Framing a Case for NRENs in the Longest Last Mile

By Elizabeth Leake, STEM-Trek

February 27, 2019

Michael Foley delivered the opening keynote at the recent South African Centre for High Performance Computing National Conference. As the lead Distance Learning Specialist at the World Bank in the United States (US) from 1997 until 2015, Foley’s work focused on all aspects of the development of the Global Development Learning Network. Now that he’s retired, he has more time to pursue his passion for photography but remains engaged with National Research and Education Network (NREN) advocacy on behalf of underserved regions.

Photo used with the permission of the photographer, Michael Foley.

“Once I saw a number of transatlantic cables begin to connect the US and Europe, I began to focus on the status of network development in Africa,” he said, realizing that anyone who wasn’t connected would be left behind in the digital age. He also recognized the need to help local advocates establish a case for NREN development to government leaders, donors and other stakeholders. In 2016, Foley published a report titled, “The Role and Status of NRENs in Africa.” The two-part report is available online.

“In many regions, an NREN could be perceived as a threat to local Internet Service Providers (ISPs),” he said. It’s important to frame a unique case for laypeople, administrators, legislators and donors in terms that each group will understand. “Don’t ask if it is sustainable; instead, ask how we can make it sustainable,” said Foley, who suggested that a public investment can support the development of NRENs as well as future accountability. Establishing an NREN requires a government commitment. In many cases, there is either too much or too little regulation. “NRENs must be perceived as being for the public good and university readiness,” he added.

“When building a case for an NREN, headway can be made by dispelling long-standing myths about science,” he said. “Many continue to think that scientists work alone in a lab; they envision a male scientist who is disconnected from the world, but these clichés simply aren’t accurate,” he said. Science is becoming increasingly collaborative and reliant upon diverse, interdisciplinary teams who use advanced instrumentation and share huge amounts of data across fast networks. He noted that research with the record number of authors—more than 5,000—concerns the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at the European Organization of Nuclear Research (CERN) and the discovery of the Higgs boson particle. The Higgs boson gives other particles their mass, and without mass, there would be no matter. This discovery helped us better understand the forces that shape the Universe and would not have been possible if contributing scientists from dozens of countries lacked access to fast networks that connect them to the LHC at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland.

Much more than bandwidth; NRENs add value above what ISPs can provide

Unlike an ISP, the NREN pipe isn’t shared with commercial stakeholders. NRENs’ value added is their ability to offer vast service and resource portfolios developed by global research communities, for example: authentication (security); grid-enabled middleware; email services; digital libraries; content mirroring; cloud resources; access to federated and inter-federated compute resources; performance monitoring; point-to-point Internet protocol circuits for special applications; bandwidth-on-demand; dedicated point-to-point Internet Protocol (IP) circuits for special applications; and educational resources for human capacity development. “NRENs end digital exclusion and academic isolation by providing access to digital libraries, journals, databases and instrumentation that few of end-points could afford on their own,” said Foley.

Foley cited the “Seven Levels of NREN Development; Capability Maturity Model,” by Duncan Greaves (South Africa/TENET).

He suggests that NREN stakeholders can collaborate with commercial providers to incorporate commodity services. Since the future is mobile, together they can think of new ways to leverage mobile interfaces; this is especially true in countries where a large percentage of the population engaged with the Internet for the first time via mobile devices. Since many in these regions are also “unbanked” and lack the financial clout necessary to secure a monthly mobile contract, a SIM culture ensues where people access telecommunications and Internet services via prepaid SIM from a single ISP.

The price of fiber is high in many regions and continues to be a financial stumbling block. The World Bank supported NREN development in Somalia via the AfricaConnect2 program and the next-generation project, AfricaConnect3 (2018-2020), was just announced. This program has allocated 37.5 million euros to improve connectivity among African nations and European collaborators. The US National Science Foundation (NSF) supported the NEAAR Project, based at Indiana University, which will improve the pipeline between Europe and Africa via GÉANT. As for capacity-building, he credits the Network Startup Resource Center (NSRC) at the University of Oregon-US. With 25-years of experience in network skills development, NSRC has vastly improved the global network workforce pipeline. NSRC can also help universities upgrade switches and routers. “An NREN is only as good as its last mile,” said Foley.

Gray areas have not begun to develop an NREN.

He closed with acknowledgement that NRENs won’t do all of the work, and that human and analog factors must be addressed with an equal amount of vigor. Higher education institutions can help by encouraging the technical literacy of staff and employing champions of innovation who understand the importance of a well-connected university. “Invest in capacity-building to become more competitive and create ways to expand the use of dark fiber where there is local expertise,” he added.

The CHPC19 National Conference will be held December 1-5, 2019; the venue will be announced soon. Watch the STEM-Trek and CHPC sites for more information.

About the Author

HPCwire Contributing Editor Elizabeth Leake is a consultant, correspondent and advocate who serves the global high performance computing (HPC) and data science industries. In 2012, she founded STEM-Trek, a global, grassroots nonprofit organization that supports workforce development opportunities for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) scholars from underserved regions and underrepresented groups.

As a program director, Leake has mentored hundreds of early-career professionals who are breaking cultural barriers in an effort to accelerate scientific and engineering discoveries. Her multinational programs have specific themes that resonate with global stakeholders, such as food security data science, blockchain for social good, cybersecurity/risk mitigation, and more. As a conference blogger and communicator, her work drew recognition when STEM-Trek received the 2016 and 2017 HPCwire Editors’ Choice Awards for Workforce Diversity Leadership.

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