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NREN Impact: Reflections based on the INTERNET2 experience

Dr Maria Beebe

Internet2 (USA) shares a key characteristic with other National Research and Education Networks (NRENs) and that is provision of connectivity to multiple universities. However, Internet2 is organized as not-for-profit whereas some NRENS are government/ministry based. Internet2 takes pride in being community led and member focused.

Internet2’s core mission is “to ensure that scholars and researchers have access to the advanced networks, tools and support required for the next generation of collaborative discovery and innovation and for effectively preparing the next generation of innovators, our students”.

Started in 1996 with 34 universities, Internet2 now has 372 members and 131 sponsored education group participants. Members include U.S. universities, corporations, government research agencies, and not-for-profit networking organizations representing over 50 countries. Internet2 membership is by institution and has been restructured into four levels based on the Carnegie Classification assignment for Higher Education members, operating budgets for Affiliate members and revenues for Industry members. These levels determine membership dues and fees.

EMERGING TRENDS AND BEST PRACTICE EXAMPLES

Expanding to a broader education community
To bring more innovators to the table, the Internet2 developed a K20 Initiative to connect university members to the broader education community through a process called Sponsored Education Group Participants. The result is connection to the Internet2 backbone network of 66,000 Community Anchor Institutions (CAI) in 38 U.S. states. CAIs are community-based organizations that include K-12 schools, libraries, community colleges, health centers, hospitals and public safety organizations.

The plan is to extend the network to 200,000 CAI through a Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) grant. The $62.5 million grant will upgrade the Internet2 Network to an 8.8 Terabit per second national network. The infrastructure will serve not only the Internet2 members but also 200,000 CAIs. Since CAIS are not Internet2′s traditional research university members, a different network, U.S. Community Anchor Network (CAN) was established to bring together the diverse voices of CAIs, with start-up costs provided by Internet2 and other partners. Thus, the physical infrastructure will be shared by Internet2 and U.S. CAN; however, Internet2 will focus on network R&D needs of its members while U.S. CAN will tailor its programs to the various community anchor sectors.

Opening Internet2 membership to industry partners has reciprocal benefits.
Benefits from industry include significant contributions in support of the development and deployment of advanced, Internet applications and services, including donations of equipment, cash, software, personnel, consulting, and services. By serving on Internet2’s Board of Trustees and its advisory councils, industry members make available valuable input and strategic guidance on advanced networking in research and education. Benefits to industry partners include ability to interact with current and prospective customers, showcase products and services, acquire market and user intelligence, tap and recruit university talent, and discover new market opportunities, among other things.

The governance structure is member-led and member-focused.
The Board of Trustees is inclusive, consisting of representatives, from members, including university presidents and CIOs, and leaders from industry and research agencies. The Board offers leadership, strategic direction, and oversight.

The size and diversity of its membership require advisory councils, again coming from its membership, for its many services–Applications and Middleware, Architecture and Operations, External Relations, and Research. These Advisory Councils guide strategic planning and implementation, help set organizational priorities, and ensure that Internet2 continues to serve the needs of the research and education community members.

Members are engaged and opportunities for membership engagement abound through a variety of Working Group activities, such as:

  • Development efforts in network infrastructure, network performance, middleware, applications, and security, and;
  • Discovery, research, and collaboration in discipline areas, such as the arts and humanities, health sciences, and sciences and engineering.

Members have access to a comprehensive menu of services, tools, capacity building, and R&D. Examples include access to:

  • A systems approach to high performance networking provides a wide range of integrated services, from dark fiber to production IP and optical networking, to middleware and advanced applications. The network is designed to deliver next-generation production services and serves as a development platform for new networking ideas and protocols. The Internet2 Network is scalable to meet bandwidth-intensive requirements of collaborative applications, distributed research experiments, grid-based data analysis and social networking. The network will be upgraded with the BTOP grant mentioned above.
  • The Internet2 Commons is a suite of tools that integrate presence, instant messaging, chat, voice, video, data and application sharing. It now offers cloud-based interoperable video services from tele-presence to videoconferencing to desktop and mobile tools.
  • The pS-Performance Toolkit includes a pre-configured suite of network performance tools for collection, storage and analysis of network performance data.
  • InCommon is a framework for inter-institutional authentication and authorization to enable secure access of protected online network services and resources.
  • The U.S. Higher Education Root (USHER) acts as a public key infrastructure (PKI) solution for the higher education community for applications and services that require encryption or true digital signature technologies.
  • Internet2 workshops provide participants with the opportunity to learn about and experiment with advanced networking technologies. Workshop topics include: Hot Topics in Identity Management and Federated Identity Management, Network Performance, IPv6, Campus Architecture and Middleware Planning, Digital Video Transport System, Performing Arts and Master Class production to advance the frontiers of high-performance networking in service of research and education.

