Academics make jump to lightspeed internet

The South African National Research Network operates at a mind-boggling 10 gigabits a second. (Michael Bocchieri, AFP)

The South African National Research Network operates at a mind-boggling 10 gigabits a second. (Michael Bocchieri, AFP)

In bandwidth-thirsty South Africa, the country’s universities and research institutions are oases of the stuff, with a torrent of capacity, up to 10 gigabits a second, running between them. With this internal capacity and international linkages, South African researchers can take part in global projects, such as international astronomy initiatives and the European Organisation for Nuclear Research’s computing grid.

This is because of university and government initiatives set in place a decade ago, and in some instances even longer. For some context, it would take about three seconds to download a full season of Game of Thrones on this research network.

“There’s this big hubbub about big data,” says Professor Colin Wright, special adviser to the department of science and technology on cyber infrastructure. “I think we should just be worried about data. Data is a big issue, especially in the research world. I know that’s also true for the commercial world, but our role is to support research.”

These initiatives – the Centre for High Performance Computing the South African National Research Network (Sanren) Tenet, a private not-for-profit company owned by public research institutions; and the Data Intensive Research Infrastructure for South Africa – are about to be pulled into a single national integrated cyberinfrastructure system, with a dedicated budget.

Internet backbone
It is estimated that there are about one million users on this network. For consumers who are lucky to achieve four megabits a second, 10 gigabits a second seems too much for any of us to hope for.

Back to the Game of Thrones analogy, it would take two-and-a-half hours to download a season on a four-megabits-a-second line.

The story of how South Africa’s researchers have access to this glut of internet capacity while consumers and businesses struggle with high prices for throttled bandwidth starts with the dissolution of Uninet in the early 1990s, a relatively small network that connected some universities and research councils.

Universities’ vice-chancellors decided to “make a plan”, says Duncan Greaves, chief executive officer of Tenet. The company, whose name stands for Tertiary Education and Research Network of South Africa, and which was established in 2000, operates and maintains the research internet backbone.

Greaves assures me that universities do not get the capacity for free, though, and that they pay for the bandwidth they receive, although not the infrastructure. In 2014, Tenet brought in about R150-million in revenue, but any profits have to be put back into the network.

That internet backbone, which connects more than 200 sites around the country, is funded by government through the Sanren, based at the Meraka Institute of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).

“In effect, our mandate was to design, procure and implement a network … that Tenet could operate for institutions,” says Leon Staphorst, the research network’s head who is based at the CSIR.

“It brings costs down, so that institutions don’t have to fund the capital – only the operation and maintenance.”

Initiated in 2006, the research network’s main funder is the department of science and technology. Although the CSIR is a research council and “can do contract research and development, the Sanren contract with the department ties us to the same rules as Tenet: we’re not allowed to make a profit. Any additional income has to feed back into the system,” says Staphorst.

This Tenet-Sanren system, often referred to as NRen (National Research Network), is run by fewer than 30 people.

Rural challenges
Optical fibre cable runs in a loop around the country, from the Seacom undersea cable at Mtunzini on the East Coast to the West Africa Cable System (Wacs) on the West Coast at Ysterfontein. This track of optic fibre cable is the backbone of the country’s research capacity infrastructure. With hubs in Johannesburg, Pretoria, Durban and Cape Town, it connects remote universities, institutions and even the Square Kilometre Array site in the Northern Cape to the network.

“We always try and link institutions so that they can be backbones to other institutions,” says Staphorst. “We had challenges connecting deep rural sites, because there was not enough fibre.”

Although the department of science and technology is the major government funder of the research network, through the Rural Campus Connectivity Project universities fund the last kilometre of connectivity to their campuses with help from the department of higher education and training.

In response to a parliamentary question earlier this year, Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande wrote that his department had contributed R28-million to phase one of this project and R71-million has been allocated to phase two.

“This will ensure that the remaining rural campuses not yet connected to Sanren are ... connected as soon as possible,” he wrote.

