VOLUME. 8, ISSUE 7: November 2015

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Recounting the success story of UbuntuNet-Connect 2015

At least 150 participants from the global research and education collaboration community converged at VIP Grand Hotel in the coastal city of Maputo, Mozambique on 19-20 November 2015, to attend UbuntuNet-Connect 2015; the eighth annual networking conference of UbuntuNet Alliance for Research and Education Networking.

The conference, held under the theme: “Beyond Connectivity: The Road to NREN Maturity”  was organised and jointly hosted by the Mozambique Research and Education Network (MoRENet), through the Ministry of Science and Technology, Higher Education and Vocational Training.

At 9:30hrs local time on November 19th 2015, line Minister of the host ministry, Prof. Doutor Eng Jorge Olivio Penicela Nhambiu declared the conference open; The next day, at 16:30hrs UbuntuNet Alliance CEO Dr. Pascal Hoba was delivering a “Thank You” message to the participants for making UbuntuNet-Connect 2015 a success. The conference had come to an end.

Between the minister’s opening and Dr. Hoba’s closing remarks, a total of 34 presentations were delivered; 28 from presenters whose abstracts were selected from the 61 that were submitted for selection, and 6 from special projects from networking partners. 

On the first day, the presentations covered three sessions on ‘NREN as a tool for national development,’ ‘E-learning and web applications for collaboration’ and ‘Video conference as a service.

The second and last day of the conference, November 20th  had 4 sessions on ‘International Collaboration in Research,’ ‘Regional RENs and Security,’ ‘Applications in Service delivery’ and a special research project and output session that had presentations from the Uganda Medical Informatics Center (UMIC), Sci-GaIA and MAGIC projects and the African Academy of Sciences (AAS).

As the curtains were being drawn and banners pulled off the walls of the conference room, there was an evident impression of satisfaction on the smiling faces of the delegates some of whom had arrived in Maputo as early as November 14 to attend designated pre-conference events.

The pre-conference events included a 4-day network engineer training workshop that started on November 15th, the AfricaConnect2 Administration, Coordination and Communications Plan and Visibility meetings, the MoRENet, MAGIC and Sci-GaIA workshops and not forgetting the SomaliREN and World Bank workshop meeting which launched the NREN’s mission to connect to the UbuntuNet network under the AfricaConnect2 project.

As UbuntuNet Alliance takes stock of UbuntuNet-Connect 2015, eyes and minds of people of the Alliance are now set on UbuntuNet-Connect 2016.

Signed, sealed and posted: UbuntuNet Alliance signs AfricaConnect2, Cluster 1 contract 

It was a case of killing two birds with one stone; On Wednesday, November 18th on the eve of UbuntuNet-Connect 2015, UbuntuNet Alliance officially signed the €10 Million AfricaConnect2 Cluster 1 grant agreement with the European Commission at the European Union Delegation in Mozambique.

With the venue of UbuntuNet-Connect 2015, VIP Grand Maputo Hotel, only a 15 Minute drive away from the European Union Delegation, it did not require much for UbuntuNet Alliance team to drive to the Embassy to formalise the long awaited contract.

UbuntuNet Alliance CEO Dr. Pascal Hoba signed the dotted lines of the contractual papers in the presence of the Head of EU Delegation in Mozambique Sven Kühn von Burgsdorff. Françoise Moreau, Head of Unit at the EC Directorate-General for Development and Cooperation (DG DEVCO) had arleady endorsed the contract on behalf of the EC on November 12th 2015.

The signing ceremony, which came a few days after the EC had officially approved the overall AfricaConnect2 contract, was attended by West and Central African Research and Education Network (WACREN) Chief Executive Officer Dr. Boubakar Barry and Arab States Research and Education Network (ASREN) Co-Managing Director Yousef Torman. The two Regional Research and Education Networks will, with coordination from GÉANT, implement Cluster 2 and cluster 3 of project.

While congratulating UbuntuNet Alliance on the signing of the grant, European Commission International Cooperation Officer Stephanie Truille-Baurens advised all three clusters to work hard in implementing the project saying although the project has been split; it needs to be looked into as a Pan African project whose success will be measured from the progress attained in all the three clusters.

