Let me contribute to this blog by summarising the feelings and suggestions of a devoted e-Infrastructure activist with respect to the perspectives of this extremely important constituent of the ERA.
It is to be emphasised that this summary is an independent and, as much as possible, neutral, unbiased compilation of some crucial elements of a personal view on the complex picture characterising the past, present, and future of our e-Infrastructure facilities and services.
(The below text is not yet discussed and not agreed or disagreed by any forum of role-players in the related area and therefore it may be considered just as an individual contribution to the related debates. Its appearance in this blog is due to the kind invitation by Augusto Burgueno: after having received a detailed response from me to his interest he expressed by a personal e-mail in a comment I made on the very topic with respect to the EC input to the related agenda point at a recent e-IRG meeting, he suggested to upload the text onto his blog. Of course I’m pleased to share my thoughts with the readers. It is to be noted that the following text, apart from some minor corrections, is practically the same as that of my above mentioned response, although some refinements surely could make it easier readable and better understandable.)
The issues dealt with below are nowadays in the focal point of discussions about e-Infrastructure development and operation where the opportunities for the coming years are of key importance for the concerned user community: tens of millions of users in the area of research and innovation, as well as higher education.
The big questions (most of them closely related to e-Infrastructure missions, roles, functions, responsibilities, influences, impacts, stability, sustainability, collaborations, governance, innovation, share of coverage by service types, by user communities, by geographic regions, etc.) are impossible or at least difficult to answer by a simple, unique way. That’s the reason why they have been on the agenda for several years now. However, the discussions definitely reached an elevated intensity since Augusto came out with the summary of his observations, corollaries, and suggestions in his blog.
Investigating and discussing the above issues need considerable carefulness, good knowledge about the past and present situations, more or less clear vision about the future aims and goals, as well as wisdom in making any hard decisions, especially irreversible ones. Such an overall carefulness, experienced overview, clear forecasting and roadmapping, as well as wise decision making are surely well established today at the EC, the unquestionably outstanding role-player in determining the basic European directions and opportunities in the field of e-Infrastructures. As potential advisory bodies there there are the key e-Infrastructure organisations, the (mostly public) user communities, and the numerous committees, bodies and organised fora, all being available for the EC to collect integrated, deeply discussed, well established opinions, advices, and proposals from them. (Sometimes the number of such sources of suggestions and recommendations seems also a bit too high.)
At the e-IRG meeting I started my comments by emphasising that I was talking in my e-IRG member’s hat. (This is important because, on one hand, I’m a member of some other bodies and committees as well, and on the other hand my input to the discussion was to be considered just as the view of one single member and therefore not at all a well discussed, well established, common e-IRG view.)
This means that my below opinions are to be considered at this phase just as food for thinking but not as an agreed, widely accepted message (to the EC). However, of course I’m glad to exchange ideas about the related issues.
Concerning my e-IRG contribution, I tried to briefly tell there to the other members of the e-IRG my points about the following questions:
1. Europe has an outstanding e-Infrastructure for research and education (and for innovation). Development and operation of that e-Infrastructure has been a success story since the mid-80’s (or since the early 90’s, concerning also the EC involvement). The co-operation of the NRENs is one of the best examples of how the various cultures, how the different countries can work together, on the basis of subsidiarity and solidarity, by exploiting the joint best will and common highest expertise, in order to provide the European user communities (R&E&I) with services globally acknowledged as leading edge. Networking (as the basic component of the e-Infrastructures) is in the best position with its 20-30 years of history but the more recent e-Infrastructure components are also on their way of finding the optimum directions of development and operation (all built on the network-enabled remote accessibility of the various resources and services in processing and storing the scientific information for, among others, supercomputing, grid and cloud computing, virtual facilitating, and data manipulating purposes). There is a good and well developing, but sensitive balance and share of coverage between the e-Infrastructure operators as service providers in the complex arena.
