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Thursday, November 29, 2012

'Industrial Internet' may be the third wave

by Mark Ollig
Should we be concerned about having devices with digital intelligence attached to major industrial machines, and then linking them to the Internet?

Sounds like the making of a sci-fi movie, where all the machines connected to the Internet develop a collective consciousness and decide they know what’s best for the planet, and take control away from the humans. 

“Accelerating productivity growth the way that the Industrial Revolution and the Internet Revolution did,” is the comparison used in a recent report calling for an “Industrial Internet” by General Electric (GE) company’s Chief Economist Marco Annunziata and its Director of Global Strategy and Analytics Peter C. Evans. 

This report has invoked interest – along with a bit of apprehension, from this columnist. 

“The capabilities of machines are not being fully realized. The inefficiencies that persist are now much greater at the system level, rather than at the individual physical machine level.” This quote is taken from the 37-page report: “Industrial Internet: Pushing the Boundaries of Minds and Machines.”

The report works to make the case that the Internet Revolution, which began in earnest around 1995, and brought about many breakthroughs in computing, data storage, global Internet communications, and economic productivity, had already lost its momentum by 2005. 

Without specifically citing, this report states how some feel the Internet Revolution “has already played out.”

It suggests, while businesses and the economy have benefited greatly from the current Internet, some believe the fantastic innovations brought about by the Internet are over. 

I, for one, do not feel the Internet has reached the end of the line for 
“fantastic innovations” just yet. 

The GE report describes three separate “waves” of Industrial Internet progression. 

The first wave acknowledges the machines and factories which brought about the Industrial Revolution, and through the production of goods and services, changed how economies were powered. 

The Internet Revolution is the second wave. 

Beginning in the 1950s, large mainframe computers used software and information packets to communicate with each other within a closed government network. 

When the network became open new protocols were created, allowing different computers to send and receive information with each other. 

This second wave recognized the use of computers and their ability to circulate and retrieve information over the Internet. 

“Rather than resource-intensive, the Internet Revolution has been information and knowledge-intensive,” the report said. 

Now, we move to the third wave, which the GE report calls the Industrial Internet. 

This wave suggests having intelligent, digital devices connected to all the machines used in industry, and then linking these devices to the Internet. 

The report lists industrial sectors such as: transportation, oil and gas, power plants, industrial facilities, and medical machines. 

It also provided a lengthy list of individual machinery each sector uses, such as generators, propulsion drives, thermal turbines, conveyors, compressors, scanners, engines, and many more.

The machines in each industrial sector would have an intelligent instrumentation device attached to them.

“Widespread instrumentation is a necessary condition for the rise of the Industrial Internet,” the report says. 

I believe they are talking about connecting these intelligent devices on a word-wide basis.

We know computing power has been steadily improving because of the advancements in microprocessor chip technology.

The report believes these advancements “have reached a point that makes it possible to augment physical machines with digital intelligence.”

Having so many machines with digital intelligence connected to the Internet would require advanced analytical software tools to manage and understand the enormous amounts of data that would be generated by all of the intelligent devices connected. 

Who would be managing all of the data being harvested by these intelligent devices that are reporting on all of the machines they are connected to? 

According to the report, it will be the “decision makers.”

I’m not the brightest bulb in the package, but being a decision maker in the Industrial Internet era sounds like a good job to have. 

The Industrial Internet era will require advanced educational programs to be developed for software management, diagnostics, advanced network data communications, and more.

The report makes it known the intelligent information gathered “can also be shared across machines, networks, individuals or groups to facilitate intelligent collaboration and better decision making.” 

So, these digital smart-devices controlling the machines will be communicating with each other, too. 

Maybe I should have named this column “Rise of the Machines.” Wait, I think that was used in the “Terminator 3” movie.

Figure four in the report shows how an Instrumented Industrial Machine has its information collected, processed, and shared with “the right people and machines.”

An Industrial Internet Data Loop graphic shows the data path and intelligence flowing into and out of a machine’s data stream, and other shared systems, in a circular pattern around the cloud symbolizing the Internet. The words “secure, cloud-based network” is written on the cloud. 

The report says having an Industrial Internet will recoup hundreds of billions of dollars which are currently wasted by inefficiencies in resources and time.

