Everybody has a place that they like to call home. It may be a place, or it may be a group of people - and coming back to an Ubuntunet Connect meeting felt a bit like this for me - coming home. It’s a community meeting of people who are sincerely engaged with their constituents and are committed to making a difference to research communities in the long run. Most of us there know how little positive feedback there is in developing an NREN - when the bandwidth is slow and the services don’t work, we hear complaints and murmurings of discontent, but when everything works, we hardly ever get a pat on the back for a job well done. When the network works, it disappears (as most well-functioning techonlogy). Yet, despite the often lacking feeling appreciation from user communities, the NREN community is really close and there’s plenty of support from within.
So, this was the first time in Mozambique for me, and the n-th time “back home” in Ubuntunet’s annual meeting. The conference was held over 19 - 20 November in Maputo.
This event was an especially important one for two reasons : for one thing, it’s Ubuntunet’s 10-year birthday . Now, you can write your own “where was I …” anecdote in the comments; in my case, ten years ago, I was in the thick of my Ph.D. at the University of Cape Town, working on the ALICE experiment at CERN. Part of my job was developing software for the alignment of the Dimuon spectrometer of the ALICE experiment, but we were also tasked with building part of the Worldwide LHC computing Grid. Turns out it’s quite hard to do that without a network…
Skip ahead 10 years and in South Africa we’re running jobs like a boss at several sites in the WLCG, including ALICE jobs at the Centre for High-Performance Computing
Jobs at the CHPC run by the ALICE collaboration from 2006 to December 2015. Credit: ALICE Collaboration
It’s obvious to see things taking off around 2012. The availability of adequate bandwidth to South Africa via undersea cables around this period played a huge part in this continued success. This is just one case where NRENs are directly enabling research which couldn’t be done without them; Several more can be found at http://www.casefornrens.org. It’s worthwhile to remember that in times of plenty (which we in South Africa are experiencing now) as well as in times of scarcity, which many of our colleagues in Africa are living through. It is as a community that we grow and mutually support each other, and it’s important to remember that this is how we achieve the greatest goals: through collective action.
Seeing continued investment in the network is one of the most satisfying feelings we can have as infrastructure developers, and it was therefore with great excitement that we heard that the AfricaConnect 2 project agreement had been signed :
AfricaConnect2 sets out to extend the success story initiated by AfricaConnect and EUMEDCONNECT to the whole African continent, thus accelerating the development of the Information Society in Africa. Whilst the connectivity boost will improve the lives of millions of Africans through accelerated research and education, it will equally benefit collaborative scientific research the world over, in areas such as climate change, biodiversity, crop research, malaria and other infectious diseases.
AfricaConnect2 is expected to commence in July 2015 and will have a duration of 3.5 years.
– AfricaConnect Project closing statement
There were several speakers of note at the first day of the meeting, who commented on these milestones. We had representatives of the African Association of Universities, the African Academy of Sciences, GEANT, the regional NRENs of course (Ubuntunet, WACREN and ASREN), as well as the Network Startup Resources Centre, who has been there for the African RENs amongst others for … well, since the beginning ! A few things stood out as they gave their speeches.
First of all, the realisation that Africa is a first-class citizen of the research world. Perhaps one with a tiny voice, but still a full citizen, participating and contributing to efforts at every scale and in every area. Research networking is needed more than ever now and this was noted by the AAU as well as the AAS. This may sound obvious to the casual observer, but for those of us who have been around 10 years or longer, we can appreciate how much of a change this is. Research networking and advanced services were scoffed at not so long ago as a luxury that could not be afforded (in the best cases), or as an outside influence (possibly even a corrupting one at that) of dubious value.
Words of encouragement came from the regional NRENS in the North of Europe (Nordunet), Latin America (Clara) and the Caribbean (CKLN). Of course GÉANT’s presence - in the person of Katrin Stover - was also warmly felt in the room.
The first highlight was that ORCID made a huge showing at this meeting. Whether this was a coincidence, due to the fact that it is objectively gaining traction, or the fact that we had organised a pre-conference workshop on Open Science wherein ORCID and DataCite featured heavily, is hard to tell. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter - what matters is that the audience was hearing the same message consistently :
Unique identifiers and persistence are key to research output.
Good to know we’re all on the same page.
Service and Identity Federations
The second big thing was the breakthrough of Identity Federations. I would perhaps be going out on a limb to say that they have “arrived” in Africa - and that’s certainly not true across the board - but everyone in the room understood that Identity Federations were something that the research and education communities needed – and what is more needed to develop amongst themselves. Federated services are being heavily promoted by all three cluster projects (MAGIC, TANDEM and Sci-GAIA) and I’m proud to say that we’ve helped to bring new identity providers and services online across the continent. If the old saying goes that “You can take a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink” then perhaps in this case, the horses are starting to get thirsty !
