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Joining the Navy at the age of 17, Robert Sears began his career working on submarines and expanding his knowledge of electronic engineering and communications. With tours that took him to Italy, Norway, and parts of the North Atlantic, Sears was introduced to communication and meteorological systems, joint polar satellites, and satellite systems that pulled weather data. His Naval career involved supporting Submarine Squadron Twenty-Two during Operation Desert Storm as an electronics calibration technician and duty assignment with Command Second Fleet on the USS Mount Whitney supporting meteorological systems, communications, and surface and air RADAR.

In 1996, Sears transitioned to networking and IT services at the Naval Atlantic Meteorology and Oceanography Center. Exiting the military and entering civil service in 2001, Sears moved to Colorado and discovered an interesting job opportunity at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Boulder, Colorado, within their Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research (OAR). As he came to an important fork in the road, Sears had to decide what path he would like to take forward.

Opening the Door to New Opportunities
In July 2001, Sears began as a network engineer with the Forecast Systems Lab within OAR. “This lab conducts global research on different systems, weather modeling and predictions, and develops models that the National Weather Service uses to forecast weather,” explains Sears, N-Wave Director; Chair, Federal IPv6 Task Force; Federal Network Representative Co-Chair, Cloud & Infrastructure Community of Practice (C&I CoP); Government Chair, American Council for Technology-Industry Advisory Council (ACT-IAC). “I later had an opportunity to support a group called the Boulder Network Operations Center which ran the wide area network for the entire campus, including the Department of Commerce, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). At that time, our group was working with Front Range GigaPoP, one of the first GigaPoPs we began with to conduct proof of concept work on long haul circuits.”

Sears continues, “This important research opened the door to new opportunities and where we stand today. A few years later in 2009, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) was signed into law. This Recovery Act included the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) which provided funding to expand access to broadband services in rural America. With funding received under ARRA, NOAA began building new supercomputers for climate research. We received computer upgrades in Princeton, New Jersey; Fairmont, West Virginia; and Boulder, Colorado, to help improve climate science for these high-performance computing (HPC) resources. We discovered an important missing piece was that these locations needed to be interconnected in a budget-conscious way. This led to the creation of N-Wave, the NOAA-operated and managed national infrastructure that extends across the contiguous U.S. to Alaska and Hawaii.”

“N-Wave’s global network of partners continues to grow and impact all parts of the world. “NOAA’s motto is ‘from the bottom of the ocean to the surface of the sun’,” says Sears. “NOAA collaborates globally with scientists, and we have many foreign nationals who work with us from different disciplines. Whether you’re a meteorologist, scientist, or researcher needing HPC resources, our backbone can connect them with the important resources they need.”

– Robert Sears
N-Wave Director;
Chair, Federal IPv6 Task Force;
Co-Chair, Cloud & Infrastructure Community of Practice (C&I CoP);
Government Chair, American Council for Technology-Industry Advisory Council (ACT-IAC)

Extending the Reach of a National Network Infrastructure
From day one, N-Wave’s focus has been to deliver stable, secure, high-speed networking services to enable the vast missions of its stakeholder community within the federal government. “N-Wave aims to be the tool and enabling factor helping to improve the end customer’s mission, whether it is science, climate research, or data analysis,” says Sears. “N-Wave was built, and is based on, four key drivers: bandwidth, data delivery assurance, security, and cost. We work closely with our partners to ensure the network meets their needs, and through a transparent and flexible partnership, we strive to provide the best customer service.”

N-Wave’s national network infrastructure reaches major campuses, remote field sites, data centers, and supercomputing facilities. The infrastructure supports all of NOAA and has expanded to serve 12 sister bureaus within the Department of Commerce to include NIST, NTIA and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) to name a few. N-Wave also supports the Department of Defense (DoD) with network connectivity services at Navy, Air Force, and Space Force bases. N-Wave also has several partners within the Science, Research, and Education (SR&E) community, including Edge, Internet2, and the Global Network Operations Center (GlobalNOC) at Indiana University.