One of the research network’s targets with the science and technology department is the number of sites connected to the network.

“Our target is 210 by the end of 2016 ... [and] we’re already at 204,” Staphorst says.

He emphasises that the research network does not actually dig the trenches for the cable itself: “Our way of putting networks in place is using the ­private sector. [Their main private-sector partners are Neotel, Telkom and Dark Fibre Africa.] We are project managers, with extensive procurement and project management capability.”

Staphorst estimates that there are about one million users on the network. “Yes, it’s an exclusive group, but it’s a large exclusive group.”

But this does not mean that an undergraduate student will necessarily be able to tap into the river of capacity flowing to an institution. “We [at the research network] don’t want to shape or filter or police the capacity that we provide. We want to provide the plumbing. The onus is on the university to ensure that the bandwidth is used in an acceptable way,” Staphorst says.

While this pipe runs to the university’s door, it is up to the university’s IT department to decide how it is used. Some institutions charge in order to recover costs for the local area network, firewalls and organisational structures, he says.

Although this is “against the culture we are trying to promote, I don’t think it is a profit-seeking motive. In some institutions, that is how the IT departments are structured – they need to create their own income to be sustainable,” Staphorst says.

Knowledge economy
However, the local loop will not necessarily link South Africa’s research network to other countries. Tenet is responsible for two aspects of the network: peering (the voluntary connection between networks) and transit (accessing other research networks, such as those in the rest of the world).

Greaves says that Tenet has agreements with large transit companies, but through the UbuntuNet Alliance – which comprises NRens in Malawi, Mozambique, Kenya, Rwanda and South Africa – South Africa can access the NRens in those countries.

The UbuntuNet Alliance is also the platform for the AfricaConnect project, which connects African countries to Europe’s research network Géant. This allows South Africa to participate in large European science projects and this was made possible with €15-million in funding, of which 80% is from the European Development Fund

At home, Staphorst emphasises that while the science and technology department is “a big benevolent party in the [network], it is important not to forget the institutions themselves ... The amount of money that the [department] has put into the game for capital procurement and long-term leases ... is often mirrored [by institutions].”

The department’s adviser, Wright, a retired professor from the University of the Witwatersrand, says the reason the department has decided to take cyberinfrastructure on as a project is because “we’ve got a knowledge economy on the agenda [and] unless there is a good cyberinfrastructure network in place, there is no way we can achieve that goal”.

Increased capacity
Staphorst says that the research network receives about R100-million to R110-million from the department annually.

This is excluding the R600-million over five years that the department has allocated to securing more capacity on the Wacs cable.

“The [network] sits with a right of use of 7.4% of the Wacs cable [at the moment] .... Wacs will go through a series of upgrades in its lifetime, and if we participate, we’ll get more [capacity],” Staphorst says. “We need to prepare for extensive growth in the science community.”

And this is Tenet’s plan. Through being part of this upgrade, South Africa could increase its network capacity from 10 gigabits a second to 100 gigabits a second.

“Modern science and research is dependent on research infrastructure,” Wright says. “We need this underpinning layer of cyberinfrastructure to support the data research that comes out of areas [such as astronomy, bioinformatics, particle physics and palaeosciences].”

The national integrated cyberinfrastructure system plans to bring all the components of South Africa’s cyber research infrastructure together, with a dedicated budget.

Wright says: “At graduation [when he was dean of science at Wits], I used to tell students: graduate and go get a job to get good internet. Now I tell business people to go back to university for good internet.”

 
Sarah Wild

Sarah Wild

Sarah Wild is a multiaward-winning science journalist. She studied physics, electronics and English literature at Rhodes University in an effort to make herself unemployable. It didn't work and she now writes about particle physics, cosmology and everything in between.In 2012, she published her first full-length non-fiction book Searching African Skies: The Square Kilometre Array and South Africa's Quest to Hear the Songs of the Stars, and in 2013 she was named the best science journalist in Africa by Siemens in their 2013 Pan-African Profiles Awards. Read more from Sarah Wild

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