VOLUME. 9, ISSUE 1: May 2016

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IST-Africa 2016 preaches open innovation, collaboration   

The eleventh edition of the IST-Africa conference series, IST-Africa 2016, was held in Durban, South Africa from 11-13 May 2016 with organisers and delegates at the conference placing more emphasis on the value of open innovation and collaboration among researchers.

The conference opened on Wednesday, 11 May, with a high level panel discussion whose participants were drawn from renowned public and private research and education organisations and companies from within and outside the African continent.

The interactive discussion, which focused on open Innovation, ICT Entrepreneurship and social innovation in Africa came after inspiring conference opening remarks from representatives from the European Commission, the African Union, SADC and South Africa’s Department of Telecommunications and Postal Services and the Department of Science and Technology.

During the discussion, moderated by Paul Cunningham of IIMC, organisers of the conference, panelists unanimously agreed on the need for collaboration among education and research institutions and the need for researchers to embrace entrepreneurship skills in order to market their innovations to the outer world.

The panelists shared different practices and experiences from around the world and also dwelled on how National Research and Education Networks (NRENs) can be used to support collaboration in different thematic areas like health. 

Delegates were also introduced to the European Commission co-funded €26.6 million AfricaConnect2 project which intends to roll out a high speed Research and Education network connecting the continent’s three Regional Research and Education Networks (RRENs) of UbuntuNet Alliance, WACREN and ASREN.

The morning panel discussion preceeded parallel sessions that started in the afternoon and run up to the morning of Friday, 13th of May 2016 before another panel on same theme marked the end of the conference in the afternoon.

Sandwiched between the two panel discussions were at least 200 presentations from 36 different countries that were presented to delegates that comprised senior policy makers and representatives of leading public and private education and research organisations from at least 39 countries.

UbuntuNet Alliance, WACREN, ASREN and GÉANT made their presence felt at conference with a joint AfricaConnect2 workshop titled 'Value added connectivity for Research and Education networking' held on Thursday, May 12, 2016 .

The workshop attracted over 40 participants that had an opportunity to hear success stories of the AfricaConnect project that rolled out the UbuntuNet network and of symbiotic partnerships that some of UbuntuNet Alliance NREN Members are establishing with private and public entities that are not directly related to NREN business.

Related to the AfricaConnect2 workshop was the MAGIC Work Package 5 workshop where delegates were introduced to the recently launched Global Science Communities and a live demonstration of the virtue collaborative platform Collaboratorio.

ZAMREN demonstrates NREN meaningful synergies with public and private connectivity infrastructure owners 

One of the prominent challenges most African National Research and Education Networks (NRENs) are struggling to deal with is the lack of ownership of connectivity infrastructure mainly due to funding hiccups.

Most of these NRENs are however operating alongside public and private telecommunication companies and organisations that own infrastructure such as fiber optic  backbones that NRENs can use to transit their capacity.

But for the past years, it has been difficult for NRENs to convince these entities to allow them use and access their infrastructure as most commercial and public Internet Service Providers (ISPs) see the presence of NRENs as competition within the industry.

The Zambian NREN, (ZAMREN), is however providing a new perspective to this school of thought by establishing exemplary partnership models with commercial and public ISPs and other players that own connectivity infrastructure such as power and water utility companies.

According to ZAMREN CEO, Bonny Khunga, the NREN has entered into highly benefiting synergies with the Zambia Information and Communications Technology Authority (ZICTA), the Zambia Electricity Supply Corporation (ZESCO), CEC Liquid Telecom Zambia and Nkana Water and Sewerage Company.

Khunga says ZAMREN has signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with ZESCO to allow the NREN transit traffic on the power generating company's backbone and another MoU with ZICTA for the support of Last-mile connectivity and special licence considerations.

He also revealed that CEC-Liquid is giving ZAMREN discounted tariffs on its metro circuits and that the NREN can mount its equipment on water towers belonging to Nkana Water and Sewerage Company following fruitful discussions with the company.  

The CEO however admits that it is not easy for an NREN to convince infrastructure owners to allow NRENs use and access their property.

