The case for research and education networking
The question of what research and education (R&E) networks are and how they work is often raised. There is particular interest in understanding the benefits that research and education networking brings to its users, its funders and to individual institutions. A panel of DANTE people got together to shed some light on these important questions.
GÉANT Senior Communications Officer
Marketing Officer for TEIN3, EUMEDCONNECT2 and CAREN
Project Manager for TEIN3, EUMEDCONNECT2 and CAREN
Network Planning Manager
Technical Customer Support Manager
Partner Relations Manager
International Relations Officer
Project Support Officer
R&E networks are high-speed data-communications networks that are independent of the commercial internet and are dedicated to meeting the needs of the academic and research communities. They allow researchers, teachers and students to share information electronically in a reliable and timely fashion and to work together effectively.
“By definition, the research community pushes at the boundaries of our knowledge. Researchers and students use the most advanced tools, techniques and applications to exchange and process often very high volumes of time-critical data quickly and efficiently. They rely on the network to provide greater speeds, timely delivery and a very high level of resilience. Connections must be reliable and deliver defined and predictable speeds and quality of service. Dedicated R&E networks are designed to provide this essential capacity, reliability and flexibility.”
“To improve the way we deal with disease, disasters and other natural challenges, we need to understand more about our world - how it works and how it’s changing. If we’re going to make life better for people, we have to learn to share our knowledge and our skills. The answer lies in working together effectively. R&E networking is important because it provides a platform that enables better cooperation, collaboration and integration within and between geographically dispersed research and education communities.”
“R&E networks make a real difference in the face of devastating events. When natural disasters strike, you need to know quickly which areas are the worst affected in order to save lives. In the past, it has taken days, weeks and even months to discover the true impact on isolated communities. In 2008, GÉANT, through its link to China, was able to distribute high-resolution satellite images of the Sichuan earthquake for immediate analysis to help plan rescue, relief and recovery. EU Commissioner Viviane Reding said the network made ‘an important contribution to speeding up the reconstruction of infrastructure and to saving human lives.’”
“You get a better idea of the potential health and social benefits that R&E networks can deliver if you look at a few tele-medicine applications. Doctors can consult expert colleagues anywhere in the world to diagnose patients who are then treated where they live. Patients avoid the time and cost of travel for treatment because expertise can be provided where it is needed. Some 50 million people, for example, suffer from epilepsy but many are resistant to drug therapies. Treating epilepsy with surgery is complex, however R&E networks allow neurosurgeons in Tunisia, for example, to consult colleagues in France on patient assessment whilst remote training equips them with new surgical skills.”
Who uses R&E networks?
R&E networks are primarily designed to meet the needs of researchers, academics, teachers and students who need to share information and facilities. Each country decides which groups will benefit from its national R&E network and many choose to extend connectivity and services to libraries, hospitals, laboratories and government organisations to enable tele-medicine and other interactive online services.
“CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) project is a good example of the value R&E networks can add to complex and scientifically advanced projects. The LHC experiments aim to give us new insights into the fundamental forces of nature and the origins of the universe. But even the world’s most powerful supercomputer couldn’t process the 15 million gigabytes of LHC data that are generated by the four experiments annually - enough to fill more than 1.7 million dual-layer DVDs a year! The global R&E network provides the connections and bandwidth that allow these huge volumes of data to be distributed quickly for analysis by physicists located around the world.”
“Users come from every part of the global education and research community, R&E networking is not just about helping ‘big science’. At a local level, students in physically remote parts of North Africa and Asia gain access to a better quality education experience over their new connections.
By overcoming the barriers to education, e-learning can provide new and life-changing opportunities for students. For example, thanks to stable videoconferencing, students in Palestinian universities can now enroll on courses and participate remotely and interactively in lectures held anywhere in the world. R&E networking gives them access to the best educational opportunities where travel difficulties would make it impossible for them to attend in person. Distance learning also helps build a stronger base of skills and knowledge within the community.
R&E networks also provide significant benefits for the arts and humanities world. Ancient instruments such as the Greek epigonion, not heard for centuries, can now be played by music students thanks to digital sound reconstructions enabled by compute-intensive platforms. Equally, musicians separated by hundreds of kilometres can now rehearse and perform together remotely following the development of software which requires high bandwidth and a highly reliable network to transmit high quality video and audio with the minimum possible delay. Without the high bandwidth, low jitter and reliability of R&E networks, neither of these projects would be possible."
How are R&E networks organised?
