Juha Saarinen is a tech blogger for nzherald.co.nz.

Juha Saarinen: How we avoided being an academic backwater

Add a comment
The Southern Cross cable comes ashore on Takapuna beach in 1999. Photo / File
The Southern Cross cable comes ashore on Takapuna beach in 1999. Photo / File

Time flies and one of the country's background players in the innovation game, the Research and Education Advanced Network New Zealand is already a decade old, having been commissioned in 2006.

The Crown-owned not for profit network started life called the Kiwi Advanced Research and Education Network or KAREN, a name inspired by UK's JANET (joint academic network) equivalent that predates the internet and which some old-timers still prefer.

Chief executive Nicole Ferguson said KAREN slowly became REANNZ with a Ltd tagged onto it under former boss Steve Cotter.

Although REANNZ is thriving and connected to lots of overseas counterparts and local institutions today, it is worth noting that we were behind the rest of the world when it came to academic networks back in 2006.

Not having one meant that researchers who needed that sort of connectivity had one choice, and that was to leave the country.

That's because before the Southern Cross Cable went in, connecting to the rest of the world was difficult and very expensive. There was TuiaNet in the early 90s which connected universities, the National Library and Crown Research Institutes with the US and with Nasa researchers with an overseas link that reached 512 kilobits per second in 1994.

The Southern Cross Cable went live in 2000, and six years' later KAREN started punting research data packets; now the academic network runs at 10 gigabits per second in most spaces, and there's plenty of international capacity for researchers.

More international bandwidth will come online over the next few years, as REANNZ has signed up with the Hawaiki Cable, which competes with the Southern Cross link.

We're catching up with the world, and can now not just use terms like eResearch, supercomputing and Software Carpentry but actually do them as well.

Gigabits aside, It would be wrong to think about the academic network in terms of speed only.

Today's research is data-driven and high-speed links are necessary. But, it's the connections an academic network enables, breaking the tyranny of distance for New Zealand researchers who can now take part in projects everywhere around the world, that matters the most.

European researchers in particular are keen to establish major platforms to build scale and support data science, and New Zealand needs to think about how to take part in this Open Science Cloud, Ferguson said.

Already, being able to connect well is paying off for NZ researchers: by joining forces with the global research and education community, local scientists have access to bulk deals like Amazon Web Services discount on using cloud computing resources.

Someone has to pay for our academic network as well though. REANNZ competes with other research organisations for funding from the same kitty, and standing out is important.

For that reason, it makes sense for REANNZ to push itself beyond just running the network well and efficiently, and use the infrastructure for research projects.

There are some good things happening too. Despite uncertainty around our cybersecurity and communications interception laws forcing much of the world-beating internet-scale software defined networking (SDN) testbed overseas last year, REANNZ is now getting back into that game.

Ferguson said that the FAUCET open source SDN controller project that it's working on with Googler Josh Bailey is continuing to get uptake with enterprise users and network operators.

To further develop the SDN technology, Ferguson said REANNZ is again trying to get a local testbed going, with United States network equipment vendor Corsa. This would connect to the Australian and US SDN testbeds some time next year Ferguson said.

If so, that's great news that REANNZ and researchers have managed to work around local bureaucracy putting spanners in the works of developing innovative technologies, something we really need to do more of in New Zealand.

Having a few show ponies like SDN and of course, being part of the Square Kilometre Array radio telescope project should help REANNZ persuade the government to loosen the purse string a little more as REANNZ has to grow its capacity and capability to match the needs of researchers.

Currently, Ferguson said the network's backbone is being upgraded, with Brocade equipment being replaced by gear from Juniper and REANNZ is working to develop 100 gigabits per second campus access.

More will be needed in the coming few years as education and research continue to use networked IT; New Zealand would be a backwater without an academic network that couldn't attract foreign students or researchers to universities here.

Really, it would've been better if we celebrated REANNZ's twentieth birthday this year, but better late than never I suppose.

- NZ Herald

Get the news delivered straight to your inbox

Receive the day’s news, sport and entertainment in our daily email newsletter

SIGN UP NOW
Juha Saarinen is a tech blogger for nzherald.co.nz.

Juha Saarinen is a technology journalist and writer living in Auckland. Apart from contributing to the New Zealand Herald over the years, he has written for the Guardian, Wired, PC World, Computerworld and ITnews Australia, covering networking, hardware, software, enterprise IT as well as the business and social aspects of computing. A firm believer in the principle that trying stuff out makes you understand things better, he spends way too much time wondering why things just don’t work.

Read more by Juha Saarinen

Have your say

1200 characters left

By and large our readers' comments are respectful and courteous. We're sure you'll fit in well.
View commenting guidelines.

© Copyright 2017, NZME. Publishing Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf04 at 25 Feb 2017 08:49:45 Processing Time: 593ms