"The sense of community is something that defines us and makes us unique."

Rosy Pauwels

Marketing @ Belnet
Fri, 06/23/2023 - 15:26
Did you know that all National Research and Education Networks (NRENs) in Europe, such as Belnet, are connected via the GÉANT network? To successfully address the numerous challenges faced by research and educational institutions, cooperation across national borders is of paramount importance. With its Community Programme, GÉANT is fully committed to sharing knowledge and experience with a view to creating more impact and support R&E institutions in the best possible way. Belnet recently spoke with Paul Rouse, Chief Community Relations Officer at GÉANT, about the power of collaboration and the unique values shared by the community.
  • What is your role at GÉANT? What is the most interesting aspect of your job at GÉANT? 
    • I originally started in purchasing, setting up the department and building a team within GÉANT and did so for about ten years. Three years ago, I moved to the position of Chief Community Relations Officer. I now have the pleasure of being part of GÉANT's management team and looking after a great team of specialists in areas such as international relations, research engagement, learning and development, and partner relations – all of whom are tasked to serve our community. It is up to my team to maintain good relations with our members, such as Belnet, and it also plays a coordinating role in the collaboration with our international peers. Part of the team focuses on developing the skills our community needs to collaborate effectively on projects such as the GÉANT project. 

      GÉANT is like the universe that keeps expanding. The work, technology and communities we work with continue to grow and expand. It's a very challenging environment, but it's also inspiring to try new things and be able to work with colleagues from across the community to meet those challenges. It is fascinating to see the fruits of our labour and be in such close contact with the research and education sectors. 

  • Can you explain what GN5-1 and its sister project GN5-IC1 are and what GÉANT wants to achieve with these projects? 
    • First and foremost, these projects are incredibly important to our organisation and our community, together representing the largest contribution to our overall funding. On behalf of GÉANT and the GÉANT Consortium of NREN Partners, we signed a 7-year GN5 framework partnership agreement with the European Commission under Horizon Europe. Specific grants have been awarded to GN5-1 and GN5-IC1 under this partnership agreement. These projects build on previous projects that result from a long-standing cooperation with the European Commission. 

      Each of our 39 partners (the NRENs) can contribute to the GÉANT project. They, in turn, receive funding for the resources they provide. In total, more than 500 people from the community contribute to the GÉANT project. 

      The scope of GN5-1 builds on the connectivity and services infrastructure for our community. In addition to building and maintaining a high-performance network for R&E, this includes trust and identity services, cloud services, etc. Enabling all of this requires an ecosystem of expertise and experience. What we do within GÉANT, and also specifically within my team, is to build and maintain those relationships. 

      The GN5-IC1 project, on the other hand, focuses on intercontinental connectivity to at least two other continents. Currently, about 25% of the traffic running over the GÉANT network is destined for outside Europe. We expect intercontinental data traffic to grow even more in the future. That's why it's crucial for us to also be able to collaborate and communicate with the rest of the world. The focus in GN5-IC1 is on the North America and Asia-Pacific regions and a plan to guide where our focus will be beyond the GN5-IC1 project. 

      With the BELLA-S1 project, we have together with our project partners previously succeeded in establishing an infrastructure of submarine cables that provides high-capacity connectivity between Europe and South America, to interconnect with a regional REN networks in South America developed by RedCLARA (the REN for LATAM). Previously, that data traffic had to pass through North America. GN5-IC1 builds on these investments, with the goal of contributing to the advancement of research and education on a global scale. 

  • Why is cross-border cooperation in the NREN community so important? In what ways does GÉANT encourage these collaborations? 
    • GÉANT itself is backed by some 140 employees. That’s not enough to build and maintain a network the size and scope of ours. So, to guarantee our success, it's vital that we collaborate with our community by pooling local knowledge, experience and skills to create economies of scale accordingly. 

      The GN4-3N project, which will end in December 2023, is a case in point. For this project, the European Commission's funding rules were changed, allowing us for the first time to make long-term investments (15 years) in our infrastructure across Europe. By working with the EC to change and optimise the structure of the project, we got the full funding at the very moment we had to make the investments, and not in instalments as per usual. As a community, we then had to decide how to spend this money. We were looking to achieve equality with a view to eliminating the digital divide. So, the goal was for each of our members to have the same potential capacity. 

To accurately map the GÉANT network - which stretches from Portugal to Turkey - we needed local expertise and skills – from our Member NRENs. The reference topology was outlined based on local studies, each of which represented a small piece of the puzzle. Had we conducted this exercise centrally, we might have missed important issues or come up with a one-size-fits-all solution that would not be well received by our members. It was a joint venture in every sense of the word. 

The GÉANT network covers more than 30,000 km of connectivity, with much of it provided by the community. Where it made technical sense and was financially viable, we focused on sharing connectivity between the NRENs as much as possible. Therefore, it’s not only about infrastructure, but also trust and commitment. GÉANT’s role is to help coordinate and direct that collaboration, much like a police officer would in the middle of a busy crossroads. 

In addition, the strength of the community also lies in the human aspect. When war broke out in Ukraine, we as a community did everything we could to support our colleagues at URAN, the Ukrainian NREN. In tandem with the Vietsch Foundation, GÉANT has taken on a coordinating role to raise funds for URAN and its employees. Members of our community have donated equipment or provided servers to host URAN services. This sense of community is something that defines us and makes us unique. 

