Networking knowledge for India

Varsities connected on national knowledge network need to now leverage it to start real-time collaboration

shivangi-narayan

Shivangi Narayan | July 1, 2014




Fully connected research institutes with a high-speed bandwidth to collaborate and share information in real time has been the unrealised dream for all researchers in India. The national knowledge network (NKN) is an endeavour to realise this dream. NKN was inaugurated on April 9, 2009 and has grown from 20 high-speed links to a total of 89 links across the country. It is now an ISO-27000 body having received its certification recently on June 27.

Currently it connects 855 government institutes and universities with a bandwidth of minimum 100 Mbps. If one adds another 327 institutes connected through the national mission on education using information communication technology (NMEICT) on the NKN the figure touches an impressive 1,200. Internationally, another 8,000 research institutes from 19 countries are connected in partnership with the trans-Eurasia information network (TEIN 4).  

What does being connected mean?

Connecting institutes on a high-speed line is just the first, though an important part, of the journey of a collaborative research network. “Virtual classrooms on our network are running in 66 institutes and are useful for information sharing,” says R S Mani, deputy director general, national informatics centre (NIC) and project director, NKN.“IIT Delhi is mentoring IIT Mandi. Instead of professors making periodic trips to Mandi, they all have their classes together with the help of our virtual classrooms.” He adds that CSIR labs have saved  '5 crore on travel costs by using the video conferencing (VC) facility on NKN.

According to Karunakar Gupta, technical director, NIC, apart from virtual classrooms institutes can use the national data centre (NDC) of NKN for hosting their websites. “VC is another important service. On January 7, over 110 institutes attended the president’s address live through video conferencing. Another 400 institutes watched it over webcast,” he says. Indian supercomputer Garuda is using the NKN for supercomputing applications.

“Super computers need the low latency, high speed network such as that provided by NKN,” says Gupta. Transmission of high-speed data, such as that generated by the Hadron collider is possible through NKN for the benefit of researchers in India. “The Hadron collider generates terabytes of data per second and we need a network like the NKN to transmit such data,” he adds.
Medical reports from hospitals in rural areas are being shared with AIIMS for analysis and diagnosis in various telemedicine initiatives through NKN. 
Google cache servers have also been integrated with NKN to allow for seamless viewing of YouTube videos, especially for students in medical colleges. “Medical students learn a lot of surgical procedures from YouTube videos, of which we have facilitated seamless viewing on NKN. Not only that, it (incorporation of Google cache servers) also saves crores in internet usage,” says Mani

Academia needs to warm up
For real academic collaboration, however, real-time data sharing among researchers and various institutes is required. “Many administrative reforms (for sharing and collaboration) need to take place for the final objective to materialise,” reveals Mani. Sharing is possible when there is digitisation of data and when it is proactively shared between institutes. PhD theses are submitted in a bound format and stored in university storerooms instead of digital files. “Credit sharing is still not a routine activity in India. Students from say IIT Delhi cannot credit courses from any other IIT. That kind of connectivity is missing,” explains Mani.

There are legal, financial and propriety issues too which crop up when one thinks of common data sharing. “If a researcher puts his paper for free download on NKN then will the journals publish his paper? Will it have the same value as when it was unpublished on the network? What happens to money and royalty for the work?” asks Mani. To resolve these issues, the Indian academia should take a cue from its western counterparts where open sharing of research knowledge, not just among institutes but also with the larger public, has become a movement. Most research, especially those in state/central universities, is financed by public funds.

“We are in talks with the ministry of human resource development (MHRD) for creating a common portal where all professors and eventually their PhD candidates would be able to create their own channels. These channels, connected through tags stating their speciality, will have all their research work available for free download. The content of course will be governed by the IT Act and all national laws,” says Mani. Some universities, notably the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), have already asked its students’ consent to store their work digitally. It has also told the students that they could keep their work from becoming public for a maximum period of three years.
 
Making life simple for students
NKN is also trying to make life simpler for students. “We are trying to create a common portal of student databases where each student would be given a unique identification,” says Mani.

This portal will also have aggregate information of all forms and deadlines for admissions in all universities across India. According to Mani, students would be able to apply and download admit cards and check for all kinds of admission related information there.“This will help students have a single point of contact for all information during admission season and help them relax,” says Mani.

He said that NKN would also provide central mail cleaning services for all e-mail servers, cleaning them off all virus and spam at a central location. A community portal to register and check events and lectures at various institutes is also on the anvil, he added. Guidelines for website standardisation, for all institutes connected through NKN, might also come up soon. “We want all websites to have important information like admission details, faculty, courses and contact information present on the first page. It should also display its NAAC ranking prominently on the website so that students would be able to judge the quality of the institute,” says Mani. “We are connected with a 2.5Gbps link with both Madrid and Singapore. The state wide data centres (SWAN) and state data centre (SDC) are also connected. A heavy appetite for network is going to be there for 10 years at least.”

Why NKN?
NKN is a high-speed data network with points of presence (POPs) across the country. If an institute is connected to a state PoP, it is connected with all the institutes which are connected to their respective state PoPs. The institute just has to take a local leased line to be connected with all institutes across India. If there was no NKN, then each institute would have to take a national long distance (NLD) leased line for connecting with all the institutes, which would have considerably raised the cost of bandwidth. The government, by creating the NKN, also pays less for bandwidth for each college. The NKN provides dedicated lines, efficient manpower and redundancy for 24X7 service for a connected network.

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