These savings will be realized by linking “Internet-connected machines, product diagnostics, software, and analytics.” 

With a global gross domestic product (GDP) of $70 trillion, having an Industrial Internet would generate $32.3 trillion, states the report. 

The report says the goal is to make businesses operate more efficiently, proactively, and predictively, and to have the machines used in industry “strategically automated.”

The complete report is available from the GE website at 

Prepare to ride the third wave folks, it’s coming.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Titan the world's 'fastest supercomputer in existence'

by Mark Ollig      

The largest energy and science research laboratory in the US Department of Energy (DoE) is the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL,) located in Tennessee.

ORNL was established in 1943 as part of the Manhattan Project during World War II.

The state of Tennessee, along with universities and industries, partner with ORNL to find answers to challenges in advanced materials, physics, manufacturing, security, and energy.

The ORNL annual budget is $1.65 billion, and is staffed by more than 4,400 people.

The completion of a new supercomputer; its hardware provided and designed by the Cray supercomputer company, was announced by ORNL.

The late Seymour Cray, who was called “the father of supercomputing” founded Cray Research in 1972.

Cray has a Minnesota connection. He received his Bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering at the University of Minnesota, where he graduated in 1949.

The new supercomputer is called Titan, and is an upgrade from a previous supercomputer version called Jaguar.

Titan was recently declared the world’s fastest computational computer.

The LINPACK benchmarks are a measurement of a computer system’s floating-point computational performance.

Titan’s LINPACK benchmark test results were 17.59 petaflops (quadrillion floating-point operations per second).

A petaflop is equivalent to one thousand-trillion (quadrillion) mathematical operations performed every second, so, yes, this is one fast-operating, number-crunching computer.

This bests the previously fastest supercomputer, the IBM Sequoia, which operated at 16.32 petaflops.

By comparison, a standard hand-held calculator operates at about 10 flops.

The Titan supercomputer has a potential processing speed of 20 petaflops.

This supercomputer’s processing power is mind-boggling. An analogy would be if each of the 7 billion people on the planet were making 3 million calculations – per second.

This type of performance, according to ORNL, will enable researchers to obtain unparalleled accuracy in their simulations and obtain research breakthroughs faster than ever before.

The Titan supercomputer boasts almost 19,000 central processors, made up from 299,008 individual AMD Opteron processing cores, 710 TB (terabytes) of random access memory (RAM), and 10 PB (petabytes) of data storage memory.

More than 177 trillion – yes, that’s “trillion” with a “t” transistors are used in the Titan supercomputer.

Power consumption of the Titan is rated at 12.7 MW (megawatts).

The Titan supercomputer is made up of rows of some 200 cabinet enclosures covering over 4,352 square feet of floor space, which is almost the size of a basketball court.

There are metal pipes traversing atop these cabinets carrying coolant to dissipate the heat generated by the computing components inside Titan.

What is the cost for all of this supercomputing power? $97 million.

“Titan will allow scientists to simulate physical systems more realistically and in far greater detail,” said James Hack, director of ORNL’s National Center for Computational Sciences.

The Titan supercomputer is linked to the DoE’s Energy Sciences Network (ESNET) via a 100Gbps backbone.

“As scientists are asked to answer, not only whether the climate is changing, but where and how, the workload for global climate models must grow dramatically,” said Kate Evans of ORNL. “Titan will help us address the complexity that will be required in such models,” she added.

The Titan supercomputer will provide information for modeling climate change, determining weather patterns, nuclear energy models, various technology applications, the calculations needed in researching more efficient biofuels, and developing better energy-efficient engines for vehicles.

I can only imagine how fun it would be playing the video game, Diablo III, using the Titan supercomputer.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Finding the 'physical' Internet

by Mark Ollig     

It all started when a squirrel chewed through a cable and disconnected his Internet service.

This incident led Andrew Blum (a published writer and a correspondent for Wired) to begin a personal quest to learn, firsthand, where the other end of his Internet cable went once it left his building.

He wanted to pull back the curtain, and see for himself where this cable connected to out in the physical world.

For many of us, the physical Internet we see is a cable connecting to a small box with blinking lights on it.

