STORY – 25 years of Belnet

An interview with the dream duo of Pascal Panneels and Philippe Van Hecke

For Belnet’s 25th birthday, we decided to hear from some of our most illustrious and senior employees, to take a look back over a few of the most exciting episodes in Belnet’s history. This month, we head to the Services unit, where we put a few questions to Pascal Panneels and Philippe Van Hecke. Together, they make up a dream duo whose work together goes back even further than their time at Belnet.

Hi Pascal, you arrived at Belnet 17 years ago. With Philippe, you have been part of a team of two at the Services unit for many years. Can you tell us how you met at Belnet? 

Philippe and I had already known one another for several years. We’ve been friends since university (ULB), where we studied computer science at undergraduate level together. Apart from working together at university, we were already colleagues in our first jobs, before our paths parted ways.  

Pierre Bruyère then hired me, but before the company was able to process my application, I’d found another job. So I put him in touch with Philippe who was also looking for another challenge at the time... Finally, I left my new job to join Belnet, and we were re-united in October 2001. Since then, we have worked together on many shared projects at Belnet.

Compared with where you started, what do you think are the major technological breakthroughs which have marked the history of Belnet?

When I started working as an engineer at Belnet, the network was very different from what it is today. We had an IP network running on an ATM backbone, which mixed a variety of technologies, including SDSL, E1, E3, STM-4, and Ethernet and offered bandwidth of a few hundred Kbit/s up to a few dozen Mbit/s. The backbone was less stable than it is today, and troubleshooting was very complex, as you needed to understand a large number of very different technologies. 

We developed the backbone into what it is today by making all connections Ethernet. We started with 1 Gbit/s, then 10 Gbit/s, then 100 Gbit/s Ethernet connections, making the network faster, with more redundancies, using dark fibre connections. 

Furthermore, today, services have changed enormously with storage offers over the network; virtual machines; access to Wi-Fi networks with eduroam; digital certificates; Anti-spam filters; managing identities remotely and services which can be accessed through federations, etc.

Do you remember your first day at Belnet? What team was in place at the time? How were you welcomed on board? 

I remember it well. The team counted six engineers (including Philippe and myself) and there were ten or so people working in administrative roles. We were quickly able to meet everyone and get to know them. We could even have lunch at a restaurant all together without needing to book ahead!

As far back as I can remember, I always felt like I was part of a tight-knit team that was very effective at coming up with solutions to customer problems.

Hi Philippe, can you tell us briefly about your beginnings at Belnet - did the Services unit already exist? 

When I started there were just six engineers. There was only one technical team which took care of all technical issues - internal uses as well as serving our clients and users.
The advantage was that we were able to develop an understanding of many different and varied areas, and we worked very closely with clients and users.

Can you tell us about the early days of eduroam, and your involvement in this project in Belgium? 

Eduroam is without doubt the perfect example of international collaboration between different players from the research and education sector. The project, which is now 10 years old, was part of a “mobility” work group initiative which was being organised by TERENA (TERENA and GÉANT were two different entities at the time). 

To start, it was limited to European educational institutions, but now it is available pretty much anywhere in the world. With Pascal, we set up the Belgian nodes. We went from a few hundred thousand connection request per year to several hundred million requests today. 

Do you have any fun anecdotes that you can tell us about your work with Pascal?

One of the most memorable times is connected to when we were setting up the first Giganet network. Pascal, Benoit Becker and I had to visit our PoPs to prepare the equipment. We spent an intense three days on the road, listening to rock music and eating chips between stops. After three days, we were exhausted, but delighted with what we’d got done and that we’d met the PoP managers.