In his remarks Dr Hoba said AfricaConnect2 will build on the success of AfricaConnect which helped reduce bandwidth cost for reserch and education networks in UbuntuNet Alliance region. The CEO also pledged to work closely with the other two clusters for the overall success of the new project.

’Before AfricaConnect bandwidth prices in the region were typically more than 10 times the prices in more developed parts of the world. AfricaConnect has allowed countries once isolated like Zambia to be on the map of research networking and contribute actively. Now that we know that affordable connectivity is achievable we want to partner with our neighbours to pursue our shared vision of a connected and engaged pan-African research and education community.’  said Dr. Hoba.

Present at the ceremony were UbuntuNet Alliance Chairperson Prof. John Ssebuwufu, Vice Chairperson Dr. Iman Abuel Maaly, GÉANT Chief International Relations and Communications Officer Cathrin Stover, ZAMREN CEO Bonny Khunga, Eb@le CEO Prof. Dibungi Kalenda and UbuntuNet Alliance consultant Duncan Martin.

SomaliREN, UbuntuNet Alliance sign AfricaConnect 2 Advance Payment Agreement   

One of the most abiding moments of UbuntuNet-Connect 2015 week in Maputo, Mozambique, was the sight of Somali Research and Education Network (SomaliREN) CEO Dahir Hassan Abdi sitting in a conference room next to UbuntuNet Alliance CEO Dr. Pascal Hoba.

It was on Wednesday, November 18th 2015, 16:00hrs local time. The two were signing SomaliREN’s €280,000 AfricaConnect2 Advance Payment Agreement for connectivity of the NREN to the UbuntuNet network.

The NREN’s connectivity to the UbuntuNet network comes under the $16.6 Million Somalia ICT Sector support programme being funded by the European Union, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), the UK Department for International Development (DfID) and the World Bank.

As a component of this wider programme, the World Bank is working with SomaliREN in a $3.5 million project aimed at providing connectivity to the country’s higher education sector. It is under this project that the €280,000 has been made available for SomaliREN’s contribution to AfricaConnect2.

Among those present in the conference room to witness the signing of the SomaliREN and UbuntuNet Alliance connectivity pact were World Bank Lead ICT Policy Specialist Dr Tim Kelly and his counterpart Rachel Firestone.

Commenting on the Bank’s support to SomaliREN, Dr. Kelly said connecting SomaliREN to the UbuntuNet network can help in facilitating stability in the troubled country saying the connectivity can help in training the country’s next generation of leaders as well as exposing the country’s youths to the wider world.

SomaliREN CEO Dahir Hassan Abdi said the NREN’s connection to the UbuntuNet network will reposition SomaliREN as a fully functioning NREN adding this will also bring down bandwidth charges which he said are currently as high as $500 per Mbps per month.

Abdi expressed gratitude to the development partners for the connectivity grant and appealed to Somali authorities to grant the NREN ample land on which to build a Network Operating Center where network engineers would be trained.

The World Bank is  expected to support the building of the Network Operating Center as well as in the setting up of Somali’s Communications Act.

SomaliREN was established in 2006 with 7 member institutions but the NREN now has 14 member institutions.       

Training the Trainer: Network engineer trainer Patrick Okui explains relevance of UbuntuNet Alliance, NSRC training workshops 

If by any chance you happened to be in the city of Maputo, Mozambique, VIP Grand Hotel to be specific, during week beginning 15th November, 2015 and you run into Patrick Okui from Uganda, you would be forgiven for thinking he is just another young man passing hours by attending another function at the hotel.

At 33, Okui looks younger than his age; He is slim, soft spoken and has a baby face. It is only when you sit down with him that you realise that the young man is but a deep reservoir of computer networking information.

During the said week, Okui is in Maputo as part of the Network Startup Resource Center (NSRC) team delivering a 4-day advanced routing training to 23 networking engineers drawn from the UbuntuNet Alliance NREN Members.

The training, which starts Sunday, November 15th, 2015 and runs until Wednesday November 18th, is the latest in the series of engineer capacity building workshop which UbuntuNet Alliance has been offering to network engineers with support from NSRC and the International Network for the Availability of Scientific Publications (INASP).

And taking stock of the training on Thursday, November 19th, 2015, the Computer Science graduate from  Makerere University does not hesitate to rate it a success.