Since its inception, N-Wave has expanded to include a rich catalog of services. “When we started, N-Wave was purely transport and connecting facilities together,” explains Sears. “We first provided intercommunication between offices or connecting our satellite program to research. When we later moved out of the OAR and into the Office of the Chief Information Officer, it legitimized us as an enterprise service. With this came a new set of services, including installing wireless capabilities in facilities, managed Local Area Network (LAN) services, firewall services, Enterprise Remote Access VPN (ERAV), cloud connectivity, and engineering assessments.” Through these value-add services, N-Wave seeks to empower its stakeholder partners to focus less on networking services, and more on its own mission and initiatives.

Supporting Connection and Collaboration
To continue to effectively find networking solutions that benefit their stakeholder partners, Sears says leveraging the SR&E community has been instrumental in advancing their overall mission and has been the foundation of what they do. “We leverage the Internet2 national optical backbone or advanced layer-2 service and are co-located with Internet2 in several cities. Our backbone is comprised of Seattle, Washington; Denver, Colorado; El Paso, Texas; Chicago, Illinois; Atlanta, Georgia; and, both McLean and Ashburn, Virginia. We then take optical waves to interconnect our hardware, which builds our backbone, and leverage regional partnerships to then connect our facilities and sites. We have been rock solid since we started and have never lost availability over the last thirteen years.”

“N-Wave also leases dark fiber in several locations to build out connectivity and capacity to serve multiple facilities with high network capacity needs,” continues Sears. “In the national capital region, we lease dark fiber paths throughout key city locations to build an optical ring that we light with Ciena hardware. This allows us to connect stakeholder facilities to the ring and provide a high amount of capacity (10G – 400G) without the cost that comes with it. Partnering with the SR&E community has allowed for an increased visibility government entities are often unable to achieve. When you run your own infrastructure, you have visibility and know the “ins and outs” of how it operates. You can ensure data delivery and security and are able to be a more efficient and effective operation.”

Building Connections Across the Globe
N-Wave’s global network of partners continues to grow and impact all parts of the world. “NOAA’s motto is ‘from the bottom of the ocean to the surface of the sun’,” says Sears. “NOAA collaborates globally with scientists, and we have many foreign nationals who work with us from different disciplines. Whether you’re a meteorologist, scientist, or researcher needing HPC resources, our backbone can connect them with the important resources they need. We recently connected the Weather and Climate Operational Supercomputers (WCOSS), managed by the National Weather Service’s Center for Environmental Prediction (NCEP), to the N-Wave backbone which supports the operational data dissemination to the public. Any weather warnings or updates you receive on your phone or you see on TV come from these supercomputers.”

N-Wave connects with partners like EUMETSAT, the European operational satellite agency for monitoring weather, climate, and the environment from space. Through this connection, N-Wave exchanges satellite data with Europe to form a more global view. “We leverage Internet2 and European GÉANT Network and build connections across the Atlantic,” explains Sears. “We’re also looking to expand overseas connections, including with the Indian Space Research Program (ISRO), which is the national space agency of India. As our data exchange capabilities and connections grow, we can spur further climate research and long-range forecasting that will have a global impact.”

Providing Scalable Solutions
Over the years, N-Wave has evolved from a strict research compute to also an operational compute, offering a robust catalog of enterprise managed services and advanced network operations. “We have developed a very strict business model that allows us to support the nation’s ability to get critical data and provide scalable solutions,” says Sears. “We are a business in the government and our work is done through service level agreements. As a shared infrastructure, N-Wave helps stakeholders save money and I am extremely proud of our team and what we’ve been able to accomplish. We’ve gone from interconnecting four research HPC sites on a 10G backbone to now 140 sites and facilities on a 400G backbone. The work we’ve done with the research and development of HPC has been a game changer and is where innovation is born. This leads to next-generation HPC models, which is the crux of NOAA’s research site and how research transforms into development.”

N-Wave has partnered with GlobalNOC at Indiana University, a nonprofit organization focused exclusively on the Research and Education (R&E) community. “Through this collaboration, we have been able to apply standardized configurations,” explains Sears. “Having systems that allow us to create a baseline configuration for all devices and automatically upgrade codes and other configurations is a huge time saver. This strategy has been very useful in our move to IPv6 where we test on a single device and then roll that out across the infrastructure to various devices. We’ve been able to keep a fairly lean support services team running the wireless infrastructures and land firewall.”