OPPORTUNITIES AND CHALLENGES, SUCCESS FACTORS AND BARRIERS TO WIDER DISSEMINATION AND TAKE UP

The July 2008 strategic plan indicates commitment to “continuous innovation and sustained leadership”. The plan is under review to enable Internet2 to respond to the following 2010 opportunities:

  • Involvement in “Community Commons” tools for “computing and services above the campus,” including collaboration tools, cloud computing services, and other initiatives so that campuses are able to better leverage each other’s resources.
  • Participation in major U.S. federal programs and policy initiatives that define the future of advanced networking for the research and education community, other community anchor institutions, as well as the general public in the U.S. and worldwide.
  • Leadership in shaping and investing in U.S. federal policy development and advocacy and reinforcing the role that the research and education (R&E) community has played, and continuing to provide intellectual leadership in advanced networking and in research and education in network policy in the U.S.
  • Recognition that research is a global enterprise requiring (i) support for Internet2 member universities with international programs and with campuses abroad, and, (ii) support for U.S.-based researchers to have the same levels of high-bandwidth access that they have for domestic as well as for international research resources. This recognition will entail working with other nations and regions of the world with regard to the development of a global broadband.
  • The best practices highlighted in Section I contribute to success in the achievement of Internet2’s core mission. Success factors include remaining focused on core mission; membership that is inclusive of university, industry, and government agencies that are involved in network R&D; tapping members for leadership roles, governance, and active engagement through working groups; and outreach to the broader education community, including to the global education community. One success factor is showcasing advanced networking efforts among its members. Internet2 recognizes and awards applications of advanced networking that show progress in research, scholarship, collaboration, teaching and learning not only by researchers and faculty but also by students.
  • As with any NREN, barriers arise from the fact that the membership is by institution, yet institutions are made of people who may not be inclined to participate due to lack of interest, lack of time, lack of perception of individual benefit, lack of trust, and lack of knowledge to use the advanced applications. In January 2005, faculty and researchers at a member university indicated they still “experience significant barriers in creating and using advanced applications. “ Among the barriers identified were lack of ubiquitous help identifying and solving performance problems; lack of well-integrated and easy-to-use tools for human collaboration; and lack of secure, authenticated access to data and resources. It appears that technology solutions now address these barriers but getting faculty and researchers to embrace these solutions probably remains an obstacle to full utilization of the high performance network.

REFLECTIONS

Clearly, the immediate benefit of Internet2 is connection to a high performance network by its members. This infrastructure allows for collaboration with Internet2 university, industry, government research agencies and not for profit networking organizations on network R&D and discipline specific applications. Member benefits include access to services and tools, such as middleware and other Internet2 commons; updated knowledge on advanced Internet technologies and innovations for technology transfer; market opportunities; and, development of new projects with other Internet2 members. However, full utilization of the high performance network and all its applications is probably not equal among the faculty and researchers and students that make up the member institutions.

It is also worth stating the obvious: that Internet2 serves members primarily from the U.S. and that a regional or Africa-wide REN will necessarily have to deal with many countries with competing interests. While Internet2 has Special Interest Group on Emerging NRENs, NRENS can perhaps look to Internet2 for knowledge exchange, collaborative network research and development, and test the suitability and relevance of the Internet2 network applications, middleware, software and other tools. At the same time, NRENs should be able to offer up their own success stories, particularly in the use of mobile phones for applications and content delivery. NRENs should be able to facilitate discussion on a global commons for research and education not only in networking but also in discipline specific areas.

While working in Afghanistan a Chief of Party for the Afghan eQuality Alliances, I had a chance to participate, along with our project partners from Kabul University, Ministry of Higher Education, and the Ministry of Communications, in a video conference call with the South Asia Interest Group in 2007. The purpose of the Group was to keep each other up-to-date about activities/needs/projects in the region; raise issues important to the region and help guide additional activities to enhance R&E network connectivity within and to the region. The Afghan participants were able to share what their thinking was with regards to an NREN and what initial steps were being done. The Afghans appreciated hearing about the NRENs in other countries. I sense a disconnect between expectations on what Internet2 can deliver versus the constraints faced by Internet2 in collaborating with under-resourced potential partners.

RECOMMENDATIONS: ON THE ROLE OF GOVERNMENT IN THE PROVISION OF PRIORITY ICT APPLICATIONS AND SERVICES IN ORDER TO MAXIMIZE PRIVATE SECTOR DEVELOPMENT

  • Develop a broad set of policies, including funding, to protect and encourage competition in the private sector markets that make up the broadband ecosystem (including wireless broadband): network services, devices, applications and content.
  • Establish technical broadband (including wireless broadband) performance measurement standards and methodology, with the help of NRENs.
  • Support and promote online learning by: funding development of innovative broadband-enabled (including wireless broadband) online learning solutions; encouraging copyright holders to grant educational digital rights of use or offer some of their content to the creative commons; and, establishing standards for locating, sharing and licensing digital educational content across institutions and national boundaries.
  • Modify the e-rate program to support modernizing educational broadband infrastructure.
  • Encourage the formation of an NREN and a regional or Africa-wide REN that would:
    1. Fill the R&D investment gap by funding network research that would yield net benefits to society
    2. Operate a national and a regional or Africa-wide REN
    3. Provide advocacy on the set of policies, including financing, of the broadband ecosystem at the national, regional and Africa-wide level
    4. Ensure access to standard-based tools and services
    5. Act as the R&E commons for evaluating and adapting software, middleware, and other network tools and services for deployment to and adaption by member institutions.
    6. Promote innovation and technology with industry members
    7. Provide enhanced information technology (IT) applications training, such as applications for e-learning, e-government and e-commerce.

This discussion is part of the eTranform Africa initiative.

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