JANET set to feed data-hungry sector

Jisc’s super-fast network arrives ‘on time and on budget’

November 28, 2013

Source: Corbis

Optical solutions: biomedical sciences are among the disciplines requiring faster networks for their data-intensive research

A £25 million computer network designed to serve the needs of the UK’s higher education sector for the next decade has arrived after three years of development.

The JANET 6 network, running on more than 6,500km of optical fibre, will be capable of carrying 8.8 terabits of data at any given time (the equivalent to some 480 piles of printed paper, each stacked as high as the Eiffel Tower). It is hoped that it will enable the UK’s colleges and universities to cope with the ever-increasing amount of information they need to transmit each year.

According to Jeremy Sharp, head of strategic technologies at JANET, the network will enable researchers across the country to collaborate on projects that might previously have proved difficult – such as those that require “big data” to be sent between institutions.

“We have fundamentally constructed the architecture of JANET 6 to cope with the very high bandwidth requirement of the research community,” Mr Sharp said, adding that the network would facilitate more effective interaction with overseas universities, particularly on data-intensive projects. Disciplines such as genomics, biomedical sciences and climate science are known to be particularly data-hungry.

The increased bandwidth was also required to meet the needs of the growing number of institutions opting to outsource services such as email to companies that store information “in the cloud”, meaning it can only be accessed by users over an internet connection, he said.

“Universities are increasingly reliant on the cloud, and if they are to continue to outsource services they need a reliable network.”

According to Mr Sharp, a large UK university can expect a connection speed of around 10 gigabytes per second, which is enough to transmit roughly 180,000 songs per minute.

As well as enabling more effective collaborations between UK institutions, JANET 6 is also designed to cater for the huge amount of data transmitted to institutions overseas. According to a recent report by Science Europe and Elsevier, more than half of all European research papers are the fruit of collaborations between institutions, and more than one in three involve academics in more than one country.

‘Game-changer’

The three-year development of the government-funded JANET 6 network was overseen by Jisc, the charity that supports and advises the UK’s higher education sector on its use of digital technology.

The organisation has changed a great deal in recent years (see box below) and in January will welcome a new chair – Martin Hall, vice-chancellor of the University of Salford, who said that making JANET 6 a success was his “main priority”.

“It’s a game-changer; the best bespoke university and college network in the world,” Professor Hall said, adding that its delivery “on time and in budget” made the project a “huge success story”.

“We have to make sure we get the full return on it – and that people realise what they can do with it. For researchers…the challenge is shifting digital data around quickly, and JANET 6 gives them mechanisms for shifting large datasets,” he said.

That will change the way research is conducted, he added.

The improved performance will also “revolutionise teaching”, he said, and had the potential to make online learning – including massive open online courses – “interactive, rather than just passive” by allowing lecturers to give feedback to thousands of students at once.

“You wouldn’t be able to do that using [commercial] providers,” he said.

Professor Hall will take over as chair from Sir Tim O’Shea, vice-chancellor of the University of Edinburgh, and said he looked forward to assuming the role.

“If Tim can do it, then I can do it,” he said when asked whether the challenges of running a university would leave him enough time to take on the Jisc post.

“Vice-chancellors have an outward-facing role as well as an inward-facing one, and this position is complementary to [Salford].”

With MediaCityUK, where the BBC is headquartered, nearby, “Salford is now the centre of the world – not London”, he said.

He admitted, however, that the Jisc role would be an “intellectual challenge”.

“I will have to stretch my mind,” Professor Hall said. “I am not a techie. Also, there is the scope [of Jisc]. It covers everything from Imperial College London to a small further education college in Lancashire.”

He added that Jisc’s new funding model, under which institutions will pay a subscription to access its services, would mean that universities will be keeping a close eye on the organisation’s performance.

“Jisc has gone through a radical change…moving to a situation where institutions fund it directly,” he said. “There will be a lot more scrutiny by institutions looking at the value they are getting, and that’s right.”

chris.parr@tsleducation.com

Taking the subs way: Jisc funding evolves

Jisc, the organisation that supports and advises the UK’s higher education sector on its use of digital technology, and which has overseen the development of the JANET 6 network, is in a period of transition.

Previously a non-departmental public body, it became independent in December 2012 and is now a registered charity “owned by its communities” via the Association of Colleges, GuildHE and Universities UK.

Over the past five years, its government funding – including grants from higher education and further education funding bodies – has fallen by 17 per cent from £95 million to £79 million a year (not including the £25 million in state funding for JANET 6).

Further cuts of between 5 and 10 per cent are expected over the next two years.

In a change intended to offset this decline, from August 2014 institutions will pay a “subscription” charge to Jisc, although the majority of the charity’s funds are still expected to come from the UK’s government and funding councils.

The exact details of how much universities will pay have not been confirmed, but by 2016 their contribution will make up between 10 and 20 per cent of Jisc’s overall funding.

The changes follow the recommendations of Sir Alan Wilson, professor of urban and regional systems at University College London, who conducted an independent review of Jisc.

Published in February 2011, his report recommended that the body shrink both its remit and its budget.

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