It's been described as a "bullet train for new ideas", but a new report says development of KAREN, the super high-speed network linking universities and research institutions, could be stymied by a lack of funding and co-ordination between its members.
The Kiwi Advanced Research and Education Network (KAREN) went live earlier this year following Government funding of $43 million and TelstraClear linking member organisations to its fibre-optic backbone.
Allowing data transfer around the country at 10,000 times the speed of a household broadband connection, KAREN has huge implications for collaborative e-research projects.
But a report from the body responsible for KAREN, the Research and Education Advanced Network of New Zealand, features a list of issues to be addressed before the network can reach its potential, and says a funding shortfall will limit progress in the next two years. "Unfortunately this means that there is a significant gap between what is outlined in the roadmap and what is likely to be achievable in the current situation," the report says.
"It is likely that many important activities will be delayed or will not happen unless other sources of funding can be found."
While REANNZ admits KAREN is in "kickstart" phase, it also points to research from Queensland University which shows that funding of research networks in the European Union, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States, ranged from $135 million to $365 million a year as part of multi-year programmes.
"These investments have been made within much larger national frameworks, but even considering investment on a per capita basis the current level of investment by NZ is at the low end; roughly a quarter of the US' and a sixth of the UK's per capita investments in dedicated funding for e-research," the report says.
Donald Clark, the head of REANNZ, said the use of KAREN by universities and Crown research institutions was steadily increasing.
"In only a few months since going live we have seen traffic peaks of nearly 400 megabits per second from some members, far in excess of what they could have achieved prior to KAREN," he said.
Raising awareness of KAREN was a priority as was incorporating e-research into university degree programmes. One of the areas most in need of attention was the development of computer middleware to standardise access to KAREN.
Campus networks had to be aligned to the needs of the network and software bought or developed to govern network access. Universities are already using open source software to connect over KAREN.
The report found that the lack of a unified approach to KAREN among its members would hamper its effectiveness. "Issues around KAREN-readiness, and inconsistent levels of capacity and capability are already arising within the current membership," it says.
KAREN could be opened up to other institutions including schools, public libraries and the health sector to make it more economically sustainable.
If there are concerns over the medium-term development of KAREN, there's already strong interest in it among research and scientists working in disciplines as diverse as nanotechnology and the social sciences.
At the University of Canterbury, professor of sociology David Thorns is using video-conferencing links over the KAREN network to test new methods of gathering research.
Other institutions will be able to connect to the new IBM Blue Fern supercomputer based at the university, using KAREN's connectivity.
Robert Gibb, a geospatial informatics expert at environmental research organisation Landcare Research, said KAREN had the potential to revolutionise how geospatial data was gathered and shared around the country as several hundred gigabytes of data could be sent between locations quickly.
"Look at Google Maps, how often do we go to Google to look for a map rather than reach for an atlas on the bookshelf?" he said.
"This KAREN network is likewise opening the possibility for us doing things in a completely new way."
What is karen?
* A fibre-optic network linking universities, Crown research institutions and the National Library allowing 10Gbps (gigabit per second) connectivity at most points.
* Set-up with a $43 million injection of funds from the Government with ongoing funding coming from its members and the Government.
* Will allow access to the Blue Fern supercomputer based at the University of Canterbury from around the country for research and scientific projects.
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