Part 1 of the interview with Managing Director Dirk Haex, celebrating Belnet’s 30th anniversary, focused on past and present. In part 2, we dive into Belnet's future and areas such as GÉANT, quantum communication and the inevitable AI. We concluded part 1 with the news that Belnet was working on a new strategy for 2025-29, so that’s where we punch back in.
How do you see the needs of your community changing?
Dirk: "These days it’s very hard to predict the future, especially in our domains. Obviously we try our best, especially within the Research & Education community - our customers from the very beginning.
We see that the universities, colleges and research centres in Belnet's portfolio – just like all of our other clients, of course - expect solutions, and put less focus on how we deliver them. That is why in recent years we have focused significantly on a partnership ecosystem, with both federal and regional actors and commercial ones.
In my opinion, a number of trends will continue to develop over the next few years, such as further digitalization, and thus the use of digital technologies, flexible learning, increased internationalization and corresponding partnerships. The same goes for an increased interaction between higher education and industries and businesses, to allow students to experience modern ways of working in real work environments. As a matter of fact, Belnet has had a very clear policy on the latter for the past 30 years: so interns and thesis students, feel free to get in touch!
In this context, and as a transversal organisation, Belnet continues to position itself as a trusted partner for higher education and the entire research landscape. Our exclusive and unique connection - literally and figuratively - with GÉANT remains an enormous driving force in this matter.
Our partnership with all other European Research Networks within the GÉANT association creates huge scale, also improving financial conditions, and possibilities, all to our community’s advantage."
What do these insights mean for the strategic exercise you are working on?
Dirk: "As far as the 'Innovation' pillar is concerned, Belnet will contribute to areas that will most likely influence any future expectations of the community, such as quantum communication, everything concerning the (research) data lifecycle linked to the EOSC ecosystem envisioned by Europe, cybersecurity and Artificial Intelligence.
As far as 'Solutions' goes, Belnet - based on the specific expectations of our R&E partners - will continue to focus on a highly stable, secure and high-performance connectivity portfolio, a complete and customisable range of cloud solutions, various elements of the crucial 'Trust & Security' pillar and, finally, a specific and dedicated range of solutions within the 'Identity, Mobility and Federation' pillar. Data and cybersecurity will play an increasingly prominent part in this."
What exactly is the process behind this new strategy? When can the Belnet community expect updates?
Dirk: "A couple of months ago we started with preparatory strategic reflections for the 2025-2029 period. Before setting any strategic objectives, we had a look at the basics. Starting from Belnet's mission - which is legally defined - we determined our new vision and also took a look at our core values. In this regard, we also had to consider Belnet's role and goals towards society. We will be finalising this over the course of 2024, including our new branding and website."
Earlier, you also mentioned GÉANT and that you will help shape its future. How do you picture that future?
Dirk: "So far GÉANT has mainly operated through European projects. However, I foresee a shift over the next few years - of course depending on the strategy that Europe will define - towards a more 'end-to-end' service organization. GÉANT could then be the guiding organization, and, depending on the service requested by research institutions, could agree on the necessary Operational Level Agreements with the relevant National Research and Education Networks.
As I already mentioned, I’m a member of the GÉANT Association sitting at the table on behalf of Belnet to help shape that future. Additionally, several Belnet colleagues represent the Belgian R&E community in various Task Forces and Special Interest Groups."
Let's move on to some hot topics closely linked to Belnet’s work. We'll start with what everybody’s talking about these days: AI, curse or blessing?
Dirk: "It is quite obvious that AI will have an enormous impact on society in the near and mid-long future. But I’m definitely not alarmed. At the time, many people believed the worldwide web would be our downfall - but while it certainly came with challenges, the overall picture is a positive one.
AI should be used thoughtfully and that’s where the government comes in. The European Union's AI Act is moving in the right direction, but I admit that I would like to see things move a bit faster. The rise of non-transparent systems, such as black-box systems, will surely become a major concern. And on many ethical questions – like deep fake disinformation and copyright issues – the world desperately needs some guidance."
Next up: cybersecurity, a battle Belnet has fought before.
Dirk: "Cybercrime remains a constant threat. Just as in the physical world, hackers' methods evolve and we always have to stay one step ahead. Fortunately, simple measures often prevent a lot of damage. For our community, the biggest 'attack surface' is staff and students. Higher education institutions have a huge number of end users, and there is always a risk of carelessness. That’s why cybercriminals so often target them. Through social engineering, cybercriminals pretend to be a familiar person or organization and attempt to steal login data. They then dig their way further into the network undetected and strike at the right time. That is why Multi-Factor Authentication should be standard practice in every organization.