Blum, along with many of us, has seen the famous Opte representation of the Internet; an image resembling a spiraling, Milky Way galaxy.

This image shows an oval-shaped, expansive cloud with seemingly countless, small, colorful, brightly lit dots inside it. Each dot communicates with one another via crisscrossing lines of light.

You can see several Opte Internet images at:

The Internet: a mysterious cloud. “We can never seem to grasp it in its totality,” Blum said to the audience during his TED video presentation.

“What would happen if you yanked the wire from the wall, and you started to follow it? Where would you go?” pondered Blum.

He wondered if the Internet was a place you could visit.

And with that, Blum embarked on a two-year journey; visiting the places and people that make up the physical Internet.

At the 60 Street Hudson building in New York, Blum saw where the router of one network, such as a Facebook, Google, or Comcast, was connected using a yellow fiber-optic cable that traveled up into the ceiling, came back down, and then connected into the router of another network.

“That’s unequivocally physical,” Blum stated.

He found the 60 Street Hudson building interesting because it is also home to about six major communication networks serving fiber-optic cables traversing under the oceans. These fiber-optic cables connect America with Europe, and other parts of the world.

An undersea fiber-optic cable usually originates from inside a building called a landing station, which is inconspicuously located along a seaside neighborhood.

Blum had correspondence with a person who worked for an undersea communications company.

This person told him of a location where he could go and watch a fiber-optic cable being brought onto shore from a specialized cable landing ship.

The location was a beach south of Lisbon, Portugal. Blum was there when at around 9 a.m., he saw a man in a diving suit walking out of the water holding a green nylon rope. This rope was the fiber-optic cable’s messenger line, used to pull the fiber-optic cable onto shore.

About 1,000 feet from shore, the cable landing ship, containing the last leg of the fiber-optic cable, was seen by Blum, just as a bulldozer drove onto the beach.

This bulldozer was used to pull the messenger line; which was attached to the fiber-optic cable aboard the landing ship.

The bulldozer finished pulling the messenger line onto shore, and with it, came many feet of fiber-optic cable.

The fiber-optic cable floated atop the water, as it was attached to buoys, which positioned the cable in the right location.

The man in the diving suit went back out into the water with a knife to cut off the buoys in order to allow the fiber-optic cable to sink and rest on the ocean floor.

Blum displayed a picture to the audience of communication workers using a hacksaw to cut open the end of the fiber-optic cable pulled in from the ocean. It was being prepared for splicing to the fiber-optic cable that had been brought down from the onshore landing station.

“When you see these guys going at this cable with a hacksaw, you stop thinking about the Internet as a cloud; it starts to seem like an incredibly physical thing,” said Blum.

Yours truly was able to chat with Andrew Blum.

Blum has just written a book about his two-year adventure, and was kind enough to answer some questions for me.

B&B: Andrew, you said some people visually see the Internet as the cloud-like image Opte has created. After two years of exploring and writing a book about the physical side of the Internet, how do you see it now?

AB: I now have a pretty clear image of its physical realities, particularly the hubs closest to my home in Brooklyn. When a web page hangs, I often picture my cable company’s router, and curse the traffic on the yellow fiberoptic cable feeding it!

B&B: Many people feel the Internet is connected world-wide via earth-orbiting satellites; however, we know this not to be the case. What did you know about this before you started your investigation?

AB: No, even when I started, I knew it wasn’t connected by satellites. I’d read Neal Stephenson’s awesome piece in Wired from 1998, “Mother Earth Mother Board,” so I had a good starting understanding of the “tubes” under the ocean.

B&B: Vinton Cerf has talked about an “interplanetary Internet.” What are your thoughts about Earth linking its network with other planetary bodies?

AB: I think that fits perfectly with the basic philosophical idea of the Internet: a network of infinite networks!

B&B: What surprised you, or stays in your mind the most during your two-year exploration of the physical side of the Internet?

AB: How small the Internet turned out to be, both physically – the list of its most important buildings is surprisingly short – and culturally – the list of network engineers actively involved with interconnecting networks is also surprisingly short.

B&B: Andrew, is there another technology you would like to someday investigate and write about in the future?

AB: Good question. I’ve been thinking a lot about that now, but I don’t yet have a good answer.

