Different approaches of National Research and Education Networks (NRENs) to develop a strategic direction to continue delivering added value over commodity Internet connectivity providers were debated during a spontaneous and lively discussion at the 34th meeting of the TERENA General Assembly (GA), held in Luxembourg on 20-21 October 2010. The pros and cons of universities, research institutions and NRENs outsourcing the provision of services to commercial companies were discussed on the second day. While addressing TERENA's budget for 2011 and its 3-year financial outlook, the GA agreed that TERENA should study the changing environment of European research networking to achieve a stable financial basis for its activities.
Appeals are increasingly made to TERENA to organise or coordinate new joint initiatives of the European research networking community, explained Janne Kanner (TERENA President) while presenting the TERENA Executive Committee's (TEC) Activity Plan for 2011. However, the organisation's limited financial resources and the limited manpower in the TERENA Secretariat make it impossible to take on new, substantial activities without additional external funding.
A worrisome picture was sketched during the discussion of TERENA's finances. Due to the severity with which some NRENs have been affected by the current global financial crisis, the GA decided not to correct the TERENA membership fees for ongoing inflation for the third consecutive year. As a consequence of this fee freeze, and because of some financial setbacks related to TERENA's role in the GN3 (GÉANT3) project, the bottom line of the 2011 TERENA budget adopted by the GA shows a significant deficit. The situation is not expected to improve in subsequent years - by 2013, TERENA's reserves will be reduced to 50% below the target level, even in the most positive scenario. Moreover, TERENA is in a vulnerable position due to the fact that the EU funding for the GN3 project forms a large part of TERENA's income. Diversification of income is an important element of the plans, which should lead to a healthy balance between the wishes of TERENA's stakeholders and the available funding.
In preparation for a strategy to deal with the financial challenges, the TEC is collecting TERENA members’ and other stakeholders’ views on the activities TERENA should undertake or coordinate, the priorities and possible sources of funding. In this context, Karel Vietsch and Valentino Cavalli from the TERENA Secretariat presented some preliminary impressions from an ongoing series of bilateral meetings with TERENA member organisations. The purpose of these meetings is to discuss the interests of these organisations, their views and their expectations of TERENA at the management level.
This presentation led to a spontaneous discussion between GA members about strategies that NRENs should adopt. Most NRENs are moving away from being only a connectivity provider to research and education institutions; they are developing a much wider portfolio of services, and are starting to apply professional methods to the management of their portfolios. Some meeting participants stated that NRENs should always be ahead of the commercial markets, or in any case, offer services that are not readily available from other organisations. Others argued that the NRENs' added value is, to a large extent, their knowledge of the users in the research and education community, and that forging close links with user communities should be an important element of an NREN strategy.
Clouds and outsourcing of services
A special agenda item was a discussion on cloud services and the advantages and risks of outsourcing network-related and other IT services to commercial companies. Yannis Mitsos (GRNET) presented the Greek NREN's 100-million euro plan to build its own cloud of services, with financial support from the national government. Alberto Pérez (RedIRIS) presented the spam filter service in Spain as an example of a specific cloud service procured by an NREN on behalf of its community. Kees Neggers (SURFnet) described an agreement with Google for Google Apps using SURFfederatie, and how SURF has joined up with Microsoft to make the Live@edu online collaboration environment available to the Dutch higher education sector.
In a 'tour de table', participants described current initiatives in their countries for outsourcing the provision of services to the commercial sector. In many countries, the picture is rather scattered - the role that RedIRIS and SURFnet have taken to speak to interested commercial service providers with ‘one voice’ on behalf of their constituencies was seen as an interesting example to follow.
Other agenda items
The GA heard updates on the TERENA Technical Programme by Christoph Graf, Vice President Technical Programme, and on the TERENA Networking Conference and workshops by Miroslav Milinović, Vice President for Conferences. In his role as a TEC member, Alberto Pérez presented brief reports on recent developments in the TF-CPR (Communications and Public Relations) and TF-MSP (Management of Service Portfolios) task forces.