ERCIM News No.31 - October 1997

Research Networking in Europe

by Stefano Trumpy

In present times, industrial competitiveness is highly dependent on investments in research. European researchers need a more powerful networking infrastructure in order to increase the possibilities for cooperative work. The availability of multimedia services and of on-line knowledge bases are essential elements to improve the 'productivity' of the researcher, ie the time spent between the inception of an idea and the realization of a prototype, or of a related experiment.

Our main industrial competitors are located in North America and Eastern Asia; in some countries, like the USA and Japan, thanks also to governmental support, both the public and the industrial research sectors, are ahead of Europe in taking advantage of a powerful networking infrastructure.

Building a high performance infra-structure in Europe has much higher costs than in the US; the cost for international trans-European links is almost the same as for intercontinental links. This is partially a consequence of the monopolistic regime set up by the telecommunication providers in each country. As a result of pressure by the European Union, this monopoly is due to end by next year, but it will take time before the tariffs to the users are significantly reduced because of the free competition.

This market situation provides an explanation of the enormous effort that Europe, with the fundamental subsidy of the EU, has had to make in order to establish a 34 Mbps infrastructure for research (see the articles by Dai Davies, Michael Behringer, Hans-Peter Axmann and Sabine Payr). When the TEN34 infrastructure was finally established, after exhaustive negotiations with a number of providers, the research community was already convinced that it was time to upgrade the capacity of this infrastructure. It is now time to renegotiate the unit price per Mbps in order to be able to reach the capacity we need at affordable prices (155 Mbps and more) and to try to rationalize the situation and the cost of interconnecting to US so that the European networking infrastructure for research can grow adequately. This implies that, in a fast moving market, an almost continuous process of negotiation must be carried on with the providers in order to obtain an efficient and rapidly adapting infrastructure, at affordable prices.

The Role of the European Union

The role of the EU in this is crucial; a general consensus has been reached in the member states that the EU should dedicate adequate resources to provide the research sector with a networking infrastructure able to supply high performance telematic services of at least the same quality, or even better, than those available to our colleagues in North America and East Asia. However, of necessity, the EU funding will have to be complemented by the member states which will also be responsible for upgrading their national research networks, in order to take advantage of the improved continental backbone. I am not alone in believing that this funding scheme, which is an evolution of the current one, is that with most probability of success in Europe; see the articles by Karel Vietsch, Peter Axmann, Jean-Pierre Euzen and Dai Davies in this section. The process of procurement of the infrastructure with the related negotiations with the TLC should not be carried out directly by the EU, because of the many political ties, but by independent organizations involved in the provision of European based services or in the coordination of the national research networks, such as DANTE and TERENA.

Another important issue is the response to be given by Europe to the US initiatives concerning the research sector. US universities, with the sponsorships of some important industries, have launched the Internet 2 project aiming at improving by at least two order of magnitudes the present performance of the commercially provided Internet; on its side the US government has launched the New Generation Internet (NGI) program, which has similar objectives and is complementary to Internet 2.

Europe has been solicited to participate in Internet 2. The US universities are now trying to find partners in Europe and in the rest of the world; they are contacting groups that are already collaborating with them and which conduct applications that require high level multimedia telematic services. Larry Landweber of Wisconsin University is coordinating a committee which is in charge of finding the right partners and proposing such applications. Europe must not miss this opportunity. It is my opinion that the best approach to convince the policy makers and the funding bodies that research really needs an infrastructure at the fore front of those available in the market is to start by setting up some cutting edge applications, that could not be deployed in a commercially available network, and demonstrating their utility.

Moreover, some of the governmental funds available for NGI, might also be devoted to improving the status of the connections between Europe and North America. This leads to the issue of sharing the costs for transcontinental links between Europe and US. For historical reasons, the costs of such links have been paid by the European partners with only a small contribution from the US, supplied by NSF (varying from 5 to 10% of the total bill). It is the intention of the European side to discuss this aspect of cost sharing, at least with respect to the future evolution of high performance links. The situation is not easy, since the funding models for research networks in Europe and in the US are not the same.

In Europe, the EU and the national governments subsidize the research networks serving the whole research community, including both 'normal' traffic and high bandwidth demanding applications. In the US, there is a distinction between the so-called 'commodity Internet' which is purchased by the research institutions on the commercial market, with no support from the government, and the broadband network, which is subsidized by the government. An agreement will have to be found which takes into account both models.

In addition to articles on European strategy and initiatives for research networking, this special section of ERCIM News includes information on the status of some important national initiatives such as the high speed test-bed in Germany by Peter Wunderling, the wireless solution for the national network in Denmark by Allan Jensen, the situation of national networks in Hungary by Balázs Martos and in Sweden by Lennart Forsberg. Last but not least, the view of the space community, which is known for being vocationally international and highly demanding of applications is reported in the article of Ludwig Moeller.

Please contact:
Stefano Trumpy - CNUCE-CNR
President of TERENA (Trans European Research & Education Networking Association)
Tel: +39 50 593 323
E-mail: s.trumpy@cnuce.cnr.it

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