A Canarie north of 60

No, folks, I have not suffered a blowout on my computer spell-check; I am fully aware of how to spell "canary." The entity I am talking about, though, is a bird of a very different feather.

No, folks, I have not suffered a blowout on my computer spell-check; I am fully aware of how to spell “canary.” The entity I am talking about, though, is a bird of a very different feather. It is an internet network that has been serving Canada’s researchers and students since 1993, and Yukon researchers and students for about seven years, now – and whose federal funding is now coming due for renewal in some pretty tough economic times.

Though the organization now prefers to present “Canarie” as just a corporate name, like Microsoft or Verizon, the word used to be spelled in all-caps, as CANARIE – an acronym for “Canadian advanced network for the advancement of research, industry and education.”

Though a very accurate description of the organization’s reason for being, that acronym presented a rather thorny transliteration problem as a bilingual trade name; hence the retention of the catchy name and the dropping of its background signification.

My guess is that more than 90 per cent of the people reading this column will not recognize this word, though, either as an acronym or a name. But, trust me, you have, or somebody near and dear to you has, benefitted from the service of this unheralded but extremely important communications network.

Canarie is basically a national internet infrastructure that runs parallel to the public, commercial internet, and interconnects with other provincial and foreign-national parallel internets to carry the heavy traffic of the research and educational communities.

It is a sealed-off, by-invitation-only network funded largely by Industry Canada; and, with cross-country transfer speeds of 10 GB per second, and in some places up to 100 GB, the second-fastet research network in the world, after the USA’s.

(To give you an idea of the scale of that capacity, 10 GB is 2,000 times the speed Northwestel sells you for standard, high-speed cable internet in Whitehorse, and 4,000 times faster than what you get for what they call “DSL classic.”)

The network now spans all of Canada, with a total length of about 19,000 kilometres of fibre optic cable – and with two almost comically small 10 MB connections to the Yukon and the NWT.

One of the benefits of this network to all Canadians is that it allows the nation’s Big Science researchers to transport and cloud-compute data sets of sizes so huge they would bog down the commercial internet to a stand-still – or, in extreme cases, blow out the gaskets of the internet routing computers all across the network.

In the early days, when it was still called CaNet (or CA*Net), this fibre optic network was itself a research-prototype “crash and burn” network on which new routing technologies and methodologies were allowed to be tested, with no apologies to any other users if they failed and trashed the network for a while.

Those free-wheeling days – for both good and ill – are now over, as Canarie has evolved into a must-not-fail research utility that is now expected and obligated to be up and running more than 99 per cent of the time (an obligation it has in fact been meeting admirably for a very long time.)

A substantial amount of the network’s big-data traffic is dedicated to medical research, which either already has, or ultimately will have, direct impact on the health-care treatment of Canadians; other big-data research projects may be of a more abstract, theoretical nature, but they have significant importance in asserting our street-creds in the world of advanced science, and our attractiveness as a destination for the best scientific minds in the world; on top of that, Canarie’s recently established “digital accelerator for innovation and innovation and research” (DAIR) program is now providing cloud-computing power and network access to commercial developers who need a low-cost (currently free) real-world “sandbox” on which to develop and de-bug their network-based products or services.

On the parochial, Yukon front, the Canarie network, as I said, has been providing service to the territory (as well as to NWT) for the past seven years or so – albeit at a much more humble, 10 MB level.

Still, even at that drastically reduced service level, and with virtually no fanfare and a locally shameful lack of public or institutional recognition, it has been returning very significant value for dollar to our schools, our college campuses, and a wide range of Yukon government departments; it connects them via almost-cost-free bandwidth with universities, colleges, schools and research institutions across the country, across the continent, and across much of the world.

If you are at your desk in the Department of Health and Social Services at YTG, for instance, and you want to have a video conference with a health researcher at the University of Toronto (or even the University of Aukland, in New Zealand), the network that is connecting the two of you at your end is the Industry Canada-financed Canarie network.

The same thing holds true if you are a school teacher doing a class video conference with people at the Canadian Space Agency, or even NASA.

Furthermore, Canarie’s proposed new mandate for the five years ahead has a strong theme of promoting the development of Northern research and connectivity.

A word to the wise, then, which in this case is all Yukoners: Let’s not let the Canarie network be like Paradise in Joni Mitchell’s song, where you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.

We need to make sure our decision makers in government and industry make sure the feds – who are admittedly faced with some tough and unavoidable financial decisions – don’t get stupid and let this particular Canarie drop dead.

Rick Steele is a technology junkie who lives in Whitehorse.