South African CHPC National Conference: Connecting, Engaging, and Securing Earth’s Quietest Places

By Elizabeth Leake

July 31, 2020

The header image was captured over a 24-hour period—across all time zones—by a U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) satellite. It illustrates why South Africa (SA) is special from a research perspective, and potentially vulnerable from e-infrastructure and cybersecurity standpoints. The brightest cluster of dots in southern Africa surrounds SA’s largest city, Johannesburg, and nearby Pretoria which is the administrative seat and home to the SA government’s executive branch.

Happy Sithole. Photo by Lawrette McFarlane

Happy Sithole, who directs the SA Centre for High Performance Computing (CHPC), called the 13th annual CHPC National conference to order on December 1, 2019 at the Birchwood Conference Centre in Kempton Park, Johannesburg. This event, which focused on cybersecurity and preparing the workforce for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, drew 667 attendees who learned about cybersecurity risks and gained new defense strategies.

After founding and managing the CHPC for ten years, Dr. Sithole was promoted in 2019 by SA government leadership to lead a much larger portfolio, including the National Integrated CI System (NICIS) umbrella of services, including the CHPC, the South African National Research Network (SANReN) and the Data Intensive Research Initiative of SA (DIRISA).

In his opening remarks, Sithole explained that CHPC customers were once a homogeneous group, but successful efforts to broaden engagement with more communities of practice— including government, academia, industry, and international collaborators—have created fresh security challenges.

He also noted that barriers to engagement with HPC have been too steep. “It’s difficult to engage scientists from more domains without requiring them to know how to write a bunch of code,” he said, and added, “We’re supporting an increased number of applications that leverage artificial intelligence (AI) workflows, which create greater demand for facilitators who understand AI, and how to optimize a broader range of software applications so they run efficiently on Lengau,” he said, referring to CHPC’s flagship petascale system. Sithole explained how user needs will drive specifications for Lengau’s replacement, which was originally planned for 2022, but COVID-associated budget cuts may delay that timeline.

Conference Theme: Secure Cyberinfrastructure Within Fast-Converging Platforms

The Southern African Development Community (SADC) Region comprises 16 member nations that, according to the SADC website, “share a vision for equitable economic growth and socioeconomic development, through efficient, productive systems, deeper cooperation and integration, good governance, and durable peace and security.” The annual SADC HPC Forum (covered in part three of this series) is co-located with the CHPC Conference.

Meshack Ndala (CHPC); Photo by CHPC.

Cybercrime can be launched from any point on earth and the origin is often spoofed to frustrate detection, and it happens quickly. It is extremely difficult to investigate and prosecute without legislation that considers the borderless nature of the crime, and active cooperation among international policing agencies. Therefore, cybersecurity is of growing importance to SADC.

A cybersecurity workshop has been co-located with this conference for three years, and Meshack Ndala (CHPC Cybersecurity Specialist) is the facilitator. This year’s included a technical program titled, “Security by Design; Flaws in IoT Architectures,” and a research-focused session titled, “Intelligence and Strategy.”

Presenters emphasized the importance of public-private partnerships and education. “One of the biggest risks we face is the lack of awareness,” said Ndala who explained why first-responder training is so important. “Computers and mobile phones carry clues to solving cybercrime; law enforcement must understand why and how such evidence should be secured so that it is admissible in court,” he added.

Cybersecurity workshop presenters and panelists, from left: Richard Hlalele (Info. Security at U-Johannesburg); ADV Jacqueline Fick (CEO VizStrat Solutions); Noelle Van Der Wagg-Cowling (Cyber-Strategy Lecturer, Stellenbosch U); Dimakatso Tlhako (IT Link Systems); Professor Petrus Duvenage (Centre for Cyber Security, Academy of Computer Science and Software Engineering at U-Johannesburg); Professor Elmarie Biermann (Director, Cyber-Security Institute and Professor at Stellenbosch U). Photo by Meshack Ndala (CHPC).

SANReN’s Cybersecurity Incident Response Team (CSIRT) also sponsored a cybersecurity training program that week. Thirty participants, including 14 university and 10 professional staff from science councils and research institutes attended GÉANT’s TRANSITS I training, where they learned about organizational, operational, legal, and technical challenges of managing a Computer Security Incident Response Team (CSIRT). Wim Biemolt (SURFnet) presented the operational module, and Jeffeny Hoogevorst (Secuenzo) led a role-playing exercise and presented technical and legal training sessions. International legal expertise was shared by Anton Kotze (Ellipsis), and an organizational security session was conducted by SANReN CSIRT staff. The Tertiary Education and Research Network of South Africa (TENET), which operates the SANReN network, sponsored a TRANSITS networking dinner.

SKA updates, and the status of research and education networks

The NASA cover image illustrates why the most advanced technology project ever conceived is being co-hosted in the SA Karoo region, and Western Australia’s Murchison Shire. These are two of the most ‘radio quiet’ places on earth, and home to the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) project with, according to the SKA website,” thousands of dishes, and up to a million low-frequency antennas that will enable astronomers to monitor the sky in unprecedented detail and survey the entire sky much faster than any system currently in existence.” Preparing for the SKA’s 50-year lifespan has led to an increased effort to train the indigenous workforce in SKA “readiness” sites. Eighteen data centers in a dozen countries currently participate in the African HPC Ecosystems project led by South Africa’s CHPC ACE Lab Trainer Bryan Johnston.

Matias Carrasco-Kind (NCSA-US). Photo by Lawrette McFarlane

Naturally, the global astronomy and astrophysics communities are tuned into SKA-inspired technological improvements and related research, and conference speakers have begun to reflect their interests.