“Independent owners may not be willing to let NRENs access their  infrastructure due to many reasons including failure of the NREN to convince the stakeholders on the inherent value of an NREN and the owners also perceive the NREN as a competitor. In some cases they fear they will lose revenue if they let NRENs access their property and there is also a general concern of clogging of network and security.” 

He however says just like ZAMREN, other NRENs can access infrastructure of other companies or organisations operating in their cathment areas if they put in place good strategies which may include demonstrating to infrastructure owners that the NREN is not-for- profit driven but exists to serve the education sector. He also says engaging Vice Chancellors and executive directors of research institutions in discussions with infrastructure owners helps a lot.

In addition, Khunga says running NRENs transparently by documenting every undertaking of the NREN in annual reports as well as acknowledging the contributions of infrastructure owners  can also help a lot in coaxing owners to share their infrastructure with NRENs.     

From an end user’s mouth:  Zambian PhD student explains how she benefited from a research and education network   

Lydia Chabala, an soil scientist from Zambia can still not predict the amount of time and money it would have taken and cost her to complete her PhD research if she had not been introduced to the Zambia Research and Education Network (ZAMREN)’s high speed internet connectivity.

Chabala’s research focused on soil-environmental modeling for digital soil mapping in the Chongwe-Rufunsa area of Zambia.

“My research involved the acquisition of heavy data sets such as digital television models and satellite imagery which were relevant for me to bring out the modeling process. This and the analysis of downloaded data sets required high computing resources that would run the model faster.”

The researcher says it was not easy to download and analyse the sets using data bundles she bought from commercial internet service providers as this was not only expensive but also time consuming. 

“Because I was facing so many roadblocks on how to acquire data for my research, I started looking around for high speed internet connectivity as it was becoming expensive for me to continue buying data bundles. Eventually I met the CEO of ZAMREN Mr. Bonny Khunga who introduced me to the ZAMREN network and thanks to this network, I was able to download many images and and run my model in a short time.” says Chabala.

Having benefitted from the research and education network Chabala now wants more researchers in Zambia to be introduced to this network for them to experience similar ease of doing research.

“I would like to call upon researchers in my field or any other fields that require the use of heavy data sets to get in touch with their NRENs, see what their NRENs can offer them and if possible get an account and start using the network.  I also recommend lectures to start introducing their students to NRENs so that the students are aware of the resources that the NREN can offer them because this is the  generation that will continue to use those resources for the foreseeable future.”

Lesotho rolls up sleeves for NREN formation 

A task force comprising ICT directors from seven higher learning and/or research institutions has been established to fast track the formation of a National Research and Education Network (NREN) in Lesotho.

The “Task Team” as it is being called, was proposed during a ‘Lesotho NREN sensitisation workshop’ that was held in the capital Maseru on 18 May 2016.

Senior representatives from the Center for Accounting Studies (CAS), Institute for Development Management (IDM), Lesotho College of Education ( LCE), Lesotho-Boston Health Alliance (LeBoHA), Lesotho Polytechnic (LP), Limkokwing Univeristy of Creative Technology (LUCT) and the National University of Lesotho (NUL) and others from various government departments and agencies including the Lesotho Communication Authority ( LCA) attended the workshop which sought to find ways and guiding principles on how the country’s research and education institutions can collaborate to initiate the formation of  an NREN.

As one of the major steps in the creation of the NREN, participants to the workshop agreed on the formation of a task team that will be mandated to develop a compelling plan, guided by agreed principles, for the launch and operation of the NREN.

UbuntuNet Alliance was represented by its consultant Dr. Duncan Martin who provided insights and shared with the delegates best NREN practices and success stories from other UbuntuNet Alliance NREN members.

Dr. Martin was invited to the workshop alongside other four experts from South Africa who also gave presentations on various aspects of research and education networking.

Among others, the workshop agreed that immediate priority should be given to establishing a high speed Internet network  as institutions in the country urgently need connectivity at much greater bandwidth than they have at present.

It was also agreed that the NREN should start off as a project that will be hosted by one of the represented institutions but overseen by a steering commitee comprising of members from all concerned institutions.