2. The pleasing status and the unquestionable sensitivity of the role-players in the peculiar European casting is the major reason why special carefulness, knowledge, vision, and wisdom are needed if any considerable intervention is turning to be on the agenda. The well working, proven model of the NREN co-operation is probably to be extended, copied, exploited, by due refinements if necessary. This model primarily is based on democracy, self-regulation, self-governance, and independence. And this model is based on handling and exploiting complexity – both in the sense of functional coverage and of covering the user communities. Let just a few important risks stemming from carelessly disturbing the established stability of the present status be mentioned here:
– Development and operation can’t be separated but should be kept closely connected in order to avoid alienation, fragmentation of services, counter-interests, loss of responsibilities. (The EC requested a few years ago to involve JRA, SA, NA types of activities in the GÉANT projects, and that proved to be a good idea.)
– Networking and the novel e-Infrastructure functions mustn’t be separated but should be kept integrated as components of as much as possible complete NREN portfolios of services in order to maintain complex knowledge and to avoid loss of integral expertise on behalf of the developer-operator and also to avoid loss of one-stop-shopping opportunities for the users.
– Funding of the developments mustn’t be split into parallel channels (platforms, users, industry) but should be kept in a single channel in order to avoid incompatibility and loss of interoperability, even if initiation of the developments can originate from various stakeholders and the aims of the developments always have to be user-centric. Also the overall business models wouldn’t allow such a separation.
3. The NRENs are to be kept as the key actors, and their association is to be considered as the major governing body – also in the followings. In case of doubt, one just has to take a look into the annual Compendium editions of the NRENs’ community. They are impressive and convincing. NRENs not only build, gradually improve, and continuously operate GÉANT (and the national backbones and access networks behind that) but also provide numerous services – an impressive service portfolio for the other e-Infrastructure providers, for the disciplinary Research Infrastructures, and for the extremely wide user communities in research and education. (Their impact on innovation is still to be strengthened but soon that also will be part of the success story.) In this entire picture the role of PRACE or EGI (just to mention two other key role-players in the e-Infrastructure area) is increasing and getting more important but it is interesting to observe that those countries are in the best e-Infrastructure position where the NREN, the NGI and the national supercomputing organisation are coinciding. That’s another reason why the NREN model and the NREN-based governance are real winners.
4. Innovation is a major keyword of our joint aims and goals. (No doubt, innovation, through globally successful new products and services, can be one of the crucial tools of strengthening the economic potential, competitiveness, and also social welfare in Europe). However, an important and frequent misunderstanding or misinterpretation is to be corrected here. While innovation is the primary goal in doing research, the primary aspect in case of e-Infrastructures is stability (which doesn’t mean that innovation within the e-Infrastructure facilities and services could be out of interest …). This observation also leads to how the KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) are to be treated in the coming period. The Compendium (see above) lists an enormous amount of information on our e-Infrastructures and if we want to improve our KPI system then we have to be able to somehow measure the impact of the e-Infrastructures on research and innovation exploiting our e-Infrastructure services, applying them, working with them. (Also the effectiveness of the ERA can’t be measured by how the ERA tools and methods are looking like but rather by how they help research in achieving outstanding results – and Research Infrastructures, together with the e-Infrastructures, are extremely important constituents of that ERA.)
5. The absolute importance of integration rather than separation and fragmentation has already been briefly explained above. Another important requirement is simplification rather than complication in managing and in funding the development and the operation of the e-Infrastructures. No need of new bodies, committees, boards, etc., but rather there is a need to decrease the number of such bodies, if possible, on the basis of the experiences having been collected during the last several years.
Although just a few key points have been briefly investigated, this blog insert is quite long and, due at least partly to the complexity of the issues, probably a bit messy here and there, but hopefully it is not very difficult to follow. However, hopefully the readers, and first of all Augusto himself, will find some interesting and useful details in it – details that are worth to further discuss and to take into consideration when thinking twice about what and how to do when trying to revisit the policies and the funding practice concerning e-infrastructures in Europe.
Thanks again to Augusto for inviting the above contribution to his blog.