Is computing going to be the next utility, available to everyone like electricity or gas? Is education becoming a consumer commodity? What would such developments mean for research networks? Reflections upon the future of research and education networking continued during the third day of the annual TERENA Networking Conference, with complementary plenary talks by Tim Robinson of Net North West (UK) and Richard Katz of EDUCAUSE (USA).
Both considered social, demographic, political and economic factors that could have an impact on education and, indirectly, research networking. Their audience included participants in Malawi, China, Spain, Italy, Indonesia and the Czech Republic, who were linked by live-stream videoconferencing via satellite, as part of the GLOBAL project's Virtual Conference Centre initiative.
Tim Robinson focused on the ever-increasing pace of technological change and asked whether the research networking community is ready for the rapid changes in governance that will accompany it. He explored the growing consumerism of information technologies and our ability to pay for information.
So far we have seen no significant cost efficiencies in education as a result of the implementation of technologies, he said. And although the ‘Internet boom generation’ is now entering university equipped with powerful laptops and a range of technology skills, there is still a low level of information technology ‘literacy’ and, most importantly, critical thinking skills.
These deficiencies also concerned Richard Katz. He expressed dismay at the “American Idol-isation of everything”: the ‘democratising’ power of networks to open access to education and government, for example, is also shifting the balance of power more generally, so that ideas and information are accepted "by popular vote" rather than for their truthfulness. At the same time, the business of education is becoming ever more commercialised and students seem fewer and more disengaged from their education than ever before.
The challenge both speakers presented was for research networkers to lift their gaze from the networks and see to that the world has changed. “Are we building tomorrow’s networks for yesterday’s world, or yesterday’s university?” Richard Katz asked. “How do we avoid doing that?” One suggestion he made after the plenary talks were over was to begin integrating more people from different disciplines, ethnic groups and cultures into the discussion. As the live-streaming in this session showed, the networks themselves can be part of the solution.
A morning session on multi-domain lightpaths featured a presentation about the roll-out of SURFnet 6, a hybrid network based on dark fibre. The Dutch national research networking organisation SURFnet has also established the NetherLight open optical exchange point, which provides lightpath connections to Barcelona, Chicago, New York, Prague, Russia, Stockholm and CERN, and from there to other regions. SURFnet is now working on dynamic lightpath provisioning using DRAC (Dynamic Resource Allocation Controller - developed by Nortel and SURFnet), using eDCO (electronic Dynamically Compensating Optics) and eROADM (electronic Reconfigurable Optical Add/Drop Multiplexers) technology.
This theme continued with a presentation of NDL (Network Description Language) and the TL1 (Transaction Language 1) Toolkit, which are being developed to facilitate dynamic lightpath set-up and monitoring. Examples were given of real applications where they are used, including the Large Hadron Collidor and e-VLBI (Very Long Baseline Interferometry) radio astronomy.
Roaming figured prominently in today’s sessions. There was much interest in a complex infrastructure that can integrate several technologies to improve administrative processes and offer value-added ICT services to students. The University of Messina (Italy) has collaborated with the Bank of Sicily to provide 38,000 students with smartcards that can be used as a student identity card, refectory pass and credit card, among other things.
In a later session, participants heard how a comment at last year’s TERENA Networking Conference led to an unexpected development. During TNC 2007, the view was expressed that improvements to the RADIUS protocol would benefit eduroam by providing more security, but this probably would not gain much support from the IETF (Internet Engineering Task Force). On the contrary, Stefan Winter of Foundation RESTENA (Luxembourg) reported today that he followed up on this and the IETF has agreed to support the development of RadSec, which will enhance the RADIUS protocol.
A successful project to rapidly deploy eduroam was showcased during the same session. The e-University project was started in 2003 by FCCN, the Portuguese national research networking organisation, supported by government. Since then, 92% of the academic community has become eduroam-enabled. By the end of this year, that figure should reach 100%. Evidence shows that almost 310,000 students are now not only enabled, but are actually using eduroam at a growing rate.
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/.