“When you look at the number of devices, we have thousands of switches and wireless deployments as far reaching as Barrow, Alaska at the top of the world, all the way down to Miami, Florida,” continues Sears. “There are thousands of access points and there is a team of twelve people managing all of this through ticket systems. Because we have the standardization and automation, we have an efficient team and lower costs; allowing us to pass that savings on to the customer.”

To support the data and cloud strategies of their various stakeholders, N-Wave offers scalable cloud solutions; currently providing 280 connections to multiple cloud providers, including Amazon, Oracle, Google, Azure, and the government versions of these services. “Whether it is the National Weather Service or the National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service (NESDIS), for example, we connect those premise systems to the desired cloud infrastructure, allowing them to move their data into those cloud environments,” says Sears. “Since cloud resources can be either public or private, it’s important to have a security perimeter protecting the data.”

Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) efforts are underway across NOAA.

  • NOAA Center for Artificial Intelligence (NCAI) is NOAA’s emerging conduit for artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) for mission science initiatives.


  • NOAA is exploring the needs and capabilities of the NOAA community. There are many AI-based research projects at NOAA, examples include: Using AI to Forecast Rip Currents, “Using Artificial Intelligence to Study Protected Species in the Northeast”, “Detecting Solar Features in Real Time”, “AI Helps Discern Songs of Humpback Whales”, to name a few.


  • NOAA hosts workshops such as the 5th NOAA Workshop on Leveraging Artificial Intelligence in Environmental Sciences September 2023. To spark conversations, provide space for networking, and encourage information sharing about AI/ML within NOAA and its scientific communities. NOAA welcomes participation in the evolution of NCAI and the development of NCAI’s Community of Practice.


  • NOAA is engaged in national AI initiatives. Representatives from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Artificial Intelligence Executive Committee (NAIEC) and the Center for Artificial Intelligence (NCAI) provided input to the Initial Federal Request for Information on Designing the NAIRR (National Artificial Intelligence Research Resource). As detailed in the NAIIR report ,“An Implementation Plan for a National Artificial Intelligence Research Resource”, an approach for facilitating NAIRR technical integration is to incorporate Federal data resources stored in commercial cloud. 10 petabytes of public weather and environmental data are now accessible through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Open Data Dissemination Program across three commercial cloud computing platforms.

“Edge is excited to partner with N-Wave as it expands into the future in supporting the mission of important stakeholders such as NOAA to advance science. We welcome the N-Wave team to the Edge community. It has been a pleasure to participate in N-Wave convenings and gain access to its collaborative community.”

Forough Ghahramani, Ed.D.
Assistant Vice President for Research, Innovation, and Sponsored Programs

Inspiring a Synergetic Approach
Through their global partnerships, NOAA is able to conduct collaborative research with universities and support research and technology development within the greater community. NOAA has Cooperative Institutes (CI) across the country that are academic and non-profit research institutions conducting research aligning with NOAA’s mission. “We looked to leverage those partners who had infrastructures and take a natural synergetic approach to connect regional optical network infrastructures to our backbone,” explains Sears. “The data that flows out of NOAA does not always go directly to the Internet, but takes optimized routing through peering relationships with our regional optical network partners. This provides a smarter way of getting NOAA data to the scientists who are collaborating across the different organizations.”

With a goal of creating a fiber optic network interconnecting participating organizations, the City of Boulder partnered with NOAA, the University of Colorado at Boulder (CU), the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), and the Department of Commerce (DOC) Laboratories to create the Boulder Research and Administrative Network (BRAN). N-Wave leverages the BRAN optical network, in conjunction with the Front Range GigaPop Bi-State Optical Network (BISON) to connect the NOAA Boulder campus to the N-Wave backbone. The NOAA Boulder Campus amongst many programs, houses the backup NWS Integrated Dissemination Program (IDP), which hosts NWS applications used worldwide.

Over on the east coast, the NOAA Center for Weather and Climate Prediction (NCWCP) is located in College Park, Maryland and is the primary IDP facility. “N-Wave uses the Mid-Atlantics Crossroads (MAX) GigaPop for connectivity, throughout the DC Metro,” says Sears. “One NWS IDP is in Boulder, Colorado, and one is in College Park, Maryland. Combining a high-performance network with being physically co-located or having existing grant or scientific relationships created a synergy that just made sense. Having these capabilities provided impressive flexibility, bandwidth, visibility, and the ability to make a shared infrastructure. NOAA leadership took notice and recognized this was a smart and impactful strategy.”