  • What does the GÉANT Community Programme consist of? In what way does this benefit European R&E organisations? 
    • The GÉANT Community Programme can be described as the collaborative space for our community, where members can share their challenges and problems, provide solutions, test out ideas but also gain knowledge so that they can continue to grow. 

      The Community Programme consists of nine themes, ranging from traditional network services and technologies right through to health or education, for example. Within that, we establish Task Forces and SIGs (Special Interest Groups). Task Forces are usually designed to study a specific topic during a defined period of time. The SIGs, on the other hand, are permanent working groups. My team helps organise Infoshares, where experts from our community share their knowledge. The topics of those Infoshares are very varied, ranging from changes in legislation, to quantum evolution, to the new NIS-2 legislation. 

      The Community Programme is highly valued by our members, regardless of their work experience or position in the organisation. It’s also a very supportive and informal environment, where members come to develop their professional skills. During the Covid pandemic, all meetings were organised online. Even today, many meetings take place in hybrid form, something that has greatly lowered the barrier to participation. 

      The GÉANT Community Committee (GCC), which oversees the Community Programme, also plays another important role. Every year, the GÉANT Innovation Programme awards grants of up to 30,000 euros to our members and their affiliated institutions to explore innovative ideas that can benefit our community. A total of up to 300,000 euros is awarded each year to support up to 10 projects, and we continue to welcome new organisations to the programme, so it’s really starting to bear fruit. 

      In addition, the GCC coordinates the GÉANT Community Award. Every year, we honour someone who has made an exceptional commitment to the development of our services and technologies. Anyone in the community can nominate a colleague, so it really is an award for and by the community. As usual, this award is presented during our annual TNC conference, which recently took place in Tirana. 

  • Many of the services we use in R&E today came about within the Community Programme. Can you give some examples of this? 
    • eduroam is undoubtedly the best-known example. In 2002, the idea was floated to provide members of our community with easy and secure access to a Wi-Fi network. A solution in which students and researchers – by means of the credentials of their own institutions – can also log on to the Wi-Fi networks of other universities or research centres without any problem, thus enhancing mobility. It has been a great success, and last year eduroam’s worldwide availability accounted for 6.4 billion authentications. 

      Another great example is our efforts in intercontinental connectivity. As major research projects become increasingly international, global connectivity and collaboration is critical. In 2019, six NRENs joined forces to establish a high-performance 100G link between Europe and Singapore to improve connectivity. Such global connectivity is essential to help us support major research projects such as the Copernicus Programme and ITER, the world’s largest fusion reactor project. 

  • What do you think are the main challenges currently facing the European research and education community? And how do you see the role of GÉANT and the NRENs in helping them meet these challenges? 
    • Since my team is in close contact with our members, they're aware of their day-to-day challenges like no other. NRENs have a specific raison d'être and an important role to play in society. Even so, they must demonstrate again and again why they are necessary and their sustainability is crucial. As a community we work with advanced technologies, making it difficult to find and recruit specialists, particularly in a competitive job market. Our role is to help our members share expertise and experience so they can meet these challenges. 

      Of course, the technology landscape is also constantly evolving. The impact of artificial intelligence and services such as ChatGPT are all issues we are closely monitoring within the Education Task Force. Within GÉANT, we have tried to define five themes that we see as the major areas of concern that can potentially affect us in the short to medium term. Within these five fields, we consider resources, coordinate activities, and tune in with our members to achieve one common vision. 

      The first of these is the emergence of the European Open Science Cloud (EOSC). Some of our members, such as Belnet, have been appointed as a mandated organisation to represent their countries on the board of EOSC. So, we need to understand the services that researchers require to make that shift to open science. I hope many of your members are familiar with the concept of FAIR data (data which are findable, accessible, interoperable, and repeatable), which is strongly linked to EOSC. 

      A second area concerns our efforts to build HPC infrastructure for Europe, to leverage Europe's competitive advantage around all the research data we have. We are providers of terabit capable connectivity services and trust and identity services. We need to coordinate our activities well to ensure we are relevant to support the HPC community in their needs. 

      Quantum is the third strategic field. We are currently in a technology research phase where we are setting up pilot projects and proofs of concepts to see how the technology can be used. But there is a broad portfolio of topics that are quantum-related. 

      The fourth is the intercontinental aspect. This is something the GN5-IC1 project contributes significantly to, although we also participate in intercontinental cooperation initiatives outside the project. For example, we are engaging in the EC’s Global Gateway Initiative – an overarching new European strategy that aims for sustainable and trusted links, setting a path for how Europe can build resilient connections with the rest of the world. A new cable system in the Mediterranean – connecting North Africa with Europe will be one of our first actions here working with ASREN, the Arab States R&E Network. 

      Our final focus area is the GÉANT project itself. It’s scale, engagement, and impact across our community means we keep this in our mind at all times for the benefit of GÉANT, it’s Members such as Belnet, the EC, and all the users who receive the connectivity, identity, and above the net services from it – in turn enabling their research and education activities.

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