Research infrastructures play an increasing role in the advancement of knowledge and technology and their exploitation. For example, radiation sources, data banks in genomics and data banks in social sciences, observatories for environmental sciences, systems of imaging or clean rooms for the study and development of new materials or nano-electronics, are the core of research and innovation processes. By offering high quality research services to users from different countries, including peripheral and outermost regions, by attracting young people to science and by networking facilities, research infrastructures help structuring the scientific community and play a key role in the construction of an efficient research and innovation environment. Because of their ability to gather a ‘critical mass’ of people, knowledge and investment, they contribute to national, regional and European economic development. They consist therefore the core of the knowledge triangle of research, education and innovation.
The development of a European approach with regard to research infrastructures, including ICT-based e-Infrastructures, and the carrying out of activities in this area at a European level, can make a significant contribution to boosting European research potential, increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of research, as well as to reinforcing European research communities. Indeed, since such infrastructures are expensive and need a broad range of expertise to be developed and deployed, they should be built, used and exploited on a European or even at a global scale.
While Member States remain central in the development and financing of most infrastructures, the EU can and should via FP7 and Horizon2020 play a catalyzing and leveraging role by helping to ensure wider and more efficient access to and use of the infrastructures existing in the different Member States. The EU actions should also stimulate the coordinated development, deployment and networking of these infrastructures, and foster the emergence of new research infrastructures of pan-European interest within a medium to long-term vision.
Within the scope of this EU action, the term ‘research infrastructures’ refers to facilities, resources, systems and related services that are used by research communities to conduct high-level research in their respective fields. This definition covers: major scientific equipment or set of instruments; knowledge based-resources such as collections, archives or structured scientific information; ICT-based e-Infrastructures (networks, computing resources, software and data repositories) for research and education; any other entity of a unique nature essential to achieve or enable excellence in research. Research infrastructures may be ’single-sited’ or ‘distributed’ (a network of resources).
e-Infrastructures in Africa
With few exceptions, African universities and research centres lack access to dedicated global research and education resources because they are not connected to the global infrastructure consisting of dedicated high capacity regional networks. The consequence is that research and higher education requiring such access cannot be conducted currently in Africa and consequently the continent is not well-represented in the global research community. This is witnessed by the world map of scientific division where territory size shows the proportion of all scientific papers (published in 2001) written by authors living there (Worldmapper, 2010).
An important bottleneck is the lack of direct peering with other research and higher education networks. This bottleneck can be removed only by creating dedicated National Research and Education Networks (NRENs) connecting research and tertiary education institutions in each African country with a Regional Research and Education Network (RREN) interconnected to the peer infrastructures on other continents. In this context, a pioneering and very important role has been played by the UbuntuNet Alliance (UbuntuNet, 2010).
Incorporated in 2006, UbuntuNet gathers the following 13 NRENs in Eastern and Southern Africa – Eb@le (Democratic Republic of Congo), EthERNet (Ethiopia), KENET (Kenya), MAREN (Malawi), MoRENet (Mozambique), RwEdNet (Rwanda), SomaliREN (Somalia), SUIN (Sudan), TENET (South Africa), TERNET (Tanzania), RENU (Uganda), Xnet (Namibia) and ZAMREN (Zambia) – and it is fostering the creation of new ones in Botswana, Burundi, Lesotho, Mauritius, Swaziland, and Zimbabwe.
The mission of the Alliance is to secure affordable high-speed international connectivity and efficient ICT access and usage for African NRENs. In this respect, UbuntuNet has been one of the stakeholders of the FEAST project (FEAST, 2010) (Feasibility Study for African – European Research and Education Network Interconnection) that, between December 2008 and December 2009, has studied the feasibility of connecting African NRENs to the GÉANT network and has documented the relevant issues in the region inhibiting the spread of these enabling technologies. In its final study (FEAST final report, 2010), FEAST has identified the opportunities available in Sub-Saharan Africa in terms of new intercontinental submarine cables with abundant capacity (see Figure 28) and emerging regional and national terrestrial fibre optic backbones.
FEAST has also paved the way for the creation of the AfricaConnect consortium that will take care, under the coordination of DANTE, of the creation, in the next 3-4 years, of a RREN in Sub-Saharan Africa at a total cost of 15 M!, 80% funded by the European Commission and the rest co-funded by the beneficiary countries. Previous and current EU funded projects such as FEAST, ERINA4Africa, eI-Africa, CHAIN, eI4Africa and CHAIN-REDS have investigated and nurtured e-Infrastructures in Africa. Until recently, the cost and availability of bandwidth has hampered such projects, but this is changing rapidly and will accelerate during the life of eI4africa as the UbuntuNet interconnections unroll largely through the implementation of the AfricaConnect network. Current implementations are in areas such as ehealth, e-Learning and digital libraries. Grid computing is being fostered through projects such as CHAIN, EPIKH, UNESCO BrainGain and HP Catalyst.
e-Infrastructures in Europe
At the onset of the 21st Century, the way scientific research is carried out in many parts of the world is rapidly evolving to what is nowadays referred to as e-Science, i.e. a “scientific method” which foresees the adoption of cutting-edge digital platforms known as e-Infrastructures throughout the process, from the idea to the production of the scientific result.
