uniformity of network structure simplifies the analysis of interregional traffic distribution. Average daily totals for all regions are shown in Figure 2. Networks in Moscow, Yaroslavl, Chelyabinsk, Chernogolovka, Tver, and Kazan regional branches form an "advanced" group whose traffic is substantially higher than those of others (see Figures 3a and 3b). In the case of Moscow, the high level of traffic is not surprising considering Moscow's highly developed network infrastructure (availability of high-speed digital communication lines and the large number of universities and institutes with highly developed LANs and advanced users). High-level traffic in Yaroslavl and Chernogolovka can be likewise explained: Both regions have high-speed regional backbones interconnecting a remarkable number of powerful LANs accessed intensively by experienced and sophisticated users. In all these cases, the level of interregional and international traffic is controlled by the channel capacity rather than the needs and capacities of regional networks.

Chelyabinsk, Tver, and Kazan currently have less-developed regional network infrastructures. They do, however, have large communities of experienced network users who make use of most types of network service, thus imposing great load on inter-regional links. All regional branches are expanding rapidly, which determines the dynamics of their traffic averages.


Figure 3a. Outgoing traffic (percentage)


Figure 3b. Incoming traffic (percentage).

It is obvious that the outgoing traffic of a regional network depends mainly on the quantity and quality of the regional information resources. This may be of interest to nondomestic users. One can use the ratio of outgoing to incoming regional traffic to estimate the level of the regional information resources (see Figure 2). The higher the ratio, the more popular regional resources are.

2.4.2. International traffic

The average daily total for international traffic is presented in Table 1. The international line to Poland is used at 90% of its total (estimated) capacity (645 Mb/day) for incoming traffic. The amount of received information is about four times larger than that of information sent. This can be explained by the fact that most network resources used are foreign and by the existence of (mainly) transit traffic from Belarus and Ukraine. The ratio of incoming to outgoing traffic for Ukraine and Belarus proves the point. Figure 7 indicates that this ratio is much smaller than one.

Table 1. Average daily traffic of FREEnet international branches (Mb)

               Outgoing traffic  Incoming traffic
Poland             579.54            152.44
Ukraine             14.95             86.14
Belarus              5.98              7.42

3. Specific features of FREEnet infrastructure development

3.1. Network infrastructure

A three-level hierarchical system has been taken as a model (see Figure 4) for FREEnet.


Figure 4. Hierarchical network configuration model.

Network infrastructure conforming to such a hierarchical model is easily scalable. This feature becomes more and more important as the network grows and becomes more complicated. Lack of scalability will impose an obstacle to further growth of any network in the long run because such a network will eventually become impossible to control. The model used in FREEnet allows both efficient distributed network management and localized, diminished effects of possible crashes of separate elements. The reliability and security of the network are thus enhanced. The model is well matched with modern network technologies. Further, it is aligned with the organizational structure of FREEnet itself. That it is makes it easy to hand over certain administrative and control functions to regional centers of FREEnet. The alignment also leads to cooperative and dynamic interaction between regional branches and the FREEnet NOC.

3.2. FREEnet backbone

FREEnet is organized around a Backbone (see Figure 5) consisting of several interconnected Backbone Node Subsystems (BNS). The figure displays the network of Computer Center of Russian Academy of Sciences, an autonomous subsystem within the FREEnet structure, and external networks directly connected to the Backbone. All the data links of FREEnet in use for the traffic exchange with external networks end up at the FREEnet backbone nodes.

Figures 6 and 7 show two typical BNS layouts, regional networks main routers, and a few institutional LANs. Usually a BNS is equipped with several routers connected via the Ethernet LAN. One of these routers acts as a central router for the BNS (Moscow-BNS002 on Figure 7 and Moscow-BNS041 on Figure 6). The subsystem's central router (Cisco 4000M) has only high-speed interfaces and enough resources to keep the entire Internet routing table in its cache and to efficiently route packets on all interfaces. These interfaces support either high-speed external links or links to other BNSs. Remaining interfaces can be used to connect large regional networks. Yaroslavl Regional Network, for example, connects to Moscow-BNS041 via two parallel lines with a load-balancing technique implemented. Having the complete Internet routing table in the router's cache makes it possible to use defaultless configuration. This cuts out parasitic traffic to networks currently having connectivity problems. In this case, an application requesting connection receives the message "destination unreachable" from the nearest BNS almost immediately, without having to wait for a time-out reply from another defaultless router. Such configuration gives several advantages:

Typical BNS also contains a few less powerful routers such as (Cisco 516 OV 2511) used to connect low speed lines with asynchronous interface. Such routers (Moscow-BNS001 in Figure 7 and Moscow-BNS043 in Figure 6) have a moderate number of memory and productivity characteristics. Each router contains incomplete routing tables and default route matching the central router of this particular BNS.