The GÉANT network covers Europe and has high-speed links to regional networks in other parts of the world including RedCLARA in Latin America, TEIN3 in Asia-Pacific, CAREN in Central Asia, EUMEDCONNECT2 in North Africa and the Middle East and the UbuntuNet Alliance in Southern and Eastern Africa. GÉANT also connects to US and Canadian R&E networks in North America, to China and to networks in other major research countries including Japan, Russia and India.
“You can think about R&E networks at three levels. Within a country, a national research and education network (NREN) links together some or all of the universities, research institutions, schools, hospitals and museums. This allows each institution to benefit from access to increased bandwidth and to share services and applications, working collaboratively on projects of national interest and concern. At the second level, NRENs join together to form regional R&E networks, greatly enhancing the opportunities for working together on health, climate or environmental issues of concern to more than just one country. There are now regional R&E networks covering most of the globe. At the final level, regional R&E networks are connected together to create new opportunities for large scale and collaborative global research. Access to the global R&E network fabric allows any student or researcher to connect to and work with any other, wherever they are in the world.”
“You can see the practical benefits of regional R&E networking in the new ways we are learning to monitor and manage our environment. Every year, wildfires devastate Indonesian forests and affect the Asia-Pacific region. Accurate, up-to-date information on fire movements and dangerous hotspots - captured, analysed and shared over R&E networks - helps save lives, livelihoods and properties. Typhoons also affect the region with extreme winds and rainfall damaging property, and causing injury and death. Effective early warning relies on R&E networks to transfer and process huge volumes of meteorological data consistently and in a timely fashion to produce accurate forecasts and weather alerts.”
NRENs are not-for-profit organisations and are usually supported by public expenditure in each country. They provide R&E networks at a national level and co-operate to form regional level networks.
“NRENs fund their own in-country costs, contribute to the costs of the regional network they are part of and pay their share of global networking costs. In Europe, the GÉANT network links national R&E networks serving 40 million users in 40 countries and is managed by DANTE. DANTE is a non-profit organisation, co-funded by European NRENs and the European Commission, and it works in partnership with NRENs to plan, build and operate R&E networks and to connect regional R&E networks to one another and to GÉANT.”
“The European Commission has also been instrumental in supporting the establishment of regional networks in other parts of the world, by co-financing projects to set up and operate regional R&E networks in co-operation with the NRENs in the region and transfer technical knowhow to help develop the skills necessary to sustain the programmes in the longer term. TEIN3, CAREN and EUMEDCONNECT2 are current examples of this approach, with DANTE acting as project manager on behalf of the EC; RedCLARA is another successful example which has already become self-sufficient.”
“In many developing countries, political decision-makers have come to see that having a sustainable NREN is an essential key to developing an effective higher education system and provides a basis for participating in global science and research programmes. Complementing the regional efforts of the European Commission across South Asia, the World Bank launched national programmes to help countries such as Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal understand how other countries had established their NRENs. As well as involving the network of professionals and academics in those countries, the programme attracted the interest of senior policymakers who have since advised their respective governments on how best to set about establishing a NREN.”
R&E networks are specially designed to meet the more demanding requirements of research projects. They avoid the congestion, delays, interruptions and limitations caused by overbooking and competing traffic on public internet services. R&E networks guarantee dedicated capacity and end-to-end support for time-critical research applications.
“By comparison with the public internet, which is driven by narrow commercial criteria, R&E networks deliver faster speeds and higher capacities in a more stable environment. This allows researchers and students to use data-intensive and time-critical applications such as large file transfers, computer modelling and simulations, application sharing, remote instrumentation and visualisation as well as videoconferencing. R&E networks offer better quality connections, with far fewer delays, low packet loss, latency and jitter and the network is continuously monitored to ensure optimum performance. Seamless connectivity helps researchers collect, distribute and analyse data securely, so they can participate in joint projects, regional studies and even global programmes.”
“From a network management perspective, R&E networks provide new standards of clarity and control. You can monitor use of resources in real time and rely on network repair, maintenance and development activities being managed centrally, with 24-hour central support. R&E networks offer tomorrow’s network today.”
“Groundbreaking research calls for the kind of user-controlled, on-demand and dynamic services that R&E networks provide. Because they are designed to address complex needs, R&E networks are generally one generation ahead of commercial networks that focus more on mass-market needs."
New knowledge and understanding flows from successful research. The more closely researchers work together, the more quickly they can answer questions and find new approaches to resolve all kinds of problems. R&E networks make it easy to share information and knowledge that can improve many different aspects of our lives.
