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From one end of the state to the other

Unesp's network links 25 educational units

There is in Brazil one IBM SP-2 supercomputer, very similar to Deep Blue, the marvelous machine that faced – and won – a series of matches against the world chess champion, Garry Kasparov. It is located in São José do Rio Preto, in the north of the state of São Paulo, 460 km to the north of the state capital. It is used mainly by researchers from other cities. Professors from Jaboticabal use the SP-2 for work related to the Genome Program. Researchers from Ilha Solteira do their calculations connected with projects for the installation and development of factories on it.

Bought in 1995 financed by FAPESP and a partnership with IBM, the SP-2 represents very well one of the most notable characteristics of the São Paulo State University (Unesp). It covers the whole of the state. Of Unesp’s 25 educational units, scattered over 14 cities, the one closest to the capital, where the rector’s office is located, is in São José dos Campos, 97 km away. To reach the most distant, in Ilha Solteira, on the border with Mato Grosso do Sul, 670 km has to covered. To get from one college to another it is often necessary to cover enormous distances. The same is true of the network, set up with the help of FAPESP’s Infrastructure Program, that connects all these establishments today.

“The network has brought researchers closer together, not just those within Unesp, but those outside the institution as well”, says the head of the university’s advisory services in information technology, Adriano Mauro Cansian. He himself is an example of this. Living in São José do Rio Preto, where he researches and gives lessons at the College of Information Technology, and spending several days a week in São Paulo, where his department is headquartered, he would have to get into an automobile and drive 300 or 400 km when he had to talk to, for example, a researcher in Bauru or Rio Claro. The ordinary mail was very slow. “At best, using express mail, the data would take three or four days to arrive”, he recalls.

Cutting out expenses
Today, a trustworthy e-mail system makes it possible for the information to be transferred rapidly. So much so that the center that stocks the data for the Genome Program was set up inside Unesp – the Laboratory of Molecular Biology of the Faculty of Agricultural and Veterinary Sciences of Jaboticabal. Setting up the network has brought enormous advantages in the administrative sphere, with the elimination of expenses with postage, telephone calls and many, many trips. But it was the researchers who gained most. “A good part of bibliographical research is carried out through the network, without the researcher having to leave his room”, says Cansian. “Previously, you had to wait between 30 and 60 days to receive a copy of an article in an international magazine.”

However, getting to this point called for loads of work and a lot of spending. The first step was to put together the internal networks, the so-called LANs (Local Area Networks). Each unit got its own. In all, 100 km of optic fiber and 600 km of copper cable were used. For the installation of these lines, it was necessary to dig, knock holes in walls, put in conduits, cover them with cement and to add the finishing touches. But all the connections were made with a reliable technology capable of handling high speed transmissions.

The next stage was to join all these networks together in a big system called unespNET. This was the formation of a WAN (Wide Area Network). The long distance lines are hired from the telecommunications companies, but to establish the connections with these lines, over 600 hubs and 30 routers were used. These are expensive pieces of equipment. A single router may cost between US$ 70,000 and US$ 200,000. “Unesp would hardly have been able to put up a network of this size without the financial assistance from FAPESP”, Cansian recognizes. The Foundation even invested in the purchase of radio links, needed for some of the more distant units. Some US$ 12 million were invested in the infrastructure of cabling and network equipment. FAPESP’s contribution, through the Infra I and Infra II programs, amounted to more than US$ 5 million.

Distance Learning
The numbers are huge. Over 10,000 terminals are connected to the network today, including the SP-2 supercomputer, 9,000 PCs, 600 work stations with RISC architecture, and several private computers belonging to teachers, students and staff members. That is not all. According to Unesp’s deputy rector for post-graduation and research, Marcos Macari, the university intends to expand its infrastructure for teleconferencing, in order to provide classes and courses at a distance. At the moment, the costs are too high, since transmission is via satellite. In future, however, with the evolution of the network, the system will become more economical and more practicable.

The infrastructure already exists for these transmissions in Bauru, Botucatu, Guaratinguetá, Ilha Solteira and São José do Rio Preto. The system requires the installation of special classrooms for filming and broadcasting the images. But there are several advantages. Just one teacher can give a class to several cities simultaneously. A lesson in the Veterinary course can be given in Jaboticabal and reach not only the pupils in that city but also others in Botucatu and Araçatuba.