Figure 5. FREEnet backbone.


Figure 6. Backbone Node Subsystem BNS00.


Figure 7. Backbone Node Subsystem BNS04.

Apart from routers and necessary telecommunications equipment, a BNS may also contain a network management station and/or general purpose network servers. For example netserv1 and netserv2 (see Figure 7) have DNS, NTP, and mail services.

3.2.1. Connection between BNS

The main Backbone Node Subsystems Moscow-BNS00 (IOC RAS) and Moscow-BNS04 (Moscow International Telephone Switch 9) are connected via South Moscow Backbone Network (SMBN) and also via digital 64 Kbps line using ISDN technology (this service is provided by Golden Line Co.).

The link between Moscow-BNS02 (Landau Institute of Theoretical Physics, RAS Presidium Building) and Moscow-BNS00 is a four-wire dedicated line with Codex modems. The modems are using synchronous protocol with data compression (SDC--Synchronous Data Compression). Node Subsystems Moscow-BNS01 and Moscow-BNS03 are linked to Moscow-BNS00 via four-wire dedicated lines with asynchronous short-range modems.

3.2.2. Dynamic routing protocols

OSPF v2 is used as a FREEnet Backbone internal routing protocol. Border routers exchange routing information using IBGP and BGP4 with routers of other autonomous systems. OSPF v2 has been chosen as the main internal FREEnet protocol and is used to exchange routing information with routers of each regional branch backbones. Every region has been assigned an OSPF area number. Since IP address space is being distributed in block routes, receptions from regional systems are grouped, thus decreasing the amount of data in routing tables of other backbone routers. A similar procedure is applied to routes advertised by FREEnet backbone devices to regional backbone routers. In the event that regional routers do not support OSPF, RIP, or even static routing may be used as a temporary solution.

3.3. Network services

FREEnet NOC is responsible for the AC.RU domain for academic and higher education institutions. By the end of 1995, approximately 60 subdomains had been registered under AC.RU. FREEnet servers play the role of secondary nameservers for such important domains as:

All in all there are approximately 100 domains in service. FREEnet NOC also has two servers spooling mail for FREEnet members. FREEnet time synchronization service has three time servers for network members. These three devices are synchronized with each other and each of them is synchronized with three time servers in Europe and America (nine external servers altogether).

4. Information services

Great attention is being paid by FREEnet NCC to the development of information services and information resources needed by FREEnet users. The basic information services are presented at http://www.free.net (INF-0001-2).

The principal information resources of FREEnet (regional WWW servers, electronic journals) with brief descriptions and URLs can also be found at http://www.free.net (INF-0003).

5. New trends in FREEnet development

Data presented above proves that in 1995, unlike previous years, FREEnet was not only experiencing rapid growth and development of network infrastructure, but also development and enhancement of centralized and regional information resources. There is a basis to suggest that this trend will continue in 1996.

Another new trend in FREEnet that became obvious over the last year is the growth of interest from local (regional) administrations to foster Internet development in their regions. The first and pronounced examples are Chelyabinsk and Yaroslavl, where regional FREEnet branches received financial support from regional governments. This support combined with grants from RFBR, the State Committee for Higher Education of Russian Federation can have a great impact on regional network infrastructure development. We can therefore expect further acceleration of regional branches infrastructure and technical resources growth. As a result there is the possibility of increasing disproportion between the Backbone and regional branches. The main task of FREEnet in 1996 is, therefore, to eliminate the disproportion by concentrated efforts to improve the Backbone structure and technologies.

Acknowledgments

We are authorized by the regional network coordinators to make a special acknowledgment to the Russian Foundation for Basic Research (Grants No. 95-07-20035, 96-07-89537, 95-07-19187, 96-07-89568, 95-07-20065, 95-07-20038, 95-07-20082) and Soros Foundations ISF and OSI (Grants TEC100 and TE6100) for financial support of their work in the regions of the Russian Federation.