Lesotho is one of the 11 of the 26 countries from the UbuntuNet Alliance region that are yet to register as members of UbuntuNet Alliance.

Currently, research and education institutions in the country pay an average $167 per Mbps per month for connectivity from commercial Internet Service Providers.

African NRENs and their role in addressing financial stress of universities and research institutions   

That many African higher learning and research institutions are facing funding problems is not news.  Most universities across Africa are struggling to operate to their full potential due to underfunding, a development that has in some cases forced universities to resort to hiking fees already considered high for many an African student.

The raising of  fees by universities has often been met with hostility from students as evidenced by the recent #FeesMustFall student protest movement that began in October 2015 in response to an increase in fees at South African Universities.

While students are seen to be the main victims of this higher education funding crisis, universities and research institutions are also feeling the pinch of this wave which is compromising their education and research output quality.

So, in the midst of this prevailing crisis, do Vice Chancellors and CEOs know that NRENs can play a big role to save their institutions from being hit further by this crisis?

To answer this question NUANCE engaged the Research and Education Network of Uganda, (RENU), and the NREN’s CEO Eng. Isaac Kasana shared RENUs insights on the issue from an own perspective in this write-up:

Over the years, it has become evident that Vice Chancellors and CEOs of research organisations make decisions based mostly on current critical needs and desired strategic direction and not on visions of what connectivity could do to transform education and research in the future! Here are some of the areas African NRENs have demonstrated to be part of the desired solutions:

i.    Reducing the cost of instruction:
We see Uganda’s higher education institutions (HEIs) finally starting to embrace e-learning and other forms of online education resources with the primary motivation to save on the cost of education delivery. Initially, this is mostly for (continuing professional development (CPD) and post-graduate education. Unfortunately, we do not yet have quantitative impact assessment to justify some of these observations so NRENs must help HEIs to carry out cost-benefit analysis. Web or video conferencing tools to enable distributed lecture delivery and distributed conference participation are being tested and RENU is piloting one such tool starting 2016.

ii.    Open education resources:
Sharable open resources are lowering the cost of text books and current publications for libraries, students, and faculty. Open data, open science, open webinars are increasingly becoming better understood and utilised, YouTube for education and other education related content are growing in demand. But they do require broadband Internet and we believe that RENU needs to establish locally hosted education channels that are dedicated to R&E content delivery that are separate from general commodity content.

iii.    Reduced cost of operation for federal structured universities & HEIs:
For HEIs that have geographically distributed campuses or teaching centres, creation of VPNs to enable the sharing of their ERPs, VoIP phone services, internal content repositories and multi-site lecture delivery has great potential to lower their operating cost and recurrent expenditures.

iv.    Provision of low-cost broadband connectivity: 
It is increasingly becoming necessary to provide connectivity and Internet access for students and faculty on campus – for their smartphones, laptops, desktops and computer labs. Students are shunning institutions that do not provide good Internet services. Students are not buying books as much as it was in the past and are instead reverting to online access to educational resources all the time. Universities therefore require broadband at very low unit price to be able to serve such large demand in their technology budgets but which lowers what the student has to spend on his/her education.

v.    Reduced cost of operating campus-based infrastructure:
With such dependency on ICT the setting up and managing of disaster recovery sites (DRS) is a critical need. With the advent of effective NRENs, connectivity costs between primary and off-campus DRS becomes much lower and yet with much better availability performance and thus making NREN-hosted DRS and private cloud computing much more cost effective than dedicated institution financed DRS installations, while performing better than cloud services located on other continents while at the same time improving the content-density of African networks. Therefore, African NRENs need to invest in data centres and open source virtualization platforms that are not too costly for providing Infrastructure as a Service to member institutions.

vi.    Network and Data Security:
Protecting connected higher education and advanced research ICT assets against cybersecurity attacks and threats and the trail blazing of continuously evolving security protocols, by operating an effective and efficient R&E (Computer Emergency Readiness Team) CERT programme, is an important NREN commitment. This is usually not a paid service but university and research institution leaders need to appreciate the cost of operating such a CERT programme as well as the LATENT COST of NO CERT in order to unreservedly prioritise NREN annual membership fees.