“R&E networks are designed for research, not for gaming or online shopping. Research rarely comes in standard packages and a project’s data collection, transfer and processing needs will vary throughout its lifecycle. With R&E networks, you decide what you need. Flexibility and scalability are built into services and applications that are designed by researchers, for researchers.”
“You get a network you can rely on. R&E networks provide the bandwidth and reliability that large-scale and time-critical projects depend on. Because many R&E networks offer dedicated capacity, the bandwidth you need is guaranteed to be available over a resilient and uncontested network and you can reconfigure or re-scale easily to meet your changing needs.”
“Put simply, individual students and researchers want their studies to lead to new discoveries and advances in scientific knowledge, health and welfare that benefit their communities or society as a whole. R&E networks provide them with the tools to do that work. The schools, universities, institutions and funding agencies that sponsor research studies want to be sure their investments provide both good value for money and the right platform for successful projects. Using R&E networks means researchers can focus on outcomes, concentrating their efforts and energies on fulfilling each project’s requirements more quickly and efficiently.”
“You can see the difference that using R&E networks makes when you look at medical applications. Malaria kills more than one million of the world’s poorest people each year. But developing new drugs is slow - many millions of potentially effective compounds have to be examined and reviewed. Tapping into the power of computing centres spread across the world using interconnected R&E networks means the analytic process can be speeded up. This has given new impetus to the urgent search for new anti-malarial drugs and for effective drug treatments for other diseases and conditions. In another example, more than 300,000 newborn infants each year suffer from thalassaemia and related blood disorders. R&E networks linking scientists and clinicians have helped to speed up the development of new drugs to greatly improve their life chances.”
“From another perspective, R&E networks help people work better as well as faster. Sharing resources encourages people to collaborate. In collaboration, we can address the really big questions more effectively, transferring and processing data across national and regional boundaries to find answers more quickly. Having access to R&E networks can sometimes transform projects. Electronic Very Long Baseline Interferometry (e-VLBI) harnesses the power of radio telescopes around the world to produce detailed images of our universe. In the past, data had to be recorded at each telescope, loaded onto tapes and then trucked away for later correlation. Now, using global R&E networks, the data is captured and instantly distributed electronically for analysis so that near real-time studies are now possible. e-VLBI also enables new 'targets of opportunities' in being able to respond to short-lived astronomical events.”
“When a country sets up an R&E network all connected universities and institutions gain from access to higher bandwidth and new, shared services. Being able to join in remote teaching, training and learning programmes creates new opportunities to share knowledge, insights and best practices widely, to everyone’s advantage. R&E networks provide secure access to a common network and services that make it as easy to work in teams as in a room together. Wherever you are located, you can discuss and define new subjects for study, work together to complete a project and then share your findings with the wider community.”
“When you’re working with R&E networks, you’re at the leading edge of networking technology and that naturally helps to build new and valuable skills among users. DANTE and the NRENs take it a step further and involve users directly in getting the most from the network. Students and researchers can influence network developments at the earliest stages and test the latest technologies and applications, extending the boundaries of what R&E networks can achieve. We know that innovations in R&E networking contribute to the design of the commercial networks of the future because commercial providers like to use our networks for their proof-of-concept testing.”
Research is our key to innovation. We rely on the scientific and academic community to make new discoveries and provide new insights that will help to improve people’s lives. The European Community envisages a ‘European Research Area’ - a border-free research zone that can make Europe the world’s most dynamic and competitive knowledge economy by promoting innovation.
By providing common access to the best technological tools, minds and resources, R&E networks around the world enable each place of learning to play its full part in addressing issues of concern to local, national, regional and global communities.
“New users of R&E networks quickly see the benefits of increased bandwidth and new services. And the national governments that generally fund R&E networking gain immediate benefits too. For funders, cost clarity and control are always key issues. R&E networking gives better visibility and predictability of both operating and investment costs and provides effective monitoring and reporting on actual performance. Through economies of scale, R&E networking offers a viable alternative to commercial internet services. In many developing countries, such as Vietnam, the combined purchasing power of regional networks has significantly opened up telecoms monopolies.”
“As well as improving cost effectiveness, R&E networks provide greater access to better services for more students and researchers and help to fulfil national education objectives. In developing countries, establishing a R&E network provides a framework for delivering on the United Nations anti-poverty Millennium Development Goals.”
“The benefits flow from the economies of scale that become achievable when you work together. In the same way that it makes sense for a country’s institutions to take a common path to improve efficiency, it makes sense for countries to share the costs of regional and global networks.”
