UW Information Technology

The UW partners with more than two dozen public institutions to build a data network for the public good

The high-speed network around Lake Washington connects a number of municipalities.

After a new fiber-optic ring around Lake Washington became fully operational in early 2017, City of Bellevue’s Chief Technology Officer, Chelo Picardal, was as impressed by the technological feat as she was about the partnerships that made it a reality.

“When you have trust and collaboration, you can go very far,” said Picardal, also board chair of the Community Connectivity Consortium, a group of 26 public institutions that collaborated on building the ring. The group, which includes the University of Washington and the City of Bellevue as founding members, seeks to collectively improve connectivity throughout the region.

Now that the ring is in place, the consortium is using it to connect schools and universities to enhance learning; hospitals, medical facilities and clinics to improve health care; and government facilities to enhance public safety, transportation and other needs. It is incredibly vital work, said Picardal, as government becomes just as dependent on technology as the private sector.

The ring, supporters said, provides a critical information technology backbone for all 26 members. It has built-in resiliency and redundancy, and allows consortium members to connect more easily to other networks, including major internet providers.

For the UW, partnering with other public institutions to advance the common good is a vital part of its service and engagement mission. The UW is committed to increasing collaboration with other regional organizations to enhance community development, among other goals.

That’s why UW Information Technology (UW-IT), which operates and monitors the fiber-optic network under an agreement with consortium members, championed the ring early on. Three years ago, UW-IT proposed a 10 GB data and voice ring around the lake, pointing out it would be easier and cheaper to work together, particularly because everyone’s needs to move massive amounts of data keeps growing.

“The UW played a key role in getting the ring done,” Picardal said. They are looking out for the greater good, and their leadership and involvement fast-forwarded our mission.”

The UW played a key role in getting the ring done. — Chelo Picardal

One ring, many players

Consortium members installed more than 35 miles of fiber-optic cable to complete the loop, securely connected by six nodes placed strategically around Lake Washington. In all, the ring and related projects have been valued at more than $41 million.

Chelo Picardal, Chief Information Officer City for Bellevue

Chelo Picardal
Chief Technology Officer, City of Bellevue

“With this ring, we are future-proofing our cities, our schools and hospitals. That’s why we have invested in fiber optic and for a very nominal amount of money. I’m stunned all the time about how well this worked out for everyone,” said Picardal, who has served in government for nearly two decades.

For the UW, the ring made strategic and economic sense.

The University’s research community is growing outside the Seattle campus, and the UW needed to find robust ways to connect researchers working at many different locations, said Jan Eveleth, UW-IT’s executive director for Network Programs and IT Infrastructure Services.

“Building a large fiber-optic network on our own would have been prohibitively expensive,” Eveleth said. “Partnering with other public institutions and essentially stitching together a network piece by piece made it more economical and turned it into a big win for all of us.”

The ring proves its value with opening of new Eastside tech hub

The ring around the lake now powers the Global Innovation Exchange (GIX).

The value of the ring was underscored by the September 2017 opening of the Global Innovation Exchange (GIX) graduate institute in Bellevue. Launched by the UW and China’s Tsinghua University, the new school offers a master’s degree in technology innovation and other programs to come that rely heavily on robust IT networks.

The ring, Picardal said, is vital to supporting GIX. “Here, you have a school that’s going to produce massive amounts of data. And now, GIX can move data all through the ring much more efficiently than GIX could have done in any other way.”

When the UW asked Bellevue to help GIX gain access to the ring, the city agreed. It was as simple as running a short line of fiber-optic cable from the school to the city’s nearest connection point, a traffic cabinet that was already wired to the node at Bellevue City Hall.

“It would have been very expensive to provide this kind of (10 GB) connectivity to GIX in any other way,” Eveleth said. “We expect there will be more successes along the way.”

The ring looks to the future

The ring stretches south from Bothell in two directions roughly parallel to the western and eastern shores of Lake Washington, before meeting again in Auburn. Because it is a ring, data can move in two directions. So, if Bellevue is trying to send data to Seattle and the network goes down between Kirkland and Bothell, the data can be rerouted south via Auburn.

“Resiliency of services and connectivity is a key issue for all of our members. We need to have the ability to move data through multiple paths and reach diverse providers,” Picardal said. “No city can afford to do that overnight — and some smaller cities can’t afford it at all. But when we do it collectively, small cities gain access to these technologies. And, ultimately, as the region continues to grow, cities can’t afford to be left behind.

“When you look at our region, the private sector is incredibly well-connected, with world-class IT corporations such as Microsoft and Amazon in our midst,” Picardal said. “Why wouldn’t we want to have our public institutions just as well-connected to the latest technology? With the UW as a key member of the consortium, this is exactly what we’re trying to accomplish — bridging the digital divide.”

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The ring around the lake project was supported by the IT Infrastructure division for UW-IT, which also supports the K-20 Education Network and international networks, including the Pacific Northwest Gigapop, Internet2 and others.