FOCUS - UMONS and Belnet have worked together since 1993

Belnet turns 25 this year. During this festive year we will spotlight a few clients who have been connected to our network since Belnet was founded in 1993. One of them is the Université de Mons (UMONS), which was created in 2009 after a fusion of the Université de Mons-Hainaut and the Faculté Polytechnique de Mons. Chantal Poiret, professor in Information and Communication Technology at UMONS, looks back on the evolution of the IT infrastructure at the university and explains Belnet's role in its development.

Can you introduce UMONS to us?

Chantal Poiret: “Our university has about 8000 students spread across 7 faculties on 2 campuses, which are located in the centre of Mons and Charleroi. With more than 100 degree programmes, UMONS offers a wide range of courses. UMONS also has 10 thematic research institutes and focuses strongly on international projects; we have no less than 300 partnerships all over the world. To support and further develop our educational and research activities, we have been using the Belnet network since 1993.”

What was the university's IT infrastructure like in the 1980s and 1990s?

“The university purchased its first PCs in the 1980s. The research and education departments acquired workstations in order to perform their research activities. The university had a central IBM computer that was attached to the EARN (European Academic Research Network). It quickly became apparent that the university needed to connect the different computers on campus with each other and with the central computer. It proved difficult to allow different machines to communicate with each other. The arrival of the TCP/IP protocol changed this.

The university set up a large-scale, internal network based on this new TCP/ IP protocol in the 1990s; This was a first step towards the internet. A major breakthrough came in 1993 when we were connected to the newly established Belnet network at 64 kbit/s. This made it possible to communicate with other Belgian universities as well as with international educational and research institutes.”

How did that infrastructure evolve over the years?

“The current infrastructure cannot be compared to that of the early days. The internet used to be nice to have. Now we need a very high-performing and reliable network. Such a network enables us to respond to the challenges arising from a digital society.

Belnet offers us an infrastructure that supports the development of our research activities and facilitates scientific cooperation. Today our campuses, sites and research institutes are connected together and with the national and international research world at 1 Gbit/s. Moreover, an upgrade is planned in the near future. In addition to network services, we also use DNS Service, Digital Certificates Service and eduroam. The eduroam service is greatly appreciated by our Erasmus students and scientists who visit UMONS.

An important milestone in the collaboration arose when our university became one of the Points of Presence on the Belnet network. Fifteen institutions are currently connected to Belnet via the PoP Mons.”

For which educational and research activities is the Belnet network utilised?

“A good example of the optimisation of the use of research equipment is the CÉCI (Consortium des Équipements de Calcul Intensif), which was founded in 2010. It is a consortium of the five French-language universities, including UMONS. The CÉCI offers scientists access to high-performance computing: some research activities require enormous amounts of processing power, memory or ultra high-performance connections. It's impossible for one university to offer its scientists such equipment, hence the importance of collaboration.

DRAGON 1, the HPC cluster of the UMONS, is used for “long” calculations that require more than 15 days of computing power, with a maximum of 41 days. It is the cluster with the highest core processing power. At the moment, about 70 researchers of the UMONS are regularly using the clusters of the CÉCI. Their areas of expertise are varied: geology, computer science, mechanics, biology, chemistry, medicine, pharmacy, …

The Belnet network also plays a crucial role for our educational activities. The internet hasn't only changed teaching methods; it has also thoroughly changed students' needs and expectations. The digital world is now an integral part of education.

Students and lecturers expect to be able to connect everywhere and at all times, either with their laptop, smartphone or tablet. To this end the university installed a high-performing Wi-Fi network that offers access to numerous applications and sources. The quality of the underlying network is decisive for the success of these applications.

Our e-learning platform MOODLE is a good example. Thanks to MOODLE, students have easy access to educational resources and they can share information easily with fellow students and lecturers. MOODLE is a huge success and it continues to grow. In 5 years (2011 – 2016), the use of the platform has grown spectacularly: the number of daily connections during the year has increased from 2256 to 8253 and if we only take into account the unique users per day, the number of connections increased from 1158 to 3130.

The applications are numerous: students find their personalised timetables here, can save and share data securely, consult e-sources in our libraries and even follow courses remotely.. Interactivity, collaboration and access for everyone are keywords for MOODLE.”

How has Belnet changed over the last 25 years?

“Belnet was a research service with only a few employees in 1993. But it cared about the quality of its service from the very beginning. Despite the organisation's strong growth, Belnet maintained the personal contact with its clients.

By giving Belgian universities advice and assistance in the development of their networks, Belnet played a pioneering role 25 years ago. In my opinion, Belnet has never relinquished that role. It continues to adapt its service to the changing needs of researchers and lecturers.”