KAREN for Dummies

November 2011

 

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Word on the techy street is that a new girl in town is set to transform the New Zealand education sector. Her name is KAREN. Should we believe the hype? How is KAREN going to bring about a transformation and is it sustainable? JUDE BARBACK takes a closer look.

 

Acronym overload

  • ICTPD: Information and Communications Technology Professional Development. Around 60 per cent of schools have completed the Ministry of Education’s ICTPD programme and around 15 per cent of schools are involved in any one year. The ministry is currently looking at how we can further support the development of e-learning capability in all schools.
  • KAREN: Kiwi Advanced Research and Education Network.
  • NEN: National Education Network trial extension. A 2008 trial, offering 23 schools high-speed access to education content and services, is currently being extended to more schools.
  • SNUP: The School Network Upgrade Project. Involves progressively upgrading internal data and electrical infrastructure in state and state-integrated schools.
  • TELA: Laptops for Teachers and Principals. Eighty-six per cent of principals and teachers (43,000) are supplied with laptops under the ministry’s TELA scheme.
  • UFB: Ultra-fast broadband.

 

So what exactly is KAREN?

To be clear, KAREN isn’t a she; KAREN stands for Kiwi Advanced Research and Education Network and is a high-capacity, ultra high-speed national research and education network. It connects New Zealand’s tertiary institutions, research organisations, libraries, schools and museums, and the rest of the world.

Without wanting to get too technical, KAREN consists of a high-speed optical network connecting points of presence (PoPs) throughout New Zealand. A PoP provides an interconnection point between member sites around the network.

KAREN was commissioned in late 2006 to REANNZ (Research and Education Advanced Network New Zealand Ltd), a Crown-owned, not-for-profit company that owns and operates KAREN.

 

How does KAREN affect Kiwi schools?

Since 2008, REANNZ has been operating a trial of a National Education Network, or NEN, for schools on behalf of the Ministry of Education. A NEN is a dedicated education network connecting schools directly to a range of service providers in New Zealand and internationally, giving schools access to a range of education-related content and services via ultra-fast broadband.

Phase one of the NEN trial was to understand and quantify the cost and technical issues and options for schools to connect to KAREN. By mid-2008, the trial had entered phase two, which saw the concept of NEN become a reality with 23 schools, and a number of content and service providers connected to KAREN. The main purpose of this phase was to test the architecture developed in phase one and explore some of the pedagogical benefits of ultra-fast broadband. Phase three, which began in 2009, saw the trial expanded to more schools and content and service providers.

Up to 200 schools that were part of clusters already connected to open-access fibre networks, including ‘loop’ clusters in Wellington, Nelson-Marlborough, Christchurch, Ashburton and Manawatu took part in phase three of the NEN trial. Schools on the trial found they could better manage their internet bills, as connections to and from trial schools passed over KAREN, avoiding public internet usage charges and eliminating any bandwidth restrictions. They also had access to a range of free ministry-provided services – such as Adobe Connect, e-asTTle, Asnet video conferencing, Virtual Learning Network, LAMS and Elgg – and those provided on a commercial basis including eTV, Moodle, Knowledge NET and Ultranet.

Schools not part of the ministry-funded NEN trial can still gain access to KAREN, however they must pay for the costs of the connection to KAREN in addition to the membership fee.

As a result of the NEN trial, simple and repeatable KAREN school cluster high-level designs were developed with the purpose of delivering shared IT services from a variety of suppliers.

 

KAREN’s power and potential

New Zealand researchers and educators are now able to take advantage of KAREN’s accessibility and cost-effectiveness to gain access to large-scale national and international infrastructure and to collaborate better on research and education projects at a distance.

Examples of KAREN’s role in advancing this research collaboration are starting to emerge. The launch of New Zealand e-Science Infrastructure (NeSI) is a case in point. The new national supercomputer network, recently launched by The University of Auckland, will reportedly boost research on many fronts. It uses KAREN to connect researchers from the new and existing supercomputer hubs at The University of Auckland, Canterbury University, the University of Otago, NIWA, AgResearch and Landcare Research.

“NeSI represents the most significant infrastructure investment for New Zealand’s science system in the last 20 years. It provides not only the hardware to handle massive computational loads, but also the skilled support team to create custom solutions for specific research problems,” says Professor Mark Gahegan from the university’s Centre for e-Research.