Senior Research and Data Scientist Matias Carrasco-Kind (US National Center for Supercomputing Applications, NCSA) presented on the topic of AI challenges for large survey science, with mentions to SKA and The Rubin Observatory Legacy Survey of Space and Time (LSST) in Chile.

While the Rubin Observatory LSST is an optical telescope—vs. radio in the case of the SKA—there will be a point at which scientific communities will need to compare different types of data sources from the same or related astronomical events. While the U.S. is not one of the 13 countries that have invested in the SKA, the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) supports nine radio, optical and solar telescopes which are all used by the same global communities of practice.

Since the SKA will produce more data than any other technology project on earth—with peak data generation estimated to occur in 2022—significant investments and great effort have been undertaken to improve land-based networks in and out of the region.

SANReN Director Leon Staphorst (left) and NORDUNeT Director Josva Kleist (right). Photo by Lawrette McFarlane.

Keynote Josva Kleist (NORDUNet) presented on the topic of SANReN and network improvements throughout the region, and beyond.

The SA Cable System (SACS) between Brazil and Angola (also supported by the US-NSF) was completed in 2019.  In March 2020 AmLight Express and Protect, a project led by the Center for Internet Augmented Research and Assessment (CIARA) at Florida International University) with assistance from the Rede Nacional de Ensino e Pesquisa (RNP, the Brazilian NREN), announced that service interconnecting the U.S., Brazil and SA with 100Gbps end-to-end links was in full production.

SANReN and TENET participated in the AmLight-SACS initiative. SANReN’s contribution was to activate a 100Gbps circuit between Angola and SA on the submarine West African Cable System (WACS), in exchange for a 100Gbps circuit on the SACS cable from Angola to Brazil and 100Gbps circuit on the MONET cable from Brazil to the US.

All research and education network traffic from SA destined to the Americas is now routed via the AmLight-SACS connection. In the past, data from the southern hemisphere had to first travel north to the U.S. or Europe before arriving in either South America or Africa. It was necessary to navigate dozens of Internet Exchange Sites and/or permissions along the way—a process that could take days or weeks, depending on the amount of data being transferred.

Amlight-SACS quickly demonstrated its value. On January 16, 2020, there was a freak incident where both SAT-3 and WACS were cut simultaneously; repairs required one month to complete during which time internet traffic was noticeably slow for many South Africans. Then on March 27, the WACS between Portugal and the UK was severed. By then, however, the Amlight-SACS’ 100Gbps pathway offered an alternate route, and repairs were completed by April 6 so fewer noticed the slow-down. While under-water fiber cuts are typically the result of fishing activity, according to the Submarine Telecoms Forum, it is plausible to consider that they could become targeted by cyberterrorists. Whether an outage is due to a malicious act or by accident, redundancy is a critically important aspect of every service continuity plan.

Once SA data travels to Europe, a series of interfederated networks take over, including NORDUNet—the research and education network that serves the northernmost region of Europe and beyond in an equally dark region on the NASA image. Kleist explained the history and service provided in a place, “where reindeer and bears outnumber humans.”

NORDUNet has a 25-year history and serves 1.2 million users that comprise the world’s tenth largest economy. Its footprint closes an important topological ring for global network traffic. Among a list of power users in the immediate region, NORDUNet facilitates data generated by the European Incoherent Scatter Scientific Association (EISCAT) and related projects, including EISCAT-3D (next-gen radar, to be built in 2021 after a 10-year design and preparation phase; supported by the European Union, EU). This will be a phased-array radar—the most powerful to date. From a September 2017 release, the instrument “will measure 3D volume of the upper atmosphere in unprecedented detail providing a greater understanding of how energy particles and electrical currents from space affect both upper and lower atmosphere (space weather and auroral phenomena), as well as man-made technologies, such as satellites and power grids on the ground.”

From its website, “EISCAT operates three incoherent scatter radar systems (at 224 MHz, 931 MHz in Northern Scandinavia, and one at 500 MHz in Svalbard) that are used to study the interaction between the sun and the Earth as revealed by disturbances in the ionosphere and magnetosphere.” It can also assess low-earth orbit debris (aka space junk) at altitudes of 500 to 1500 km, down to 2 cm in size. EISCAT is funded and operated by research institutes and councils of Norway, Sweden, Finland, Japan, China, and the UK (EISCAT Associates). Institutes in other countries contribute to operations, including Russia, Ukraine, Germany, and South Korea.

As for its compute needs, Kleist said they are still in the planning phase. “It’s likely that EISCAT3D will co-locate computation with an existing HPC center (or several),” he said. He went on to explain that polar regions are great places to host HPC systems. They create their own heat and therefore have a reduced Co2 impact. He also mentioned the pan-European, pre-exascale supercomputer LUMI EuroHPC (2021-2026) being built in an old Finnish papermill (powered by hydroelectricity with redundant back-up) with a €207 million investment funded by the EU and consortium countries.

Thank you sponsors; stay tuned!  

The CHPC National Conference and its organizers, speakers and delegates wish to thank the generous sponsors who made this year’s event possible: Diamond Sponsor Intel, and others, including Altair, Dell/EMC, Boston Storage, AMD, HP, Schrodinger, and Mellanox. Dr. Sithole also thanked CHPC conference planners: Dr. Werner Janse van Rensburg, Kevin Colville, Lesley Fredericks, Noxolo Moyake, Meshack Ndala, and others.

There are too many great things happening in SA to cover in one feature. Parts 2 and 3 of this series have also been published in HPCwire. The second part covers the successful student competition program. The third includes full details about the CHPC20 National Conference.

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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