The NREN’s  relationships with governments and ISPs: An expert's opinion

By Duncan Martin

NRENs exist to meet the connectivity and related needs of the universities and research institutions of their countries.  But who determines these needs and who judges whether they are being met?

If most of these institutions are essentially sub-departments of the State, to the extent that their procurement of Internet services is handled for them by some centralised state purchasing or IT agency, then this state agency will determine and impose Internet access policies and provisions upon the institutions and an NREN would have little purpose or role. This article does not apply to NRENs that may exist in such countries.

However in many countries a substantial number of the universities and research institutions, even though they may be “public” or “parastatal” institutions, enjoy very substantial budgetary responsibility and procedural discretion, and conduct their own procurements of Internet and related services.   Such institutions determine their own Internet needs; may choose how much to spend; and have the power to choose and change their suppliers.

NRENs make sense in such countries.  The universities and research institutions can collaborate, to their mutual benefit, in securing Internet and related services through a privately incorporated non-profit NREN.  At the day-to-day operational level, each institution and the NREN conduct a businesslike customer-supplier relationship, with the NREN being managed by its executive officers and Board of directors.  At the governance level, the institutions are the members of the NREN, and as such, jointly exercise ultimate sovereignty over the NREN, mainly through the power to appoint and remove directors.  This article applies to NRENs in such countries.

What should universities ask from Government?

It is widely accepted that NRENs need funding support from their governments.  Many governments in the UbuntuNet Region have invested in research and education networking; sometimes very effectively and sometimes with relatively little real impact on the universities.

Experience in the Region has distilled some pretty firm lessons as to what universities should seek by way of support from their governments as well as what they should not seek.

Ask for seed funds and/or assistance to start your NREN

The initiative or push to found an NREN usually comes from an informal group of ICT managers of universities and research institutions.  However there are many cases where over periods of years such groups could do little more than hold meetings because they had no funds at their disposal to enable sustained work or to purchase anything.

Plan for sustainability – not dependence

The NREN’s business and financial plan should have at its core the NREN’s rapid evolution to a position of operational self-sufficiency and sustainability.  In particular, the embryonic NREN should not seek recurring grants of running funds.

Key to this is the NREN’s establishing sound customer-supplier contractual relationships with the universities and research institutions.  The NREN must offer clearly structured services at stated service levels and unit prices, with the institutions free (in principle) to order as much as they wish and when they wish.  Initially the NREN may depend upon seed grants to cover its overhead costs, such as salaries and accommodation, but the plan must be to reach and surpass the breakeven point after which the NREN can recover its full operational cost through such charges. 

Seek out an institution to host the NREN initially

An operational NREN is both an organisation and a network.  Initial efforts are best spent in getting services up and running that prospective member universities can use, rather than on devising and registering a suitable new corporate structure.  However no Government can make grants to an informal group, and so it’s vital to persuade a suitable institution to adopt the embryonic NREN as an internal project for an initial period, with an advisory committee to guide the project’s progress.  Then seeding grants can be paid to that host institution, which can also enter into contracts with suppliers and own the NREN’s assets.  In due course, when a level of financial robustness has been attained, the NREN can be formally incorporated and can take over ownership of such assets and contracts.

Don’t ask for free Internet bandwidth to the campuses

In several countries of the Region national governments have launched projects that set out to provide free Internet access to campuses of universities and research institutions.  The responsible ministry itself or a duly-assigned parastatal institution manages the activity, which it sees as the Nation’s NREN, even though a non-governmental NREN may already have been operational for some years.

Someone in a central office somewhere determines which incumbent operator to appoint as the network provider, and announces ex cathedra how the available bandwidth will be split among the campuses.   The granted bandwidths, once implemented, may or may not meet the campuses’ requirements.  No upgrades are possible until the following year’s national budget has been approved.

In the writer’s experience and view, such centralized interventions are seriously misplaced in their disrespect for the institutions’ autonomy and the institution’s duty to determine and meet their own operational needs, and also have little chance of meeting the real needs of the institutions.

