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The MaRS Mission

Fueled by a robust data network infrastructure that supports voice, data, video and audio-visual technology, the rules of convergence are being re-written in a 70,000 square foot structure located in Toronto's Discovery District.


November 1, 2006  


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In case you missed it, various news media recently reported the existence of intelligence on MaRS. With due respect to H.G. Wells, we hasten to add that we are not talking about the angry red planet here, but the MaRS Centre, a Toronto building complex designed to foster science and technology innovation and help bring new products to market.

The news reports originated with an announcement from The Intelligent Community Forum (ICF), a global think tank focussing on the uses of broadband and information technology for economic development by communities around the world.

In June, the ICF named the MaRS Centre its Intelligent Building of the Year, calling it a development that would “feed innovation and economic progress for the community.”

This assessment is very much in line with the centre’s objectives of bringing diverse groups together and creating an efficient technology commercialization process.

The 70,000 square-foot facility, which is located in the city’s Discovery District, provides office and lab space for researchers, high-tech companies and start-up firms, along with office space for venture capitalists and a variety of business services firms, such as accountants, lawyers, technology transfer groups and funding agencies.

“Those three communities — science, capital and business — speak different languages, making the creation of an efficient technology commercialization process a challenge,” says Ross Wallace, the facility’s director of corporate strategy. “We are trying to create an environment in which these three worlds can come together.”

MaRS is a provincial institution with a mandate to help foster commercialization across the province.

According to Wallace, the organization’s technology infrastructure will allow it to expand beyond its Toronto base and have a much broader virtual footprint.

“We’re thinking about how people can use the technology that is integrated into the building to project what is happening here in a meaty content-intensive way to other communities,” he says.

10 Gpbs speeds

The job of making these objectives a reality was the prime responsibility of Rob Smith, the centre’s director of IT. Smith was a key figure in the creation of the facility’s network infrastructure, which includes over 10,000 feet of multi-strand fiber optic cable, 60,000 feet of audio-visual cable, and 300,000 feet of Category 6 copper wire cable.

The infrastructure provides connectivity speeds of 10 Gbps throughout the core and a full 1 Gbps to the edge of the network.

“The design philosophy was to go fully converged, beyond the traditional enterprise voice and data component,” Smith says. “We wanted to focus on having a very robust data network infrastructure that could support voice, data, video and audio-visual. For us, it was really about taking the physical space and virtualizing it.”

MaRS opted to go with high-density single-mode fiber and Category 6 cabling so that the facility could provide high bandwidth throughput and also extend these capabilities when necessary.

The building complex is located near the University of Toronto, which houses a fiber path for the research and education-based ORION network.

“We are taking fiber from the university and extending it through the building so having a single-mode footprint made it easy for us,” says Smith. “It is a little more costly but it certainly gives us much more flexibility in terms of long-haul and short-haul fiber requirements. That was really our philosophy: keep it simple; don’t get a lot of different flavours.”

The task of installing the network, however, was made more complicated by the fact the MaRS Centre is composed of two new buildings (with two more under construction) as well as the former Toronto General Hospital, which was built in 1913 and has been given a heritage designation.

Heritage buildings may contribute to the character of our towns and cities, but they can be the bane of those tasked with installing a structured cabling infrastructure in them.

Just ask Mike Spencer, who at the time was the partner in charge of the communications aspect of the project for the consulting engineering firm of Smith and Andersen.

“You have big challenges whenever you have to integrate into a historic building because they often have limited raceways and no pathways to install cabling,” he says. “There’s a lot of work involved, trying to adapt products to suit the spaces that were allocated. You have to take modern-day products and make them to fit within old brick areas and little cubbies.”

MaRS Technical Director Sheldon Khan worked closely with the consultants, as well as with network infrastructure provider CaTECH Systems Ltd. on the installation. He described a typical problem the team would encounter: “There would be a pathway we’d think we could take, but once we started tearing things apart we’d find we couldn’t go that way because there’d be something blocking our way, such as a main steam pipe.

“But we now have a facility that looks remarkably good,” he added. “It has the appearance of a heritage building, but functions like a state-of-the-art building.”

Spencer, a longtime telecom industry veteran who has since formed his own technology consulting firm, Spectech, finds much to admire about the MaRS project.

In particular, he notes that the facility’s approach to audio-visual is “definitely ahead of the curve.”

Pushing the AV envelope

Not only does the network include voice and data, it also services all the facility’s audio- visual needs including presentation imaging and sound.

According to Rob Smith, MaRS has pushed the AV envelope. It is the first venue of its kind to adopt a fully converged AV infrastructure that allows anywhere/anytime access and control, using a local and wide area IP network.

“Typically you put both audio and visual cables in the walls of auditoriums and meeting rooms, so that you have some flexibility in plugging in microphones and things like that,” says Smith.

“All of our AV systems run on top of the data network infrastructure so we can extend them using the CAT 6 cable or fiber using little black boxes, if you will, on either end to extend the video signal. We can actually run the video signal on top of the twisted pair instead of the traditional coaxial cable.”

This converged infrastructure allows tremendous flexibility in audio-visual operations. For example, podiums can be wheeled from room to room and simply plugged into the data network to become fully functional, with working speakers and the ability for laptops to be patched into the room’s screens and the projectors and any other video sources — all without the aid of a technician.

Video signals are routed to the control room and from there they can be sent to any projector in the room or the building. “We can also take the signal and encode it in one of our edit bays and maybe make an iPod podcast out of it,” says Khan.

With the help of technology from Harmon Pro Audio, microphone feeds are turned into data signals, which are routable to all other devices on the network.

“We could take a single microphone and have the audio come out of all the speakers or whichever ones we wanted, or we could point it and have it record somewhere else,” says Smith. “We have full flexibility in terms of routing signals from point A to point Z and any point in between. That really made a huge difference for us in terms of how we operate this space, because now our head count is way down.”

All of this audio visual wizardry may one day help in the creation of a MaRS TV channel.

“Down the road we hope to develop a TV solution, preferably through IP, where we can broadcast or have on-demand MaRS programming,” says Khan. “So if someone wants to view a seminar that was in the auditorium last week, they could access it by dialing into the MaRS TV channel via their desktop or a set-top box and a TV in their office.”

That’
s one more reason why MaRS put in single mode fiber throughout the building as well as the highest bandwidth copper cable available, he adds.

Ultimately, the MaRS Centre is about fostering collaboration, not only among the community residing within its walls, but also among those who access the MaRS environment over broadband connections.

With its robust and fully redundant network infrastructure, the facility has succeeded in meeting its objectives.

William Cassidy is a freelance writer and editor specializing in technology. He is based in Toronto.