Assembled in auditoriums with large screens showing the picture of the teacher and the blackboard, the pupils have the possibility of asking questions live. The system is particularly attractive for Unesp, which is facing a problem of a lack of professors in various disciplines and various cities.”The problem mostly affects the more distant regions, where the cities lack good infrastructure for housing”, says Macari. In Ilha Solteira, for example, there have been a lot of difficulties in completing the ranks of the faculty. “In spite of the college of Electrical Engineering being located at the gates of a hydroelectric power station, which is a great advantage for students and teachers, the city was unable to attract qualified professionals”, he claims.

Slow printing
For Unesp’s administration, the university could play a larger part in advanced research if it achieved a higher speed in data transmission. The problem is not the university’s, but the public telephone service, still deficient in several places. An example of this is also provided by Ilha Solteira, where, according to Macari, a researcher may take up to two hours to print a magazine article, something that in São Paulo would take just a few minutes. The blame lies with the data transmission system, which still depends on the microwave connection rented from the staff phone company.

There are other bottlenecks, according to the deputy rector, in Jaboticabal, due to the large volume of data connected with the Genome Program, and Botucatu, which has Unesp’s largest contingent of students and teachers, with its two campuses and four university units. “The optic fiber trunks, necessary for providing a higher transmission speed, are still restricted to the major urban centers, where their profitability is higher”, says Macari. The solution is thus dependent on the very development of the telecommunication companies.

A factory with no workers

At the Nucleus of Advanced Manufacture (Numa in the Portuguese acronym) of the School of Engineering of the University of São Paulo (USP) in São Carlos, the computer network is being used for something more than exchanging messages and looking up at libraries at a distance. In a project in which Unesp in São José do Rio Preto is also taking part, researchers are communicating with machines. In the future, the technique may be used in factories without workers, in which machines and robots would be commanded at a distance by means of the Internet.

The stage for this experiment is the Fábrica Integrada Modelo (FIM) or Model Integrated Factory, where the operation of the machines in the machining sector of a factory is monitored over the Internet, by means of a computer connected to the network and of software planned by Numa’s technicians. The software, with animated visual effects, shows whether the machine is functioning and if it is working at full capacity or is underused.

“This is a very important feature”, explains Engineer João Fernando Gomes de Oliveira, who teaches at the School of Engineering and is one of those responsible for the project. “The factory supervisor will often only find out that a machine is working below its capacity when he realizes that the customer’s order is a week behind schedule”, he adds.

The software also gives information on the operation of the machine that can prevent a halt in production. It is programmed to set off an alarm whenever there is any danger. “If the machine overheats, for example, the supervisor will know of the problem straight away, and he will be able to take steps before the equipment breaks down”, says Oliveira.

The researchers at São Carlos are working for the future. In practice, the specialists agree, it is still not possible to control a machine over the Internet, because the web does not allow operations to be carried out in real time. A transmission standard of 100 to 150 megabit per second, which is good for ordinary transactions, is not enough for more sophisticated operations. In an internal network, under ideal conditions, the gap between pressing the button of the mouse and carrying out a programmed task varies between two and three seconds. In a network like the Internet, with its bottlenecks in transmission, it can take ten times more. “With the current transmission capacity of the networks, operating an industrial machine at a distance is not feasible yet”, says Oliveira.

“This equipment”, he goes on “usually requires great precision of movement, which still cannot be achieved over a network. To control the arm of a robot, for example, the position shown on the monitor of the computer is delayed 20 seconds, in relation to the real position”. It is a more complex problem than switching on equipment like light bulbs and coffee machines at a distance, which can be seen in the so-called homes of the future. “If a part is machined with just a few tenths of a millimeter too much, it won’t fit and the whole batch will be lost”, says the teacher.

He reckons that the factory governed at a distance may become a reality at any moment. “It merely depends on one more leap in technology”, he comments. “Nobody can foresee when this is going to happen, what the size of the leap will be, or what the consequences will be, but come it will.” Numa is made up of several groups that are developing technical solutions to optimize productive processes, to reduce environmental impacts, and to promote cooperation between companies. It uses the university network in São Carlos for various purposes, including the integration of those taking part. Based at USP’s School of Engineering, the nucleus has also been joined by researchers from the Federal University of São Carlos, Unicamp, the Methodist University of Piracicaba (Unimep) and the University of Aachen, in Germany.