Improving Network and Broadband Access
As the government began providing more funding toward broadband technology and outreach, N-Wave was able to use this momentum to support their own mission of creating a national network infrastructure. During this time, a nonprofit leader in broadband infrastructure, the Microelectronics Center of North Carolina (MCNC), secured federal funding to expand their broadband network throughout rural North Carolina, especially in underserved communities. “N-Wave had a large facility in North Carolina that archived all of our satellite imagery,” says Sears. “We were able to leverage that new infrastructure built by MCNC to connect and get high-speed, low-cost service. Fast forward to 2023, the NTIA’s Broadband Equity Access and Deployment (BEAD) program provides funding for planning and infrastructure deployment to expand high-speed internet access. We want to help make sure that money coming in from NTIA through this program is making the biggest impact.”

Sears is Chair of the Federal Internet Protocol version 6 (IPv6) task force established by the Federal Chief Information Officers Council (CIOC). This group connects with federal agencies to help guide the transition from Internet Protocol version 4 (IPv4) to IPv6 technology. By the end of FY 2025, 80% of all Federal Government IT assets must transition from IPv4 to IPv6-only connectivity. This transition ensures continued internet communication pathways for global collaboration and research. Sears is also co-chair of the Cloud & Infrastructure Community of Practice (C&I CoP), which helps educate IT practitioners about federal cloud computing, application rationalization, and data center optimization.

In addition, Sears is the government co-chair of the ACT-IAC (American Council for Technology-Industry Advisory Council) Networks and Telecommunications Community of Interest (COI). COIs are the heart of the ACT-IAC collaborative forum, where government and industry are working together to develop best practices, new solutions, and innovative strategies to improve government through the application of technology.

Within the N-Wave program is a robust Engagement and Outreach portfolio of professional communicators leading N-Wave engagements and correspondence with both N-Wave customers and partners. “All of our engagements, newsletters, and meetings allow us to collaborate with our regional partners, government agencies, and within our community,” says Sears. “We also formed the N-Wave Joint Engineering and Technical Interchange (JETI), which allows us to hear directly from our customers, exchange technical updates, discuss technical topics, and provide a forum for our customers to connect with each other.”

N-Wave recently joined forces with Edge to discuss ways to elevate the network experience and expand their reach within the stakeholder community. “Edge is excited to partner with N-Wave as it expands into the future in supporting the mission of important stakeholders such as NOAA to advance science,” says Dr. Forough Ghahramani, Assistant Vice President for Research, Innovation, and Sponsored Programs for Edge. “We welcome the N-Wave team to the Edge community. It has been a pleasure to participate in N-Wave convenings and gain access to its collaborative community.”

Shares Samuel Conn, President and Chief Executive Officer, “Edge is pleased to partner with NOAA N-Wave to provide complementary services and resources, and ensure necessary access through Edge’s robust networking infrastructure, for NOAA and other N-Wave stakeholders in support of network performance enhancements and data transfer needs for research. We are enthusiastic about the possibilities of this strategic partnership.”

Preparing for an Exciting Future
As they look ahead, Sears says NOAA and N-Wave are excited to keep moving forward and further expand the reach of their network services and extensive array of partnerships. “We are busy finishing our strategic planning and looking at the next 10 years. When N-Wave was founded, we had a 10-year IT Investment Authority (ITIA), from 2017 to 2027. We are currently creating a 12-year plan beginning in 2025 that determines the funding and resources needed for N-Wave to continue providing this critical infrastructure at this value to our stakeholders. Our engagement and outreach team will continue to connect with our partners to gather insight and provide opportunities for collaboration. We’re also determining where we want to go with technology. What does the next generation backbone look like and what big services do we want to provide? We have such a great team of amazing people, and we continue to be inspired by new customer requests and the opportunity to test and develop new services. We want N-Wave to be more than just a commodity, we want to help change the game for NOAA science and help advance science and discovery across the globe.”

To learn more about NOAA’s N-Wave program and the solutions they provide, visit