With the work that Roberto Barbera and team is doing around the Catch-All Identity Federation, and the effort we’re putting into the development of infrastructure services for these federations in African countries, we might well see a few new African Federations in edugain by the end of 2016. Hey, maybe it’ll even be SAFIRE !
e-Infrastructure and Collaboration Platforms
The third big theme that came out of the conference was discussion around those phantomatic “advanced services”. Since the official theme of the Conference was “The Road to Maturity”, this was on-topic, but what struck me was the maturity of the discussion and opinions. Gone is the euphoria of expectation for what “the almighty network” will bring us. “The Grid” is no longer referred to in capital letters, and we’re getting a pretty good idea of what collaboration actually is : a long slog of a thousand dancers all dancing to a slightly different tune, continually stepping on each others toes and only apologising when it suits them. The real world is a harsh place ! But it’s the only one we’ve got for now. Making it any better, unfortunately, means making it better for all - and that means working together, collectively where possible, and as I’ve said above, trying to support each other wherever we can.
It was very encouraging however to see that there are new computing resources coming to light, and new investments in data capacity and people in areas of the region. Mozambique, Zambia, Kenya, Sudan, DRC, Ghana, Nigeria, all bringing systems online. I hope that we will be able to coalesce around some common goals and work together to build a platform which will benefit us all. This is clearly a pipe dream - there’s no way we could even design something that broad - but I think it’s a worthy ideal. In order to get anything done in the long run, we will have to pick our battles carefully - especially when the opponents are our own brothers and sisters, academically speaking !
Videoconferencing, Security and Open Science
There were as usual a very good selection of presentations from across the NREN world at the conference. I was particularly happy to see presentations on very mature videoconferencing platforms as well as a much-needed presentation on the development of a CSIRT in Kenya. There were a lot of good talk about Open Access and Open Science activities in Mozambique and beyond. There were also some demonstrations of mature services such as Collaboratorio and the Open Science Commons Platform being developed by Sci-GaIA. More about these in the future…
As I sat through the presentations, I considered how all ideas and technologies sort of have their time. When things come ahead of their time, they fail because of lack of perceived need or a general comprehension of how things work… Nicola Tesla might have something to say about that. When ideas come to fruition after their time has passed, for whatever reason, they also fail because they are born obsolete.
Well distributed computing is such an idea - particularly this idea that we can build common platforms for different kinds of research. It all makes sense on paper, but it’s not paper that decides what works, it’s the communities out there. We started building massive community-based distributed computing facilities in preparation for the the LHC data… and hey - they worked very well ! Then, they took a look around and said “hey, everyone’s like us - they need this too”. And so the general-solution of grid computing was born.
To be fair, a lot of people believed this over the years and many hundreds of millions of euros were spent. Some communities got productive use out of it, but not many. Especially, this was not a solution for the “generalised case”… but was it because the technology of grid computing was premature, or that the factors behind it’s success in a few fields were not generally applicable ? There is no answer, this is just a point to reflect on as we embark on the construction of yet another panacea - the academic cloud. I’m willing to bet that the architects will make many of the same logical connections drawn from successful use cases and eventually convince themselves that they are doing the right thing. User communities will also be bombarded with the message : “You’re doing it wrong”
If you take umbrage, dear reader, at this crude analysis, I certainly can’t fault you. However, the point of this discussion is not to find fault with the past, but to learn from it; and more even more to the point, the discussion is aimed entirely at yours truly - there’s no greater critic than yourself, they say.
So, as we embark on the development of new infrastructure in our region, moving on and learning from the good old grid paradigm, trying to make things cloudier and user-friendlier and more flexible and whatnot, I would like to keep in mind a few things :
If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.
There’s a lot of juice to be squeezed from the “good old grid” yet, and indeed, the Africa-Arabia Regional Operations Centre still has resources to consume. So, don’t decide that we need to build something new just because it’s new.
Let’s build with users, not for users :
Whether it’s Science Gateway user interfaces, new publishing platforms, or distributed computing and data infrastructure, user experience needs to be included from the start. Sure, many communities don’t know what’s possible and may feel constricted in their approach, and a new analysis of the situation may bring them more productivity, but let’s be on the look out for that ever present, oh-so-tempting “You’re doing it wrong.”
Perhaps “impunity” is the wrong word, but hey, it rhymes with community …
There has to be a symbiotic relationship between research communities and research infrastructures. e-Infrastructures should probably not be built by individual research communities, since that would result in huge duplication of effort, which means that true e-Infrastructures (as opposed to, say an ICT component of a research infrastructure) need to be built with researchers, not simply for researchers. As we need to understand their way of doing things, they need to understand by we can’t just do anything they want; they - like we - would be entwined in an ecosystem. This would emphasise the long-term benefits of a healthy community over the shorter term benefits of specific project outputs. This may be hard for research groups to hear, but it may be even harder for funders to swallow, since they want to know that their money is going to the cause they want to support right now.
There’s no easy fix to this and not every case would follow this co-design route. We can’t run a workshop or send an email or make a position paper that will make things better, because this is about a culture of sharing and collaboration and an emphasis on the “big picture”, rather than a technical challenge.
Perhaps what we can aim for is a common understanding, better and more open communication, and most of all, some empathy between those building and those using the tools of the knowledge economy.
On that note, I leave you. Until the next meeting, somewhere warm.
Back home (sweet home) from the exciting UbuntunetConnect conference in Maputo!
pic.twitter.com/hkfv7cNsGb— Cathrin Stöver (
) November 22, 2015
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://www.africa-grid.org//blog/2015/11/19/UC2015/