Collaborating through COVID: Challenges, Opportunities, and Lessons from the NEAAR Project
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Since 2016, the Ubuntunet Alliance has been a partner in the Networks for European, American, and African Research (NEAAR) collaboration, a US National Science Foundation funded project, led by Indiana University, that supports high-speed international circuits and network services, as well as training and science engagement activities in support of science collaborations between US researchers and their counterparts in Europe and Africa. The COVID-19 pandemic has changed almost every aspect of the project, however, working together, the NEAAR partners have been able to develop and implement new ways of engagement that promise to sustain the project for years to come. One of the several goals of the NEAAR project is to support the use of the perfSONAR toolkit more broadly across Europe and Africa. perfSONAR is the performance Service-Oriented Network monitoring ARchitecture, a network measurement toolkit designed to provide federated coverage of paths and help to establish end-to-end usage expectations. In the Fall of 2019, the International Networks at Indiana University (IN@IU) team began working with RENU to plan a weeklong hands-on training workshop for RENU’s members. In December 2019, plans were finalized for RENU to host the workshop in Kampala during the week of July 27-31, 2020. Unfortunately, in March, the workshop was postponed due to COVID-19 related travel restrictions. Throughout 2020, the NEAAR partners worked with RENU staff to re-design and transition the hands-on workshop to a virtual workshop held on Zoom. Although this solution was not ideal for getting hands-on experience with perfSONAR, in the end, the workshop was a great opportunity for RENU members to learn about perfSONAR and to gain a better understanding of the value perfSONAR deployments can bring to their organization. In addition to adapting the training workshops from face-to-face to virtual, the NEAAR partners also had to adapt their science engagement and end-user outreach efforts to the new realities of 2020. One area of focus for the partners was working together to look looking closely at international data flows between institutions and data sources related to COVID-19 research. Using NetSage, a measurement and monitoring tool developed by Indiana University, the team was able to identify increases in data transfers between bioinformatics, genomics, and other COVID-related science disciplines. Once flows were identified, the partners worked together to determine if these collaborations were realizing effective end-to-end performance. For example, at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, data transfers between a bioinformatics data archive in Europe and a hospital in the US increased from less than 1TB total in 2019 to over 50TB a month by March 2020. The NEAAR partners worked together with engineers at both institutions to examine traffic routing and to test the end-to-end network path to ensure this data was being transferred as quickly and efficiently as possible. This work led to faster transfer performance of this data and likely faster time to science for researchers and scientists. Throughout 2020, the NEAAR partners worked together to provide high performance networking resources and support to multiple researchers fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. Finally, as 2020 was officially the last year of funding for the NEAAR project, the NEAAR partners needed to work together to write and submit a new proposal for an extension of the project. After many videoconference meetings and late-night writing sessions, in August 2020, the partners were informed by the US National Science Foundation that their new proposal would be funded for an additional 5 years. This new project, entitled “Networks for European, American, African, and Arctic Research” or NEA3R (adding a focus on supporting Arctic Research), will continue its strong collaboration with research and education networking organizations in Africa. The project officially started in September 2020 and, like the original NEAAR project, will focus on providing high-speed international links, network services, and science engagement. This talk will summarize how the NEAAR partners adjusted their training, engagement, and proposal writing activities to the new realities posed by the COVID-19 pandemic and will provide an overview of the new NEA3R project, highlighting ways Ubuntunet Alliance members can become involved.