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TNC day 4: An astronomy first and a GN2 shoot-out

To the jangling chords of the soundtrack from ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’, participants filled the auditorium of a session by the same name, during the final morning of the 2008 TERENA Networking Conference. The showdown they had come to witness was a panel discussion about the “successes and shortcomings” of the GN2 project and the GEANT2 network.

In a series of short but thought-provoking presentations, the panellists fired off their thoughts on a range of relevant areas before audience members joined the fray, moderated by IT consultant Robin Arak. Although there were no casualties, many comments hit their mark.

Topics with the most impact were those relating to the management and marketing of research and education networks and services. Our approach is still driven by the idea of providing technology to technologists, whereas nowadays everyone has technology and the challenge is to provide services, said Dai Davies of DANTE. National research and education networking organisations (NRENs) “have to offer what people want, not necessarily the technology that is best”.

In similar vein an audience member drew a comparison with the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation), which began by making cameras and other equipment as well as actually broadcasting programmes. Once other companies could make the equipment more cheaply, the BBC had to focus on its information services, which now encompass far more than just broadcasting. NRENs are in a similar position, he said.

In order to know what users want, NRENs should do some serious market research, several participants recommended. Marketing and communications tasks are still not taken seriously enough in the research networking world however, and are often allocated to technical staff as a part-time activity. At the same time, technical experts still dominate in other key roles and non-technical people remain generally uninvolved in the NRENs or in using their services. Furthermore, decision-making is a slow process in the NREN world, several people commented. Swift change is needed to be able to achieve swifter management.

The full video-streamed discussion on this, the other subjects also covered in this session, and the other presentations of the day are available online (see below).

Other activities

At the same time, a number of other sessions took place, including “a word from TERENA’s industrial members”. This featured presentations by Yves Poppe of Tata Communications (Canada), Jean-Marc Uze of Juniper Networks (France), Jan Hof of Extreme Networks (Netherlands) and Gerard Jacobs of Nortel.

A live demonstration that followed these sessions achieved a ‘first’ in radio astronomy. Members of the EXPReS project (Express Production Real-time e-VLBI Service) linked telescopes in Africa, Europe, North America and South America to a central data correlator in the Netherlands, simulating a telescope almost 11,000 kilometres in diameter.

Telescopes in Chile, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Puerto Rico, South Africa and Sweden simultaneously streamed data to JIVE, the Joint Institute for VLBI in Europe (VLBI = Very Long Baseline Interferometry) at a rate of 1.44 Gbps. There, the data was correlated in real-time, and results were transmitted to the TNC demonstration in Belgium.

Astronomical achievements

This was the first time that the team had carried out a live connection between four continents and detected signals that radio astronomers can work with. The telescopes in Chile and South Africa were connected to this network only within the past month, marking another ground-breaking achievement for the team - literally as well as figuratively - as long trenches had to be dug through difficult terrain.

Huib Jan van Langevelde of JIVE explained the details and the challenges involved during the TNC’s closing plenary session. He said that such developments in connectivity have put Europe far ahead of other world regions in this field of research and that close collaboration with national research networking organisations and GEANT must be continued.

These developments are extremely important for science, he added. Among other benefits, it means increased sensitivity and reduced response times of the e-VLBI system. There can now be immediate feedback, for example, allowing problems with the telescopes to be spotted within minutes rather than months. And it also significantly reduces the time to publication of results.

At the start of his talk, Huib Jan van Langevelde had observed that 2008 marks 400 years since the advent of modern astronomy, which began when Dutch spectacle maker Hans Lippershey applied for a patent for ‘a certain instrument for seeing far'. Occurring just a few months short of that anniversary, and taking place in Bruges - only a relatively short distance from the town of Middelburg where Sacharias Jansen, Lippershey's neighbour and probably the true inventor of the telescope, worked - the EXPReS project demonstration could not have been much better placed or timed. Its success certainly ensured a bright end to this year's TERENA Networking Conference.

Links

More about JIVE and the EXPReS project.

Archived video streams of all TNC presentations are available from http://tnc2008.terena.org/media/archive.php.

Most of the slides and some of the papers can be downloaded by clicking on the relevant session in the programme, at http://tnc2008.terena.org/schedule/.