ESnet’s Michael Collins Now Planning Next Stage--Retirement

Michael Collins

July 6, 2011

In his 32 years with ESnet and its predecessors, Michael Collins said one of the most important things he’s learned is how important it is to carefully make a plan—and then follow it. That approach worked when ESnet was formed by combining two separate networks, when the national network was built, and each time a new technology was introduced to upgrade the network and related services.

Job one is to provide seamless networking to support DOE and its research missions, said Collins. It’s a testament to how well the staff has done their jobs that many people who rely on ESnet aren’t even aware of the network, he adds. “ESnet is the premier research and education network in the U.S., if I do say so myself,” Collins said. “There’s a tradition of customer service that is ingrained in ESnet and we instill it in new employees. Everyone pulls together to solve problems.”

But after more than three decades, Collins has decided to retire and let the younger generations of networking experts do the job. “After all these years, I’m done. I don’t think I’ll ever read another article on networking.”

Collins originally studied chemistry, earning his bachelor’s degree from UC Davis. He entered a graduate program in biochemistry at UCLA, but returned to his hometown of Pleasant Hill to teach at Diablo Valley College. He wasn’t there long, but he did take a class in programming after seeing a fellow student carry around a box of punch cards as he learned how to program an IBM 360. Collins himself learned how to program on a PDP 11, a 16-bit minicomputer sold by Digital Equipment.

It turned out that was the same programming model used at the Magnetic Fusion Energy Computer Center (MFECC) at Lawrence Livermore National Lab. Collins applied and was hired into the center’s Data Communications Group. The MFECC was later renamed NERSC and the networking activity evolved into ESnet. Back then, everyone wrote their own software—even the center’s Cray-1 supercomputer was delivered without an operating system, so Livermore staff wrote the Cray Time Sharing System for it.

“I remember when we stopped writing our own router software,” Collins said. “At first it was a little scary to stop writing and start buying routers, but by the end of the first year we never looked back.”

In the mid-1980s, DOE decided to combine MFEnet at NERSC with HEPnet, a separate network serving the high energy physics research community, to form ESnet. The two networks were based on different protocols, so the potential for turf battles loomed. But unlike other agencies, DOE had a smooth transition. Once you get things up and running, a lot of the apprehension goes away, Collins said. The first thing the network team did was establish the video links on which the physicists relied.

As part of this effort, Collins’ group was renamed Special Projects and their first project was to create a detailed routing plan for the new network. “It was a big document and it was the mechanism for us to establish our credentials with the rest of the Internet community and prove we weren’t going to break things,” Collins said. “We had to learn how to run a network.”

And each time ESnet upgraded its infrastructure, such as moving from T1 (1.5 Mbps) to T3 (45 Mbps) lines in 1994, or becoming the first major network to convert to the new Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM) technology in 1995, Collins was often the first person to bring up the new router or other piece of technology. He did so until ESnet deployed the Bay Area Metropolitan Network in 2005, providing redundant 10 Gbps lines connecting all DOE research sites in the Bay Area.

“Now it’s time to let the other, newer generations take over,” he said, adding with a smile “I don’t even know the router password anymore.”

Also, at each step of the way, ESnet staff work with and train their liaisons at the various connected sites on how to use the new networking equipment. The biggest transition was ESnet’s move from Qwest to Level 3 as the main provider of bandwidth in 2006-07. “We have to move all of our production traffic over to new lines and new hubs and it had to be seamless so no one would notice,” Collins said.

The key? Thorough planning and preparation. “We spend a tremendous amount of time planning so that by the time the staff install new equipment they can just drop it into place – no one’s still typing out configurations. All the things the group does have gotten more complex and there are far more things to do than people to do them, so step-by-step planning has been key.”

This methodical approach is also being followed at ESnet begins building a 100 Gbps prototype networking linking supercomputers at Lawrence Berkeley, Argonne and Oak Ridge national labs and a network peering point in New York under DOE’s Advanced Networking Initiative.

Over the past eight years, since Bill Johnston was appointed head of ESnet, the network has gotten more active in the international community, bring more visibility to ESnet, Collins said, and this is increasing under Steve Cotter’s leadership. ESnet is a partner in many collaborations and shares its expertise with others, such as on the site with tips for improving networking performance.

Collins plans to retire to his home in Davis, where he moved after ESnet moved to Berkeley Lab in 1996. He found a house he and his wife liked, and he still had fond memories of the city where he went to school. One of his favorite student memories was seeing a band called the Golliwogs play at a local pizza and beer joint. Not long after that, the group changed its name to Creedence Clearwater Revival and hit the big time.

Collins hopes to do some traveling, but would also like to work on his creative side, learning how to work with pottery and take some classes in sketching. While he’s done with networking as a career, he still has a warm spot for his colleagues.

“It’s been a fantastic group of people to work with. They like each other, they like what they’re doing and they like what their colleagues are doing,” he said. “And you know the work is interesting because there is so little turnover in ESnet. Most of these people could get jobs anywhere.”