High-calibre network infrastructure for Empa & Eawag

Empa and Eawag recently received a direct, redundant network connection from headquarters to SWITCH, a redundancy upgrade at three external sites with fibre optics, and an optical private network (OPN) service from SWITCH for the transparent integration of all sites into the internal network. Looking back on an unusual project.

Text: Séverine Jagmetti, published on 03.10.2017

It is unusual for SWITCH to be able to integrate four sites into its SWITCHlan backbone at once for a new network customer: the headquarters in Dübendorf (Empa/Eawag) and other sites in St. Gallen (Empa), Thun (Empa) and Kastanienbaum (Eawag). At the same time, it was also the last of ETH’s research facilities to be directly connected to SWITCH.

Completion of a mammoth project

Before the SWITCH upgrade, both organisations received their network services from ETH Zurich. In other words, they were already longstanding customers of SWITCH, using services such as SWITCHaai and SWITCHconnect. Even though Empa and Eawag’s primary IT contacts were not with SWITCH, there was no need for introductions. A direct connection had already been a topic of discussion for a long time, and the contract was awarded in the spring of 2016. This was the start of a major project headed by Ernst Heiri at SWITCH and by Patrick Sigrist at Empa/Eawag to address the major changes also needed at Empa/Eawag. In-house cabling had to be installed, along with new firewalls and network devices for the transition to SWITCHlan.

All of the network specialists in the SWITCHlan team were involved in the implementation and took on various smaller tasks to make possible the close interaction required between all network disciplines.

  • Planning and coordinating fibre-optic connections with suppliers and the customer’s site managers
  • Measuring the fibre-optic cable, planning the optical layout and the furnishing of the components
  • Planning the network architecture together with the network specialists at Empa/Eawag
  • Configuring and installing the devices and migrating the network services

During the visit to Dübendorf, Dr Gabriel Piepke, Head of IT at Eawag and Stephan Koch, Head of ICT at Empa, were clearly pleased with the successful implementation of the project. Empa and Eawag have been connected to the SWITCH backbone since 4 July 2017, meaning that they now get all of their network services from SWITCH. The OPN network in St. Gallen and Kastanienbaum was connected in August. On 4 September, the OPN was finally connected in Thun as well. “For me, this was the point at which I said the project is finished and we now get all of the services we need from SWITCH,” says Koch.

An outstanding infrastructure for the future

Addressing the question as to why the two organisations opted for the solution from SWITCH, Piepke said: "It was an opportunity to implement full redundancy at all locations, meaning that we have two separate lines and two routers at all locations. It also offered us the possibility of scalable solutions in the future."

After commissioning, Empa and Eawag will have the ideal infrastructure in operation. In the future, it will be possible to meet all needs – particularly those of researchers who work with large data volumes – without having to make major changes. What is essential for this target group is also the direct connection between SWITCHlan and the Swiss National Supercomputing Centre (Centro Svizzero di Calcolo Scientifico, CSCS).

"We were impressed by the availability and scalability offered by SWITCH – that is, the ability to increase bandwidth if needed, without having to adopt new topologies or technologies. This will ensure we won’t max out our capacities."

Dr Gabriel Piepke, Head of IT at Eawag

SWITCH’s OPN service, which replaces formerly leased lines, also appears to be very important to the IT heads. For external locations, all services can now be offered centrally, because high-availability, high-performance connections are available for this. The failure of individual lines will be highly unlikely in the future.

Adept implementation at remote locations

The integration of the external sites proved to be a tricky undertaking. "Different problems kept cropping up at each location. We had to keep checking whether fibre-optic cable was available, where exactly it ran, and where new infrastructure was required. All of this with an eye for optimal redundancy, feasible costs and timely implementation," stressed Piepke. After an intensive search and evaluation of potential solutions, the sites were integrated largely with fibre optic cable from UPC. Each site required new (sometimes cumbersome) installation of building infeeds and cabling:

  • Dübendorf (Empa/Eawag): The headquarters was connected firstly via SBB’s fibre-optic cables to ETH Zurich and secondly via a new fibre-optic connection from UPC to the point of presence (PoP) of SWITCH at the MeteoSwiss location at Zurich Airport.
  • In St. Gallen (Empa): In St. Gallen, new fibre-optic lines were connected between the Pedagogical University of St. Gallen in Gossau and Empa as well as from Empa to the Interstate University of Applied Science Buchs (NTB) site in Waldau. One indirect effect of this solution is that NTB will now benefit from a redundant connection to the Waldau site, and SWITCH will benefit from the existing fibre-optic connection to the University of Applied Sciences in St. Gallen.

"The task of integrating Empa and Eawag was extremely complex. But thanks to SWITCH, this complexity never felt like a burden."

Stephan Koch, Head of ICT at Empa
  • Kastanienbaum (Eawag): The integration required extensive excavation and cabling. The location now has a redundant fibre-optic connection to the two PoPs at Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts in Horw and in Lucerne.
  • Thun (Empa): This location also received fibre-optic lines from UPC on both sides and was connected with the PoPs in Spiez and Bern. Complex excavation was required here, too. Another challenge was that equipment here is kept in an Armasuisse server room, which can only be accessed in compliance with strict security rules.
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