A Practical Navigator for the Internet Economy

 

How to Build and Sustain a National Knowledge infrastructure

 

Executive Summary

 

The rapid pace of continued technology change and the growing dependence of Research and Education on an advanced e-infrastructure creates a constant challenge to keep this in- frastructure up to date. In this issue we take a closer look at how The Netherlands managed to keep its world leading knowledge infrastructure viable and how the Dutch managed in particular during the times of the world-wide chaos that followed the economic collapse in 2008 to put it on a stable long-term path for survival.

The most important result was an evolution away from the rapid, project-based expansion enabled by investments from the gas field exploration funds towards a sustainable more stable infrastructure. The need to accomplish this was the most important lesson learned, a lesson not just for the Netherlands. Actually during this period of austerity The Netherlands did not really cut the infrastructure budget. The policy followed was a joint effort by Gov- ernment and the users of the infrastructure. In this issue Kees Neggers explains what he and his colleagues did with SURF and SURFnet and their associated entities to maintain the support of all its stakeholders for continued investment in this vital infrastructure.

Kees retired as CEO of SURFnet in 2012. However, at the request of his colleagues, he stayed on as a part-time strategic advisor to SURF, the organization behind the Dutch na- tion’s global leadership role in investing in digital infrastructure or e-infrastructure as it is called now. Then from mid 2014 to mid 2015 he stepped in as SURF CEO and provided the leadership for what became a successful restructuring of SURF to better prepare it to meet current and future demands. In the interview that we conducted in March 2016 and publish in this issue he tells us in some detail of the challenges he faced over his several decade- long career as a leader in shepherding and focusing his nation's involvement in support of its investment in e-infrastructure assets.

Kees describes how he was able to put the diplomatic skills that he built up over the preced- ing several decades to outstanding use in maintaining adequate support to enable the Netherlands to continue along the same lines of infrastructure building and support that we have described in earlier reports. Here he also shows how he came to understand that build- ing and supporting infrastructure was first and foremost an organizational challenge and not a technology undertaking.

What was needed was cooperation with each other and building a shared Commons that would support everyone's needs adequately without allowing anyone to achieve a position of dominance. A much-needed key insight comes from imbuing the understand- ing that, over time, working together will deliver to everyone more than any single entity could hope to achieve by working alone.

Everyone involved took a good and careful look at the organizational abilities they would need and then got their supporting lawyers together to show them how to craft the new legal framework necessary to achieve the new set of ends — the ends that everyone sought as being fundamentally compatible with the vision that had been pursued since the 1980s or even earlier.

As Kees points out: You must be able to talk with everyone on every level and, in the end, everyone must be able to give up on their personal ideas if there is consensus on something that can become a win-win situation for all. You must be able to show that the collaboration in the end over time produces a win-win situation for everyone. Trust is crucial for these processes to work.

In the end, to achieve these goals, they found that they needed to become a Cooperative. The previous legal entity was a Foundation, an entity with no shareholders and no members. The Cooperative is an Association where the members own all assets of the Association and control the resulting entity in a much more direct way. The core business of SURF did not change. But the way that business was implemented or provided did change drastically: key principles of the restructuring were that the SURF-bureau had to become a true holding en- tity, insourcing had to be legally secured in a more solid way and all services had to be car- ried out by the operating companies SURFnet (networks), SURFsara (super and “other” high performance computing; data-services) and SURFmarket (ICT marketplace). These three entities were folded into the Cooperative.

SURF will operate as a Holding Company, it will no longer provide services or execute projects. It will fully own and control its subsidiaries and will allocate both financial capital and human resources effectively to ensure that the group as a whole maximizes value for its members. Management of the SURF-bureau and the operating companies is now focused in a joint responsibility in the Executive Board for the well-being of the whole Cooperative and not just for their own respective subsidiaries. The former Board of the Foundation now functions as a Supervisory Board for the holding plus the three operating entities.

In the past, in addition to being responsible for its subsidiaries, the predecessor of the SURF-bureau acted in support of the participating universities and institutes with projects targeted at Education, Research and Business Administration. About 35 people of a grand 50 person Bureau staff were involved with this, often in collaboration with University people in the various projects that were undertaken. The SURF subsidiaries were not really involved in this. These activities were not part of the hardwired e-infrastructure itself. Nevertheless they stimulated advanced use of ICT for the core businesses of the SURF's members. But, as such, they were not covered in the ICTRegie recommendations. Therefor the structural funding was also not supposed to support these activities. The austerity at the government level as a result caused a drastic reduction of these activities from 50 to 25 people in the holding organization.

Then SURF decided deliberately that its Bureau, in the future, should execute only the hold- ing function for maintaining the e-infrastructure and all project activities needed to be per- formed by the subsidiaries. This was considered a much clearer approach, both for the Bu- reau and for the staff involved and from a government perspective. While some projects continued, others were halted. And still new ones are started when there is a joint interest. Also the Government is still providing some subsidies for things that they want to stimulate. But in the new structure all these activities are executed by the subsidiaries. Thus, in total, the SURF-bureau lost 35 of its 50 staff but about 10 of the 35 moved to the subsidiaries.

As 2009 began, the government was inclined to follow the advice of the December 2008 IC- TRegie Report to restructure the way the development and support of e-infrastructure was organized and to put it on a more sustainable structural financial footing. But then in Feb- ruary 2010 this government fell and the new government that replaced it asked a new Task Force to have a fresh look at it, also taking into account the consequences of the world-wide economic crisis.

At the end of 2010 the Task Force supported all recommendations, but also recommended a temporary slightly lower structural budget. This advice was followed by the Government and the implementation of the ICTRegie recommendations started immediately. In 2011 the eScience Center was funded and responsibility for supercomputing was handed over to SURF by merging the SARA foundation with the SURF foundation.

To make further progress towards a sustainable e-infrastructure commons, the continued involvement of all the stakeholders is essential. Each player in it has to accept its responsi- bilities and needs to play its role. In particular this requirement is true for the organizations using the infrastructure. Therefore it is very important for SURF to be able to keep the del- egates in the Members Council at the Board Level of the Institutes. Commitment at the highest level is essential to be able to tackle the complex challenges and harvest the win- win benefits of the commons. In this cooperative model SURF is responsible for the e-in- frastructure and bears the responsibility to make it all happen.

Now some users may write requests for bigger supercomputers where others may want new grid infrastructure or storage and still others may want a different kind of supercomputer. If these requests go independently and uncoordinated to the funding agencies, you will likely have them sitting on their hands or risk going with suboptimal solutions. Consequently, it is important that SURF is timely aware of all of the needs of its constituents and develop to- gether with all users a coordinated total picture: such an integrated solution will be much more valuable than the sum of the individual parts.

The added value for SURF, its members and its end users is that only by doing this together with all stakeholders can an affordable advanced e-infrastructure be realized to the benefit of all and one that is supported by everyone. The infrastructure people must not just be experts in their silos but also be knowledgeable about the disciplines as well as basic research needs.

 

Contents

 

Executive Summary

Summary of the Presentation   p.6

What the Netherlands had Done to Tackle the e-infrastructure Problem

The Landscape in the 60’s and 70’s

Landscape in the 80’s

Landscape in the 90’s
The GigaPort Projects

RINA

Landscape in the 2000’s

Landscape in the 2010’s

Becoming a Cooperative List of Abbreviations p.41

 

COOK Report CBI Archival Basic Acquisition Complete

In the next two COOK Reports: The Netherlands eScience Center as ! the Future of Global Research and Education Networks  p. 47

COOK Report Bibliography p. 49 -154