Such innovation doesn’t come cheap; funding of $47 million over four years, co-invested by the Ministry of Science and Innovation and the six partner research organisations, will be used to build NeSI. Individual research institutions will always struggle to meet the costs on their own, whereas collaboration can provide the breadth of facilities and capabilities for research that we need in New Zealand.

Wayne Mapp, Minister of Science and Innovation, explained that one of his priorities as minister had been “essentially to get a big science infrastructure strategy in place. We nominated a range of infrastructures that were seen as mission-critical for the nation and e-science, along with the KAREN network, was seen as absolutely fundamental… it was understood that this was one of the bedrock capabilities of any advanced nation”.

Around the same time as the launch of NeSI, another celebration of KAREN’s power was taking place. REANNZ and AUT recently announced the successful connection of AUT’s radio telescope at Warkworth to KAREN. Connecting the telescope allows New Zealand to demonstrate its capability in radio astronomy, and could enable New Zealand to take part in the global radio astronomy project, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), aiming to answer questions about the origin and evolution of the universe.

“The connection of this important piece of science infrastructure to KAREN is a significant milestone for the New Zealand radio astronomy community, and has the potential to enable New Zealand to participate in an international radio astronomy research programme of epic proportions,” says Donald Clark, chief executive of REANNZ.

The ability to operate supercomputers and enable radio astronomy projects demonstrates the scope and power of KAREN. However, experts say the network will need to continually evolve to keep up with research demands.

 

So, what’s next for KAREN?

The somewhat unimaginatively named KAREN2 is on its way. The development of the next generation of KAREN is a key focus for REANNZ over the next two to three years, with implementation planned for 2014. The proposed KAREN2 network will not only provide enhanced bandwidth, but is also likely to have the capability to provide separate light paths between members. Once the key optical switching layer is in place, the network capability can be increased easily and at relatively low cost.

There is considerable investment being poured into KAREN. Is KAREN sustainable for New Zealand? It appears so. The contracting arrangements recently agreed with FX Networks – including access to dark fibre, coupled with increased government funding and agreement from members for a sustainable financial environment for KAREN – mean that REANNZ can now plan the future network and the future needs of the research and educational communities without having to continually focus on financial sustainability.

REANNZ have also announced a new member on their team specifically to lead the development of KAREN2 – Dr Phillip Lindsay, the former CIO of AgResearch Ltd. Lindsay has first-hand experience of what happens if the future of a research network isn’t closely considered, given his leadership role in setting up the very first real national research network, TuiNet, in 1992. “While TuiNet was a leading-edge network at the time, we failed to continue to focus on the future needs of the research community. REANNZ needs to avoid a similar situation with KAREN, and it is important that we plan now for the future, even though we can’t anticipate exactly what our researchers will be doing on the network.”

 

 

UFB coming to a school near you

Among the many acronyms cluttering the education sector, we can now add UFB as a firm fixture. Ultra-fast broadband (UFB) is set to transform New Zealand’s education system.

The final two contracts for the roll-out of UFB around New Zealand were finalised in May this year following the award of a contract for the roll-out of broadband in rural areas. Combined, the plans will see all schools given a broadband boost by 2016.

Government Minister Steven Joyce says more than a third of all state and state-integrated schools will be fibre-ready by the end of this year. “Over the next five years, 97 per cent of schools will receive ultra-fast fibre enabling speeds of 100 Mbps plus. The remaining three per cent of schools, which are in the most remote locations, will receive a high-speed wireless or satellite connection – a tender process for broadband provision to these schools will get under way next month. No school will miss out.”

The claim that “no school will miss out” is certainly promising. But how will it help? Education Minister Anne Tolley says the UFB initiatives will make New Zealand’s education system one of the most wired in the world, enabling schools to significantly enhance teaching practices, improve student engagement and lift achievement. “Fewer than 200 New Zealand schools currently have bandwidth capable of the ultra-fast broadband speeds essential for applications such as high definition, two-way video conferencing. This technology means that students anywhere in New Zealand can have access to the best teachers and online resources anywhere in the world,” says Tolley.

UFB doesn’t come cheap. The government will invest around $150 million to prepare the sector for the roll-out and work is well under way. The Ministry of Education’s School Network Upgrade Project is in the process of upgrading state and state-integrated schools’ internal networks in readiness for fibre.