Grid Network to Support Trans-Tasman Research Collaboration

With digital storage needs and computational demands by research institutions growing exponentially, it makes sense to get together on sharing resources. So the New Zealand Tertiary Education Commission (TEC) banged some heads together and offered to fund a $2.5 million project to set up BeSTGRID a grid computing “ecosystem” that includes additional storage resources hosted by a third party.

Three New Zealand universities are already hooked up, with the new arrangements which reduce duplication on software expenditure whilst encouraging collaboration and knowledge sharing through use of online tools such as video-conferencing, blogs and wikis. Other institutions are expected to join in the future. Research projects currently making use of BestGrid include linguistics, bio-informatics and earthquake engineering, but the possibilities are endless. BestGRID is part of KAREN the government owned high speed broadband network. The network provides interconnectivity between research and educational institutions in New Zealand, with the ability to deliver up to 10 gigabytes of data per second.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the venture is that there will be established a shared identity management protocol based on the Australian Access Federation standard. The Federation is not some inter-galactic peace force, but a technical standard that operates across Australian tertiary and research institutions and allows universal access via a single user identification. That opens up the possibility of including Aussie universities and research institutions in the New Zealand grid by linking to Australia’s own high speed research network AARNET at some point in the near future. AARNET already operates connections to the United States, Singapore and Europe. So the implications for New Zealand research institutions are obvious considering the constraints of the existing commercial service.

New Zealand will be hosting the 2008 APAN event 4-8 August, regarded as the leading Asia-Pacific symposium on advanced broadband networking and applications for research and education. The conference is to be hosted in beautiful Queenstown and themes include sustainability, earth science, medical and agricultural applications, high definition TV and seminars on network security. The event will be preceded by the High Performance Research Symposium looking at e-research projects and tool sets, being sponsored by Bluefern, the University of Canterbury supercomputing centre.

Do We Really Need Ubiquitous Broadband Infrastructure?

The term “build it and they will come” is often quoted in the context of infrastructure investment. But does it really apply in the case of broadband?

Contrary to popular mythology, the phrase did not spring from a recent Kevin Costner film (shame on you Google!). In fact it stems from the economic history around the development of rail infrastructure in 19th Century England. I recently found a most instructive First Monday article on this very topic that explains the analogy between rail and broadband. The theory is essentially that if you build the infrastructure then businesses and consumers will perceive the opportunity and be attracted to it.

It’s a great theory. The emergence of better transport infrastructure was indeed a precursor to economic transformation of post-Industrial Europe and America. But if we are now doing business in the “weightless economy”, then does success neccessarily hinge upon widely dispersed physical infrastructure? After all, clever people have been sharing and selling their ideas well prior to the emergence of the Internet. More importantly do we really need ubiquitous (and expensive) high speed broadband to every home? I think not. You don’t see a bus stop or a train station at every front gate, do you?

A great deal of time was taken up at last week’s Digital Summit conference discussing the various merits of dispensing fibre to node and fibre to the home as a solution to the network speed issue. ICT Minister David Cunliffe also placed a lot of emphasis on this issue in his keynote speech. But if every home has a very high speed connection it simply means easier porn downloads and that our kids spend a whole lot more time indoors honing their gaming skills. I’m not convinced that this is going to lead to “economic transformation”.

Telecom has committed to improving domestic supply and new CEO Paul Reynolds has already won a lot of hearts with his collaborative and open style. A breath of fresh air that should bring change. But the real issue for the New Zealand economy is international connectivity – and that may prove to be a much harder nut to crack.

ICT Minister Pulls out Plum from Pre-Xmas Pudding

Way back in August I wrote about the difficulties being faced by those charged with developing a unifying industry body for the ICT sector and I predicted that ICT-NZ might continue to struggle to gain traction.

Last week Communications and Information Technology Minister David Cunliffe drove the final nail into the coffin of ICT-NZ by announcing the establishment of an ICT industry super body that will also mop up whatever remains of the Digital Strategy funding pool. No doubt this move will provide fuel for conversation over the tea cups at this week’s Digital Summit. At the very least the industry should feel slightly chastened that the Minister himself has had to intervene to find a solution.

The structure and governance arrangements for the new body will be critical to its success. Without proper buy-in from key industry players it will be doomed to circle like a rudder-less ship on a stormy political sea, just like its predecessor. It will also be neccessary for it to articulate a much clearer value proposition to potential members and partners.

