To mark the major international Telecom '99 exhibition in Geneva, CERN staged a demonstration of the world's fastest computer networking standard, the Gigabyte System Network. This is a new networking standard developed by the High Performance Networking Forum, which is a worldwide collaboration between industry and academia. Telecom '99 delegates came to CERN to see the new standard in action.

The academic scientific community has been at the forefront of networking for nearly three decades. In the pioneering days of the late 1960s and early 1970s, it was computer scientists working on the US ARPANET, the British National Physical Laboratory network and the French Cyclades that got networking off the ground. Later, the US NSFNET and British JANET brought networking to the academic community as a whole. At CERN, the pioneering CERNET of the 1970s was a network of networks before the Internet was born. Then, when the ARPANET became the Internet and jumped the Atlantic into Europe, high-energy physics was, for a long time, its most important user.

Today, networking has entered the industrial mainstream, but laboratories like CERN still play an important role. CERN's contribution to the Gigabyte System Network (GSN) has been the development of a bridge to connect the new standard with the increasingly popular Gigabit Ethernet local networking architecture. The CERN set-up, currently the largest GSN network in the world, is a valuable proving ground for the new technology.

GSN is the first networking standard capable of handling the enormous data rates expected from CERN's forthcoming Large Hadron Collider (LHC) experiments. It has a capacity of 800 Mbyte/s (that's getting on for a full-length feature film), making it attractive beyond the realms of scientific research. Internet service providers, for example, expect to require these data rates to supply high-quality multimedia across the Internet within a few years. Today, however, most home network users have to be content with 5 kbyte/s, or about a single frame. Even CERN, one of Europe's largest networking centres, currently has a total external capacity of only 22 Mbyte/s.