“Although it is not their main purpose, real economic and business benefits can also flow from setting up an NREN. Research networks can help boost a region’s competitive standing and GDP by helping to retain the most talented researchers, securing the major investments made in educating and training them. R&E networks also help researchers play a fuller part on the world stage. An educated, more highly skilled workforce, backed by world-class networks is also more likely to attract interest and further investment from commercial sources.“
“Procuring networks and services on a national basis means bringing the benefits of collective purchasing power to institutions and universities. Using a similar approach to deliver value for investment, DANTE, in conjunction with the NRENs, provides and manages R&E network connectivity within and between regions across the globe. Centralised network management, training, promotion, project management and support costs provide economies of scale and help reduce the need for expensive specialist staff in many locations. Costs for all these common services are identified and apportioned between NRENs who pay an annual subscription.”
“Experience gained from R&E networking can provide a commercially-independent source of advice and guidance for governments to call on, aiding national policy discussions on use of ICT. Because R&E networks employ leading-edge technologies and techniques, best practice learned here can form a blueprint for networking in other sectors. R&E networking also allows you to play a fuller part in the global community. An individual institution – even an individual country – can find it hard to make its voice heard on the world stage. Affiliation to the R&E community gives every country a seat and a voice in an active and participative global forum.”
“To understand the value that R&E networks can bring, it’s worth looking again at why the European Union (EU) has been so actively involved. The EU is the prime investor in GÉANT, which it sees as fundamental to its vision of the European Research Area (ERA). The ERA is a border-free zone for research that encourages the development of excellence and coordinated research activity. GÉANT is also a key component of the EU’s Lisbon Strategy, which aims to make Europe the world’s most dynamic and competitive knowledge economy by promoting innovation. R&E networks are also fundamental to Europe’s ‘Digital Agenda’ – the strategy to create a flourishing digital economy by 2020.”
“New research environments drive up productivity, improve the quality of the science performed and create synergies between dispersed research groups. GÉANT has helped to deliver the EU’s European Information Society 2010 initiative helping to boost innovation and investment in ICT and establish an inclusive European information society that improves the quality of public services as well as quality of life. R&E networking is also crucial to the EU’s ‘Europe of Knowledge 2020’ vision for university-based research and innovation.”
Network technologies offer economies of scale that make the best performance and services affordable to everyone, but calculating and allocating network costs is complex.
“In coming up with prices for NRENs participating in regional networking programmes, not only circuit prices - which may vary widely between regions and countries - but also equipment and day-to-day running and support costs, including training, maintenance, repair and network management have to be taken into account and then shared between the NREN partners. In regional programmes run by DANTE which are always managed on a not-for-profit basis, the EC typically bears a significant portion of these costs.”
“Like-for-like comparisons with public internet services are difficult to make. Generally speaking, by co-operating all members of the regional network benefit from the economies of scale. Although circuit costs vary considerably from place to place around the world, one of the advantages of regional projects is that they enable the highs and lows of circuit prices in individual countries to be smoothed across the members. For NRENs in developing countries this means more generous capacity and far higher quality of service than commercial providers can offer at the same price.”
“By contrast, in Western Europe which has been deregulated for many years, so much fibre has been laid down by commercial operators that aggressive price competition is common. National and regional R&E networks typically re-tender every two to three years to take advantage of the competitive markets. Over the last 15 to 20 years we have found that the economies of scale gained by working co-operatively generally lead to benefits for all partners, while providing the congestion-free private internet service that is designed for and dedicated to all members of the research and education community.
Taking a networking approach relieves many of the burdens that local administrators and technical staff routinely face, freeing them to concentrate on other activities that can add more value.
“Applications run smoother and better and your users really notice the difference. The World Bank used the TEIN3 network to hub videoconferencing across the region for a global distance learning event and participants remarked on the higher quality sound and vision from those connected to R&E networks compared with those on standard links. That was much more than just a cosmetic change.”
“For local decision-makers, taking a network approach simplifies much of the usual complexity. Having an agreed strategic direction and a future-proofed operating platform helps to ensure that only compatible and interoperable investments are made. You gain cost clarity too - development planning and upgrade costs are managed centrally as are training, maintenance and support. Budgeting becomes simpler as running costs are predictable and recovered in an annual subscription.”
R&E networks are primarily designed to meet the needs of researchers, academics, teachers and students who need to share information and facilities. All around the world, R&E networks cost effectively provide the networking power researchers need to innovate and collaborate.
“R&E networks are designed for research, not for gaming or online shopping. Flexibility and scalability are built into services and applications that are designed by researchers, for researchers. Individuals, institutions, countries, regions and society as a whole all stand to gain considerably from the further development and growth of world-class research enabled by world-class R&E networking.”