When discussing cybersecurity, you can't overlook the role of AI. Much like gunpowder back in the day, it was invented as a tool, but ended up as a weapon as well. AI allows new strategies to be developed faster and faster for increasingly complex attacks. Then again, I am not really worried: AI will also provide us with solutions."
In part 1, we briefly talked about the DDoS attacks you had to deal with. How do you picture the future in that area?
Dirk: "We have made some substantial investments in the last 2 years in new security platforms and in hiring experts for those kinds of high-volume attacks. Also as part of the upcoming NIS2 legislation - a major update of European regulations on securing networks and information. Federal governments have to comply with those regulations, as does Belnet as a partner for higher education, research and public services. Altogether, we’re talking about an investment of several million euros."
Moving on to an increasingly imaginative domain for Belnet and the entire IT sector… quantum communications. What does QC have in store for us?
Dirk: "Quantum computing has enormous potential for data encryption. Nowadays, encryption is never full-proof. Any mathematical key can be cracked, especially if you add quantum computers to the game. That is why the key for hyper confidential messages between governments is sometimes delivered physically instead of digitally, by the old-fashioned guy-with-suitcase.
Nevertheless, where mathematics drops the ball, physics catches it. Quantum mechanics, and more specifically quantum key distribution, offers the theoretical possibility of sending a message in a one hundred per cent safe and secure manner. Anyone who reads along such a QKD key automatically changes the code as a result of quantum mechanical effects, rendering it useless. However, this type of technology is still in its infancy."
And that’s what the BeQCI project is trying to change. What exactly is Belnet’s involvement in it?
Dirk: "The secure transmission of messages is extremely important for research centres and government services - our community. Belnet has very specific expertise that is needed to implement a quantum communication network. Together with the other partners of the BeQCI consortium we are currently developing a QKD network and testing it via use cases in Belgium. We are still looking for additional use cases, so proposals from governments, research centres, hospitals and even private parties are always welcome."
Also important for the research members of your community is open science. Belnet is actively involved in that too.
Dirk: "For scientific organizations like Sciensano and the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, the key to quickly delivering life-saving analyses and advice is to build on existing research. Particularly in our accelerating social context - just think about the rate at which corona kept reinventing itself during the pandemic and the impact of climate change. In the long run, open science should aim to maximize the benefits of all publicly funded research by making it available as quickly as possible, both within the R&E world and with businesses and citizen scientists.
Open science is, however, a very technologically complex matter and the EOSC, the European Open Science Cloud, is the European answer to that challenge. The European Union, the Member States and the scientific research institutions are working hard to create a new European web for linked data and scientific publications, a very ambitious project. As of 2020 Belnet is the Belgian mandated organisation of the EOSC, with both a coordinating and operational role."
Where do you feel open science currently stands?
Dirk: "The last edition of the annual EOSC Symposium in Madrid showed that EOSC has made significant progress, but there is still a long way to go. It was very interesting to see how it is being developed all over the world, both in and outside Europe, and how everyone around the globe is facing similar problems and questions. Participating in the symposium strengthened our belief that sustainable involvement in the EOSC project really makes a relevant impact on the scientific community."
Last but not least: the Belgian internet. Belnet manages its roundabout, the BNIX platform, and has big plans for that too.
Dirk: "Our society craves information. People are streaming more and more, and major internet service providers like Proximus, Microsoft and Netflix are transmitting huge amounts of data. Moreover, working from home – and data streams that go with it - is here to stay. More importantly, we never know what the future holds. If we want BNIX to cope with all trends, expected and unexpected, we need to be ahead of them. And that is exactly what we’re going to do with a brand new platform. Not only will this have a much higher capacity, it will also respond more effectively to the needs of our member organizations. The implementation is currently in full progress - so stay tuned!"
To wrap up this interview, let's dive into the past one more time: which moment from your 20-year career at Belnet will always stick with you?
Dirk: "Let me end with an amusing anecdote, which many of my colleagues may not even know about. At one point, we moved from the Wetenschapsstraat to Avenue Louise. A relocation which made me – still a network engineer - very enthusiastic. A bit too much even, because the network cables in the technical room, which I had just eagerly disconnected because I thought they were out of use, were still very much in use. So gone was our connection with the outside world, and I had no idea which cables had been in which switch ports. Anyone familiar with switch ports can imagine how many hours I spent trying to get everything back in the right place. Fortunately, no major problems were caused."