An embryonic NREN should (in the writer’s opinion) intend to establish itself as a businesslike, customer-oriented service provider, and should never think of asking Government or any of its agencies to provide free Internet bandwidth to the campuses.

Note that this is quite different from what is discussed in the next section - asking Government for capital injections to fund infrastructure development. Ask for periodic capital funding to develop the NREN’s network

Ask for periodic funding to develop the NREN’s Network

The main way in which governments and parastatal institutions of the Region have enabled the development of research and education networking in their countries is by the capital funding of the deployment and extension of the high-speed national networks that are available to their NRENs. Examples include:

•    KENET, which has received support in various forms from the Kenyan Government, including the donation of capacity of the TEAMS submarine cable between Mombasa and Fujairah.

•    SANReN (South African National Research Network), which was and is funded by recurring grants from the Department of Science and Technology to the CSIR.  The CSIR owns all rights of use of the very extensive, high-speed SANReN network, and makes such rights of use available to the institutions through TENET.

•    TENET’s Rural Campus Connections Project (RCCP), which is funded by grants from the Department of Higher Education and Training and aims to connect rural campuses of public universities to existing nodes of the SANReN Network.  The first 3-year RCCP Project started in 2011.  RCCP2 is now in progress.

•    ZAMREN, which has the use at no charge of capacity within the national optical fibre network of the Zambian Electricity Supply Commission (ZESCO).

Every NREN may ask for this type of financial support from its national government ministries responsible for universities and/or research.

Connectivity boost accelerates EU-Japanese science collaborations*

Over 50 million researchers, academics and students across Europe and Japan are set to benefit from a direct 20Gbps (gigabit per second) connectivity injection into the pan-European GÉANT network, celebrated at the launch event of the upgraded Japanese Science Information Network (SINET5) in Tokyo last month.

The capacity boost came in response to the increasing data transfer requirements of collaborative research between Europe and Japan on projects such as the ITER energy fusion reactor, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) experiments and the worldwide e-VLBI radio-astronomy network.

During his keynote speech at the launch Steve Cotter, CEO of GÉANT, said: “Up to now, connections between GÉANT and SINET have been achieved by peering in North America. Now, SINET is bringing 20Gbps directly to GÉANT; this means that we can jointly support European and Japanese researchers in their cutting-edge scientific endeavours with faster and higher capacities as well as lower latency. We expect to see a major ramp-up of traffic exchanged over our networks as further EU-Japan user projects come to fruition in the next 2-3 years.”

Operated by the National Institute of Informatics (NII), the 5th generation of the SINET network commenced operation in April.

Shigeo Urushidani, Director of the Cyber-Science Infrastructure Development Department at NII commented: “With its 100Gbps full-mesh backbone, SINET5 opens up new possibilities for 3 million users at over 800 connected universities and research centres across Japan. Enhanced international connectivity, including a direct connection to Europe, is a vital element of SINET5’s strategy to support our user communities and to advance global scientific research.”

The two 10Gbps circuits connect with the GÉANT network in London where NII’s network equipment is supported at GÉANT’s new data centre at Slough, UK.  SINET5 also connects there to the GÉANT Open exchange which enables direct links with other research and education networks. GÉANT and NII retain a back-up interconnection in New York.

The relationship between GÉANT and NII is longstanding. NII has been a major partner from the outset in TEIN, the EU-funded Asia-Pacific research and education network established by GÉANT and now successfully connecting 20 countries in the region. NII remains a major partner in TEIN and currently connects to the TEIN network in Singapore.

*This article first appeared on the GÉANT website. Read the original version.

Call for Articles

NUANCE is the monthly e-newsletter published by UbuntuNet Alliance. Key content  is news from, about, or of interest to National Research and Education Networks (NRENs) in Africa. We request and invite you to submit an item before the 20th of each month capturing:
  • News and developments from your NREN and news items of interest to NRENs
  • Content networks: how researchers and academics are using the REN infrastructure to enhance effectiveness and efficiency their work and to promote national and international collaboration
  • Hot tips about something you have done successfully (organisational or technical)
  • A photo that tells a story
  • Looking into the future, especially with regards to fibre infrastructure

Submissions should be sent to info@ubuntunet.net