“The training was on Advanced Internet Routing, specifically on Border Gateway Protocol (BGP). We were training the engineers on how they can get their NRENs to talk to other NRENs in order to exchange traffic and information about the networks they have and also for them to decide to prefer to pass traffic to certain networks. From this training, a network engineer can decide to divert traffic from, say China to go over a specified link. From the assessments we have done, the participants seem to have grasped the concepts and we are confident they will be able to configure their routers to direct traffic over specified links.”

The GBP training is just one of the many areas of networking in which Okui has trained scores of network engineers. Since he formally joined NSRC as a Network Engineer  Trainer in 2012, Okui has also taught Network Monitoring and Management, Campus Network Design and Cloud Services to engineers who have gone on to train their peers in their NREN’s. Okui trains the trainer.

“In Network Monitoring and Management we the engineers on how they can monitor and manage their networks by looking at how much traffic a university or NREN has, where the traffic is going, who are the biggest users of the traffic and at what time users use the traffic. This helps the University or NREN present detailed information on how their network is being used and they are able to justify a particular spending in a particular direction. Engineers from KENET, TERNET, RENU, SudREN and ZAMREN have implemented similar trainings in their NRENs.”

Okui, who himself started participating in network engineering training workshops before he even joined the university, also points out the Campus Network Design training as one of the important  courses that engineers in the capacity building programmes go through. This area, he says, helps engineers design their campus networks efficiently so that it benefits every end user.

“We have noticed that because of low skill level, campus networks in universities in Africa are not designed efficiently, this is why you will find that even when a university is given 1Gb internet capacity, the Vice Chancellor still complains that the speed is very slow. So we train engineers on how best they can design their campus networks and we ask willing participants to give us diagrams of their campus networks and we suggest to them how they can improve the networks.”

Networking services is another area of training. Here, says Okui, engineers are equipped with skills on using services like cloud services that can integrate with eduaroam or any other Identity Management services. In this area engineers are trained on how they can provide networking services for a university on a limited budget.

So, in what other  networking areas do university and NREN networking engineers need to be trained in?

According to Okui, the mileage still vary from one NREN to another.

“We have NRENs that are advanced in networking engineering because their engineers have been attending many of these meetings but other NRENs have not been participating so there is a need to train them on the areas we have already trained others on. Also, some NREN’s have custom needs so we help them in areas of their asking.” concluded Okui. 

INASP’s Peter Burnett set for January 2016 retirement

After 8 years of dedicated service for the International Network for the Availability of Scientific Publications (INASP), Peter Burnett has decided to finally call time on his career come January 2016.

Burnett worked as Head of Library Development for INASP for 5 years and has for the past 3 years been working for the network as Programme Manager for Library Curricula and Network Management.

But for the past four years, he has been a regular figure within UbuntuNet Alliance as he has been INASP’s symbolic figure in the network engineer capacity building programme which UbuntuNet Alliance holds in partnership with the Network Startup Resource Center and INASP.

Under this programme, Burnett has been to the last four UbuntuNet-Connect conferences and INASP has supported 2 network engineers from three UbuntuNet Alliance NRENs of ZAMREN, RENU and TERNET to attend the past three UbuntuNet-Connect preceded network engineer training workshops. INASP has also been supporting engineers from the three NRENs to attend African Network Operators Group (AfNOG) training workshops since 2013.

Speaking to NUANCE at the UbuntuNet-Connect 2015 which is set to be his last UbuntuNet-Connect conference where he will wear the INASP tag, Burnett singled out INASP’s involvement with UbuntuNet Alliance as the most exciting programme he has been involved in at INASP saying UbuntuNet Alliance’s core function of providing connectivity to NRENs as well as that of providing training to network engineers has augured well with the main objectives of INASP.

“It is possible to make available thousands of electronic journals, data sets and electronic books but if the researcher cannot access these publications because of poor campus network, then it is just a waste of money. Through the provision of a dedicated network to research and education network and training to campus network engineers is helping improve campus networks thereby making scientific publications more accessible to researchers,” Said Burnett who also commended the NSRC for partnering with UbuntuNet Alliance in the training programme."

