e-Infrastructure Commons initiative aims to organize efficient e-Infrastructure for international research community at a European level


5 Jan 2015 Amsterdam - Primeur Magazinehad the opportunity to interview Arjen van Rijn, Institute Manager NIKHEF in Amsterdam and Member of the e-Infrastructure Reflection Group, e-IRG, on the topic of a better service for scientific users in Europe by means of the e-Infrastructures Commons.

Arjen van Rijn explained where the e-Infrastructures Commons is for by starting from his home experience within the Netherlands. e-Infrastructures are not built because of the fun of it but because because the user communities are served with e-Infrastructures. Over the last decade, Arjen van Rijn has experienced, being involved in building and providing e-Infrastructures, that the user sometimes has forgotten the reason why it is all for.

Within the High Energy Physics Institute (NIKHEF) it is very clear who the user is. NIKHEF has involved users who pretty well know what they need. Arjen van Rijn has no problem identifying who his users are, he knows them very well. When you scale this up to a country, however, you encounter various organisations and various players that busy themselves with providing e-infrastructure services and ICT services for research in various ways. Then, the whole landscape becomes a bit fuzzy and unclear.

Ten years ago, Arjen van Rijn has observed this for the Netherlands: there was an organisation busying itself with getting a supercomputer; there was an organisation busying itself with providing the academic network; there was NIKHEF trying to coin a distributed infrastructure called Grid at the time. Basically everybody was doing their own thing without looking for any integration of these initiatives. Every party was going to the ministry asking for money.

The ministry did a very sensible thing and suggested that all parties should organize themselves because they basically had the same goal: serving the user communities in the Netherlands. That is what happened in the Netherlands.

The relevant parties, namely SURF; SURFnet; SARA; at the time NCF; the project where Arjen van Rijn was involved in, BigGrid, teamed up and came with an integrated plan that was called 'ICT infrastructure for research in the Netherlands'. The parties stressed that it is important to have an encompassing organisation to achieve such an infrastructure in the Netherlands. All parties considered SURF as the best organisation to form this umbrella.

In the years after that, it emerged that the SURF family was extended to not only contain SURFnet, which was the traditional role for the academic networking, but also marry with SARA and have SARA as the Dutch Academic High Performance Computing Center in its family, and even establishing, together with NWO, which is the funding organisation for research, an eScience Center for the tooling and generic tools for using the e-Infrastructure.

These developments in the Netherlands have made Arjen van Rijn quite happy because now there is an organisation that has all the parts to be able to have an interpretive service provision to the scientific user communities in the Netherlands.

This is what, according to Arjen van Rijn, also has to happen at the European level, because, as we all know, research does not stop at Maastricht and Delfzijl. It crosses borders. User communities are usually internationally organized and they all want to use ICT infrastructures provided basically by national organisations but these national organisations need to organize themselves within Europe to get an efficient infrastructure for their international user communities. That is basically why Arjen van Rijn is such a fan of the e-Infrastructures Commons idea, coined by the e-IRG, to have the relevant organisations in Europe also team up and provide unified, integrated services to European organized user communities.

There is an increasing reason to do that. There are movements in Europe to organize research on a European scale. The most prototypical examples of that are the ESFRI projects, ESFRI for the research infrastructures on the European scale. What Arjen van Rijn sees happening now – and he is glad about it – is that e-IRG and ESFRI together have now confirmed the importance of this e-Infrastructures Commons.

ESFRI, in its new round of proposals, will pay explicit attention to the e-Infrastructure needs of its projects. Arjen van Rijn considers this as a major milestone because this forces these European user communities on their behalf to make very explicit what they need. This is the best driver to get the European e-Infrastructures Commons organized because if the users know what they want, in dialogue with the providers, Arjen van Rijn is certain that it will emerge how important it is that these European e-Infrastructure organisations organize themselves in order to serve these European user communities.

Arjen van Rijn thinks that all parties definitely are moving into the right direction. In fact, ESFRI is now taking a giant leap, what Arjen van Rijn believes that the Dutch funding agency NWO should do, and that is to be very consistent in asking research initiatives about their e-Infrastructure needs, because that is important to get the planning for the national e-Infrastructure organisations going.

Basically, this is done for the users and that is why all the fragmented parts of the e-Infrastructure in Europe need to join and form this e-Infrastructures Commons. Whether that needs to be a single organisation or an ecosystem of organisations, that is to be seen, as long as we do not forget the idea and the reason why we, as e-Infrastructure providers, are here, according to Arjen van Rijn.

To illustrate what Arjen van Rijn has seen happening in the Netherlands, is that the traditional role of the academic and networking NRENs has moved closer to the user. They developed the wish or the need to develop end user services whilst the parties that were traditionally involved in computer data services were already very close to the user, usually, but of course, needed the network to get the services to wherever they were needed.

For Arjen van Rijn, there is a very logical evolution to get those parties together and provide integrated services. Again, he is happy to observe that this is happening not only nationally but also in Europe.

There is a typical example that is used many times but that is very important, that we at least should try to have in Europe a common authentication scheme. There is a very nice system rolled out in Europe already that is called Eduroam. For the travelling scientists, this is a blessing. You open your laptop in the environment of a university or elsewhere and your home institute credentials give you access to this network of the host institution. This is an incredible thing to have.

To scale this up to have access to the European organized resources, is the next step. There are many initiatives and projects that are aiming to accomplish just that. Having a common authentication and authorisation framework is something that definitely deserves a lot of attention and which will really help lower the barrier for research communities and researchers individually to access the services that are out there. That is a very obvious example and we know that a lot of effort is put by the European Commission in helping accomplish such solutions.

There are more examples. If you are a research community organized in various countries over Europe, and you have good contacts with your national e-Infrastructure provider organisation, it is a bit of a burden to roll out a solution that you have agreed with your national organisation over your various European counterparts. In that respect, it would be very nice to have a European gateway where you can discuss these solutions as a European organized research community and make sure that your solution is then deployed in the countries, in these national e-Infrastructures where your research community is active in the same way, so that you have one point of contact at a European level and get this deployed in the various European e-Infrastructure organisations. This is another obvious advantage of organizing things at a European level.

Another example is that at a European scale, you will be able to attract the best partners to innovate services. This does not necessarily mean that every partner needs to be on board but with innovative projects, you can build consortia that can really bring a service to the next level. If you do that on a European scale, you have a bit more guarantee that it will work more rightly than only in your own context.

These are for Arjen van Rijn compelling arguments to organize things on a European scale. What is needed now from the e-IRG perspective, is that we give an answer on questions to these research communities on what is the best practice of addressing your e-Infrastructure needs and this is currently what the partners are working on in the e-IRG as the topic of the next White Paper.
Ad Emmen