Having the government facilitate and partially fund such a body is a departure from the accepted wisdom generally promoted by the economic development ministry however. The ministry has been opposed to public funding of industry networks for quite some time, although the intellectual rationale behind this thinking has never been made clear.

So the government will certainly want a payback on its investment and the new body is expected to provide sectorial advice, be involved in research and manage the Digital Strategy programme. Precisely how industry growth issues will be tackled has yet to be announced.

On balance this is a good outcome. It creates the opportunity for a fresh start and cements government committment to having ICT as a central plank in economic development. But the proof of the pudding will be in the eating.

Digital Strategy Not Just About Laying Fibre

A while back I waxed on about how we needed some clear thinking around the Digital Strategy Summit. Now the economic development ministry has appointed a high flying former Telecom executive to manage the Digital Strategy policy revamp and talk up the strategy event to be held in November.

My concern about the summit event is that at $795+GST for registration (plus airfares and accomodation), the consultation process is aimed squarely at large corporate concerns. These firms are likely to be primarily interested in promoting their agendas in terms of either preserving the existing network hegemony or else positioning themselves for any government funded broadband rollout in the future.

The Digital Strategy was supposed to be about building capability around connection, community and content. But it is not clear if ordinary webizens will get access to the online forums and wikis being proposed. So I’d like to know who at the summit will be representing the wider community and the developers of digital content. If the summit fails to engage at grassroots level then surely it is over-looking the fundamental intent of Web 2.0?

There is some relief in sight however. TUANZ members are being offered a pre-summit event early November in order to collate their viewpoints. There is also now a report suggesting that a limited number of discounted places at the summit will be offered to “community organisations and young people”. The summit itself will be webcast, so interested parties and those of us without corporate charge cards can at least adopt fly-on-the-wall status.

Will NZ Miss the Pacific Cable Boat?

Apparently Google are engaged in talks over investing in the Unity cable project aimed at spanning the Pacific Ocean with terabits of new bandwidth. It could turn out to be a wise investment on two fronts. Firstly there is obviously a return on the revenue generated by digital traffic. But secondly it ensures that the burgeoning middle classes of Asia-Pacific have ongoing high speed access to applications hosted in America, amongst which Google is aiming to become the provider of choice.

A lot of commentators are talking like Google is setting itself up as a telecoms operator but this is not true. Google may have the cash, but it does not have the expertise to contemplate such a project. The word is that Google are in fact talking to an Australian telco about the new venture.

 Unity is not the only initiative aiming to add capacity across the Pacific. Verizon are working on a project linking to China and North Asia and Southern Cross have just commenced a major upgrade of the cable that links Australasia to North America. All of which is good for consumers because as domestic networks improve, so the demand for international bandwidth increases.

The slow rollout of domestic high speed bandwidth is often upheld as the reason why we will never see a Google or a Bebo spring out of New Zealand. But it looks more and more like a U.S. centric hub and spoke kind of network, everywhere you look now. Naturally providers of innovative global digital content and services then look to the United States as the preferred site to host their offerings. I think that is why we do not yet see anything special built and hosted here in NZ, despite the fact that digital creativity abounds.

In fact there was a visionary project about five years ago called “First Light” that aimed to set up a direct NZ-Singapore cable. The project failed because of difficulty in negotiating “last mile” access at the Singapore terminal. In retrospect it is now clear that New Zealand missed a major opportunity.

Broadband Treading Water

The news that even third world nations are getting on with the job of rolling out broadband comes as no big surprise. If 300 million global users are now accessing the Internet through high speed networks, then that is a market segment New Zealand simply cannot ignore.

Whilst we continue the academic debate over telco restructuring and the benefits of fibre versus wireless, other countries are getting on with connecting their businesses and emancipating their burgeoning middle classes through fast access to digital content.

New Zealand is brimming over with digital creativity, whilst emerging economies are crying out for it. It’s bad enough that our domestic network speeds are intermittently slow and patchy, but there is clearly now a tangible opportunity cost because our connectivity to the rest of the world is not that flash either.

We have a very fast research network with very little traffic, I’m told there is spare capacity on the Southern Cross cable and there are a number of high speed urban networks in operation or being planned. Surely digital content and applications providers would pay a small premium to be hosted within a high speed network environment with global reach?

What I cannot fathom is with all the smart people involved in the ICT industry in New Zealand, why nobody seems capable of making a good business case. If we don’t do this soon, then the most exciting digital offering to come out of NZ will likely be websites flogging insurance or similar.