The former University of Oxford Head of Technical Service also took time to hail INASP’s impact in making sure that low income countries are able to negotiate for discounted or even free country wide subscriptions for journals from major electronic publishers.

INASP was founded in 1992 by the International Council of Science following a report that hinted on a lack of scientific output from Africa. Currently, INASP is working in at least 23 low income countries worldwide 13 of which are in Africa.
Among other developments, INASP managed to establish the Africa Journals Online in 1998 and the network has been involved in the training online editors in managing online journals.

UbuntuNet Alliance has enjoyed working with Peter Burnett and wishes him continued good health after his retirement.

Introducing Mconf web conferencing to African NRENs

Among the authors that presented their papers at UbuntuNet-Connect 2015 was South African Research Network (SANReN) Network Engineer Kasandra Isaac.

Her presentation, titled ‘Implementing Mconf web conferencing at the South African National Research and Education Network’ aimed at introducing African NRENs to Mconf web conferencing, an open source NREN web conferencing tool funded by the Brazilian National Research and Education Network, Rede Nacional de Ensino e Pesquisa (RNP) and now being used by SANReN since July 2015.

In her presentation, Isaac stressed on the advantages that African NRENs stand to experience from using the research collaboration tool which she said can be used, among others, for distance education, remote meetings or broadcasting of events.

According to the network engineer, the application also offers a range of collaboration tools such as a whiteboard, document repositories, collaboration spaces and shared notes.

She said SANReN started using Mconf after the NREN had embarked on a search for a web conference service by looking at ‘other’ video conferencing tools that were being used by other NRENs.

After looking at criteria such as proof in Use (By trial), success of other NRENs in using a given service, functionality, maintenance and support, ease of use and ease to take into production and cost when deciding on the preferred conferencing tool, Isaac says  SANReN opeted for Mconf after observing that apart from having the other advantages, the platfform has a big added advantage of not recovering a production cost from the user.

The presenter said Mconf has been specifically developed for NRENs to virtually collaborate and called on African NRENs to join Mconf’s Global Academic Network which has a range of collaboration tools that include but not limited to Real-time communication with audio and video, Web conferencing rooms, Federated Identity integration and document repositories.

Another advantage of Mconf, says Isaac, is that institutions participating in the web conference application do not have to worry about connectivity failure since servers from other institutions are able to support an institution that has lost connectivity while on the platform.

“Mconf Global Network is open to any academic institution that wishes to participate, and creates a possibility for global resource sharing that is unique in the web conferencing and video conferencing world. The greatest beauty of the system is that it is a real win-win situation for everyone involved, and the network gets stronger when grown. One institution does not have to worry about a temporary failure in the server or a traffic surge, because there are other servers supporting the system as a whole,” She said.

Calling for applications for the Sci-GaIA Winter Online School

 If you are a network engineer or a systems administrator or an IT expert from the African research and education community and are interested in Science Gateways, then you stand a great chance of developing and enhancing your skills of integrating scientific applications in the field by enrolling  for the upcoming Sci-GaIA Winter School Online set to run from March 1-31, 2016.

It’s so simple; all you need to do is form or join a team of up to four persons working on the development of a scientific application to be integrated in a science gateway and apply online before the 22nd of January 2016.

The school will be entirely web-based and it will include a combination of pre-recorded lectures and interactive sessions per week to check the progress of students through their short presentations and the correction of the exercises.

According to Sci-GaIA, the main aim of the school is to allow the creation of an intercontinental pool of experts that can act as an “interface” between the end-users of the Communities of Practice (CoPs) supported by the Sci-GaIA project and the e-Infrastructure services.

To qualify for enrollment, students from prospective teams must have prior knowledge of Java programming, web application development, basic unix shell and basic database management. Other selection criteria including relevance of applicants CVs to the winter school, composition and geographic distribution of the applicant’s team and the presence of a team’s proposed application will also be considered. Up to 10 proposed scientific applications from different teams of applicants are expected to be selected for the online school.

The detailed program of the school, including all pre-recorded lectures, training materials and descriptions of the scientific applications will be available online by the 22nd of February 2016.
At the end of the school, 2 persons from the winning and the runner- up applications teams will win a free participation to the Sci-GaIA Final Conference that will be held in Brussels in March/April 2017.

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