I would like to thank Andrew Blum for taking time to talk with me about his new book, “Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet,” which can be ordered at:

Thursday, November 8, 2012

In search of the Internet

by Mark Ollig
Andrew Blum regularly uses the Internet the way many of us do. 

We sit down at our computer, get comfortable, open our web browser, see our Internet homepage, go where we want to go, and do what we want to do. 

I think most of us take the Internet for granted; we do not know exactly how it all works – we just assume there is some magic Internet genie in a box someplace watching over it.

Many folks believe access to the Internet is as important as having a phone and electricity.

We expect the Internet to always being “on” and available to us.

Blum, a young correspondent for Wired magazine in the UK, described his Internet revelation during a recent Technology, Entertainment, and Design (TED) conference.

Yours truly watched the TED video in which Blum tells the story of how one day, he sat down at his computer, opened his Safari web browser, and saw this message: “You are not connected to the Internet.”

Blum then did what many of us would do.

No, not panic; he called his local Internet Service Provider (ISP).

Blum told the story to the audience about the ISP “cable guy” who came out to the building where he lived to work on the problem. 

Blum described how he and the cable guy proceeded to trace out the path of the Internet cable from his computer to the cable modem. From there, the Internet cable led them to a “dusty clump of cables” hidden behind the couch.

One cable from behind the couch traveled through an outside wall, to the front of his building, and then veered down into the basement. 

From the basement, the cable changed course. It re-routed back outdoors where it joined up with several other cables attached on the building’s outside wall. 

A scurrying noise caught their attention, Blum and the cable guy looked up; they observed a grey squirrel running along the cable. 

“There’s your problem, a squirrel is chewing on your Internet,” said the cable guy.

The thought of a common grey squirrel having the wherewithal to bring down the powerful and mighty Internet by chewing on it seemed to completely dumbfound Blum. 

“The Internet is a transcendent idea. It is a set of protocols that has changed everything, from shopping to dating, to revolutions . . . it was unequivocally not something a squirrel could chew on,” Blum told the audience, which found this sentence amusing. 

A picture of a small black plastic box (about the size of a lunchbox) with an attached red light was shown on the large screen to the audience.

This box was Blum’s Internet cable modem – the magic Internet genie itself. 

To him, this had been the physical representation of the Internet.

Having a squirrel literally cutting off Blum’s Internet led him to speculate about where the Internet cable went. 

He wanted to know how this cable linked into the physical world and connected with the Internet and all of its parts.

He even wondered if the Internet was an actual place he could go to and visit.

“Could I go there? Who would I meet?” Blum contemplated.

His curiosity about what the Internet is made of led him on a two-year adventure investigating the physical realm of the Internet. 

He visited many data center facilities, including one large data network colocation center at 60 Hudson Street in New York. 

The 60 Hudson Street building comprises a full city block, and was the former Western Union building.

It is one of about a dozen buildings in the world where telecommunication’s companies interconnect and route telecom and Internet traffic.

More networks of the Internet connect to each other in the 60 Hudson Street building than in any other building in the world. 

In Minnesota, the largest data network colocation center is the 511 Building, which is directly east of the Metrodome in downtown Minneapolis. 

Your telecom-experienced columnist spent a few months in that building while working for a telecommunications provider.

The 511 Building is also known as Minnesota’s premier Telecom Hotel, because many telecommunication companies have facilities here.

It is a major data hub used by ISP’s and telecom companies to connect with the core routers and primary data “backbones” throughout the country. These connections are made over ultra-high bandwidths using fiber-optic cables.

Think of this data hub like that of the human backbone which distributes signals to the smaller nerves throughout the body.

The 511 Building has over 300,000 square feet to support its multi-tenant telecommunication switching facilities, fiber-optic network system providers, and optical-cabled backbone interconnections. 

The 511 Building has backup data network connectivity, and a technically advanced climate-controlled environment. 

This data networking center has emergency air-conditioning units, dual electrical utility feeds, and multiple backup power generators. 

I was impressed seeing all of the technology, equipment, and people which support telecommunications and the Internet working inside this building.

Here’s a link with some photos of the Minnesota 511 Building; including one with the Metrodome: 

Check back next week, as we follow Andrew Blum’s adventurous search for the Internet.