Let the games begin: Algoma U joins ORION

The Ontario Research and Innovation Optical Network (ORION) keeps on growing. The most recent addition is Algoma University College in Sault Ste. Marie.

Algoma U is now connected to a network that stretches 5,800 kilometres, linking to over 21 communities throughout the province. And although ORION, a not-for-profit organization, bills itself as “Ontario’s ultra high-speed research and education network”, the focus is increasingly international. Algoma U is no exception: it will be relying on the network to offer a collaborative MSc in computer game technology with University of Abertay Dundee, in Scotland.

ORION started with seed capital from the province of Ontario and Canarie Inc., a not-for-profit Internet development organization affiliated with the federal government. Now, however, ORION stands on its own two feet. Phil Baker, president and chief executive officer of ORION, promotes the network’s success as both financially self-sustaining and delivering to a global community.

“An institution pays an annual fee based on its size and the number of students,” says Baker. “We want to support researchers, educators, and learners in an environment in which bandwidth is not a consideration. Research is changing dramatically. It’s not local or regional, but international, with expertise tending to be in many locations.”

Danny Reid, Algoma U’s divisional director of information technology services, looked at ORION for a few years after it arrived in Sault Ste. Marie. Joining the network only became viable with the decision to go with the MSc program from Scotland.

Students arriving this past September could begin to take advantage of ORION. A classroom has two screens with distinct feeds – a live view of the remote classroom and another for content. Students then see the class in Scotland, and have presentations, demos, and coding examples presented separately.

“The instructor in Scotland is seeing the Canadian students, too,” says Reid. “We used to have a nine meg connection. Now we have one gig through ORION, and 100 meg over the Internet.”

ORION’s 5,800 kilometres of fibre optic cable is based on 20-year agreements, established in 2001, with underlying providers such as Bell and Toronto Hydro Telecom. About 90 per cent of the fibre is already there, with ORION sometimes making arrangements for last-mile delivery from local loop providers. With financial commitments set until 2021, ORION has developed a self-sustaining business model that works for higher education, research facilities, hospitals and, increasingly, the K-12 market.

“Today we have 16 school boards connected to ORION, approaching 1,000,000 students,” Baker says.

ORION has some corridors lit up at 10 gigs, and major intersecting corridors at 30 gigs. The idea is to keep ahead of demand, and to address the needs of major science research projects that, according to Baker, can be “cyclical and bursty.”

Prime examples are the physicists at Carleton University and the University of Toronto who participate in the large hadron collider (LHC) initiative in Switzerland.

“They need access to a terabit of data with minimum lag,” says Baker.

Outside of Ontario ORION interconnects with Canarie, which provides access to the rest of Canada. Going west, there is then fibre to Seattle to pick up trans-pacific networks. Switching down off the optical layer, and then boosting up, can slow things down. Direct optical switching will get the entire network up to light-speed.

Back at Algoma U the student feedback has been positive.

“They can stay here and get a degree from the University of Abertay Dundee,” says Reid. “This is a real opportunity. The cost of living is lower, and they don’t have to leave Canada.”

And for Baker, having Algoma U join ORION means that Ontario can extend capabilities beyond the major centres, often in niche areas.

“By being able to obtain an MSc in Sault St. Marie means a significant gaming community could develop there. This can enhance innovation in the community.”