Researchers 'Network' at Virtual Center

By Peter HornerPeter

Networks — the often-hidden connectivity infrastructure behind virtually every business and social transaction — quietly held the world together until Sept. 11, 2001. Then, in the wake of the terrorist attacks that temporarily shut down roads leading into New York City, interrupted telecommunications throughout the Northeast, closed down the national airspace and hampered financial transactions around the world, "networks" suddenly became the subject of intense interest among countless millions of people who, up until that fateful day, had never given the concept much thought.

The interest was fueled by a barrage of newspaper and television stories about networks and their impact on our lives. Some reporters focused on what happens when good networks go bad. Others marveled at the "survivability" of networks, noting how quickly transportation and financial networks were restored, rerouted or repaired. Still others zeroed-in on the human side of telecommunication networks, with poignant stories of people desperately seeking loved ones by the only means possible—cell phone—knowing that their lives were probably about to end in the Twin Towers or aboard a hijacked jet.

Everything changed on Sept. 11, including the nation's collective appreciation of the role networks play in everyday life.

"We live in extraordinary times in which the importance of transportation and telecommunications to the human enterprises of commerce and trade, finance and social exchange has never been more apparent," says Anna Nagurney in welcoming visitors to the new Virtual Center for Supernetworks [] at the University of Massachusetts' Isenberg School of Management.

Nagurney, the John F. Smith Memorial Professor in the School's Department of Finance and Operations Management, serves as the founding director of the Center. Helped by several OM students, Nagurney launched the project last fall with funding from NSF grants as well as the John F. Smith Memorial Fund. The AT&T; Foundation presented Nagurney an AT&T; Industrial Ecology Fellowship to further support the Center.

The Center's mission, as outlined on its Web site, is to serve "as a vehicle for the collection, dissemination and enrichment of information and knowledge surrounding the role of networks and the strategic management thereof in the modern, global society and economy. The focus of the Center is on Supernetworks which capture the interaction among networks and their impacts on business today."

The site defines Supernetworks as a "network, consisting of nodes, links and flows, that is over and above existing networks. [It] may have both virtual and physical links. ...and may involve decision-makers who are faced with distinct criteria such as time, monetary cost, opportunity cost, risk and/or safety."

Asked for her definition of a "Supernetwork," Nagurney says, "I think of it as a network of networks, a new way of looking at existing networks, and merging and tying them together."

A supply chain network, for example, involves various suppliers and products that are made to order, shipped physically, but electronically ordered, tracked and billed. New security concerns impact other related networks, such as the transportation system used to deliver the products. Uncertain security and customs delays make just-in-time delivery a dicey proposition at best, creating the need for larger inventory buffers and more warehousing. That, in turn, forces manufacturers, suppliers, logistics providers and retailers to rethink the way they do business ... and the interaction of all the networks that make their businesses possible.

"You end up with all of these trade-offs and new criteria," Nagurney says. "How do you model that?"

With operations research, of course. Nagurney says this new environment creates "tremendous opportunities" for OR in terms of modeling a new class of network problems. In the case of a telecommunications, for example, operations researchers historically concerned themselves with the design of the network, using shortest-path methods to develop time and cost efficiencies. Now, in light of Sept. 11, security and survivability have been elevated to prime criteria status along with cost and time efficiencies, adding tremendous complexity to the problem.

"Network problems have gotten bigger, more important and more complex," Nagurney says, "and that makes them more fascinating from an OR viewpoint and more relevant. I teach a course in transportation logistics that was almost too real last semester. On Monday, Sept. 10, we were talking about airline networks. Then Tuesday happened. On Wednesday, the students came in with open mouths. I never had so many students want to hang out after class and just talk and talk and talk about networks."

Although the Center is primary geared for researchers working on complex network problems, it also provides plenty of information for non-techies, including a "Fun Facts" department. The idea for the Center emanated from a lecture ["Networks for Fun and Profit"] Nagurney delivered in April 2000 along with a related, invited article in the June 2000 issue of OR/MS Today ["Navigating the Network Economy'].

The Center was in the works long before the terrorist attacks, but Sept. 11 thrust the topic of networks into the national spotlight. After the catastrophe, Nagurney fielded calls from reporters seeking information on how networks impact business and the economy. As the world now knows, networks impact business, the economy and just about everything else in every way imaginable.