Scientific instruments are becoming increasingly complex and produce huge amounts of data which are in the order of a large fraction of the whole quantity of “information” produced by all human beings by all means. These data are often relative to inter/multi-disciplinary analyses and have to be analysed by ever-increasing communities of scientists and researchers, called Virtual Organisations (VOs), whose members are distributed all over the world and belong to different geographical, administrative, scientific, and cultural domains. The emerging computing model which is being developed since a decade or so is what is called the “Grid”, i.e. a large number of computing and storage devices, linked among them by high-bandwidth networks, on which a special software called middleware (intermediate between the hardware and the operating system and the codes of the applications) is installed, allowing the resources to behave as a single huge “distributed” computer which “dissolves” in the fabric of the Internet and can be accessed ubiquitously through virtual services and high-level user interfaces.
The European Commission is heavily investing through its Framework Programmes in e-Infrastructures and this platform is by now considered as one of the key enablers of the European Research Area (ERA). In fact, at the top of the three-layers model of an e-Infrastructure there is the most important “network”: the human collaboration among scientific communities of researchers that work together on unprecedented complex multi-disciplinary problems whose solutions are highly beneficial for the society and the progress at large.
The European Research Education Network, which connects about 3900 Institutions in more than 40 countries in the continent and supports the work of more than 40 million students, teachers, and researchers, is realized in the context of the GÉANT, GÉANT2, and GN3 projects, coordinated by DANTE. The pan-European Grid is realized by flagship projects such as the EGEE/EGI series, for High Throughput Computing (HTC) applications, and DEISA and PRACE, for High Performance Computing (HPC) ones.
In order to bridge the digital divide between Europe and other less developed regions of the world, over the past 6 years the European network and the European Grid have expanded well outside the borders of the “old continent” in the context of several successful EC co-funded projects that have been complemented by other national/regional initiatives. The current “landscape” consists of: ALICE and ALICE2 (network projects for Latin America), EUMEDCONNECT, EUMEDCONNECT2 and EUMEDCONNECT3 (network projects for the Mediterranean and the Middle-Eastern region), GÉANT2-ERNET (network collaboration for India), ORIENT (network project for China), SANREN (the South African National Research and Education Network), SEEREN, SEEREN2, SEE-FIRE, and SEE-LIGHT (network projects for the South-Eastern European region), TEIN2 and TEIN3 (network projects for the Asia-Pacific region), the UbuntuNet Alliance (an international initiative aiming to create a Regional Research and Education Network in Sub-Saharan Africa), EELA and EELA-2 (Grid projects for Latin America), EUAsiaGrid (Grid project for the Asia-Pacific region), EUChinaGRID (Grid project for China), EU-IndiaGrid and EU-IndiaGrid2 (Grid projects for India), EUMEDGRID and EUMEDGRID-Support (Grid projects for the Mediterranean and the Middle-Eastern region), SAGRID (the South African National Grid Initiative), and SEE-GRID, SEE-GRID2, and SEE-GRID-SCI (Grid projects for the South-Eastern European region). All together, the aforementioned projects/initiatives have created the “global” network and the “global” Grid.
National Research and Education Networks (NRENs)
What are Research and Education Networks?
Research and Education Networks are specialized internet service providers that are dedicated to the data communication needs of the research and education community. They exist at national, regional and global level, providing high speed data communications to researchers, academics and students enabling them to share data in timely fashion. Currently there are over 125 known National Research and Education Networks at various stages of development with the most developed ones in Europe, North America and the Far East. At regional level they are organized into regional Research and Education Networks, which interconnect forming a global Research and Education Network.
Benefits of Research and Education Networks
Research and Education Networks offer a plethora of benefits to the research and education community, including:
- Reliable high speed connectivity at affordable prices;
- Regional and/or international collaboration in research activities by enabling virtual research communities to function in virtual environments;
- Testbeds for innovation and research.
African Research and Education Networks
Africa is divided into three infrastructure sub-regions, which also comprise the main Regional Research and Education Networks. These are:
ASREN – covering North Africa and Middle East (Arab States) Main NRENs in the region are:
Algeria – ARN
Egypt – EUN
Morocco – MARWAN
Somalia – SomaliREN
Sudan – SudREN
Tunisia – TUREN/CCK
WACREN – covering Western and Central Africa Main NRENs in the region are:
Benin – RerBenin
Burkina Faso – FasoREN
Cote d’Ivoire – RITER
Gabon – GabonREN
Ghana – GARNET
Mali – MaliREN
Niger – NigerREN
Nigeria – NgREN
Senegal – snRER
Togo – TogoRER
Research and Education Networks around the world