Thursday, October 20, 2011

The role and purpose of R&E networks

[Neelie Kroes, European Commission Vice-President for the Digital Agenda, recently received the GEANT Expert group report with its views on the future of the pan-European research and education networking.
This is an excellent report and I concur with most of its recommendations, particularly that R&E networks should be engines of innovation. R&E networks whose only goal is to provide low cost network and Internet services and who look and act no differently then hierarchical, monopoly telcos are ultimately doomed in my opinion. Someday, when governments break up the existing telecom oligopolies, the cost of telecom circuits will drop dramatically and R&E networks will be unable to compete. We are already seeing this phenomena on some competitive cross sections in Europe where optical lighpaths from the commercial sector are considerably cheaper than similar links offered by R&E networks.

R&E networks have had their greatest success and biggest impact when, in addition to delivering services to the R&E community they also engage in disruptive innovation. The deployment of the Internet itself is probably the quintessential example. But the invention of the web, customer owned fiber, IP over optical, Eduroam, etc are other examples of technologies that have emanated from R&E networks and have gone onto transform society and create entire new business eco-systems. Open lightpath exchanges, federated optical networks, enterprise based integrated WiFi broadband wireless networks, brokered commercial cloud services, user controlled or software defined networks, federated identity, collaboration tools, leveraging build out of community based broadband networks (Gig.u) , green IT, etc are other ongoing examples of how R&E networks can continue to engage in disruptive innovation. Eventually these technologies will also transform society and create new business opportunities.

The only exception I would make to this otherwise excellent report is engagement with industry. While I fully applaud and commend engagement with industry, as for example, brokering commercial cloud services, the exception I make is engagement with monopoly telecoms. Unfortunately most politicians and bureaucrats associate telecoms as part and parcel of the ICT industry. What distinguishes telecom from the rest of the ICT sector is they make most of their money from monopoly rent extraction rather than innovation. In many cases the innovation undertaken by R&E networks is a threat to their livelihood. So extreme caution is warranted when R&E networks are asked to engage with their local monopoly telco/cableco/cellco. Some excerpts from the report—BSA]

Knowledge without Borders

A platform for innovation: A much stronger orientation towards innovation is required, building on the networks’ unique, but underutilized, position within the European innovation ecosystem. Innovation here means not just (or even primarily) technological innovation but also in the use of technology and in the provision of services. NRENs should become living labs, providing live testbeds for future technologies and connecting researchers and others to the market. No commercial provider has this capability and it is a further demonstration of GÉANT’s European scale.

Organize for innovation. To realise this goal, innovation has to be made a central focus of networking activities, and supported/reinforced through appropriate structures and funding. Greater inclusiveness and transparency must be introduced, opening these activities up to industry, academia and user communities.
The nature of the scientific process is changing fundamentally, with research becoming more interdisciplinary and data driven. Big Science projects, which were once confined to a few communities such as high-energy physics, are now found in virtually every scientific discipline, including social sciences. Such projects routinely present the most challenging requirements for the research networks. Scientists rely increasingly on trustworthy networks to navigate the complex web of people, data and resources.

Provide a research partner and lead customer for the European ICT industry. NRENs should play a key role in mediating between the higher education sector and its suppliers in the provision of commercial networking services, including cloud services.

Increasing competition for international connectivity: The fact that many of the NRENs’ international links are provided outside of the GÉANT/GN3 framework makes for a very dynamic situation. High-end user communities exploit this dynamism to create their own global networks (e.g. for the data produced by the LHC accelerator at CERN). Effectively, there is no monopoly for international connectivity, nor should there be.

We envisage moving towards a richer mesh of networks based on ubiquitous virtualized resources. These mobile multi-cloud environments, where there is storage on every device, are much closer
to the multi-domain nature of academic networking. Academic data centres will consolidate and reliance on global data centres will increase. New virtualized software-based approaches are arriving on the scene and more will come before 2020.

Allow for flexibility in architectural choices and operational modes, recognising the increasing diversity of solutions available. Networking technology continues to evolve rapidly; witness for instance
the emergence of hybrid networking architectures, light path connectivity and Open Exchanges. Even if no major breakthroughs would occur in a 2020 timeframe, current technologies will continue to push the boundaries in terms of performance. Smart resource sharing, virtualization, ubiquity, mobility, security will all be in demand by the networks’ disparate users. From an architectural point of view, there are several ways in which the networks might be configured; indeed, a key characteristic is the increasing diversity of solutions available. The Future Internet is expected to be a complex federated architecture, providing multiple services tailored to co-existing, yet securely independent user communities. GÉANT has to grow as a European commons in an inherently multi-domain, open environment. The guiding principles should be (1) what works best for users and meets their requirements, (2) what contributes to the European communications commons, and (3) what gives Europe the best position in global research and education networking.

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