Asi@Connect project was initiated in September 2016 for a period of five years for supporting the NRENs of Asia-Pacific countries to continue the legacy of connecting NRENs of this region among themselves along with connecting with NRENs located in Europe and other continents across the globe with multiple high-bandwidth links. In the process to support the activities of NRENs under Least Developed and Developing countries under this project, it was decided to go for seeking proposals from different NRENs as well as other associated organization in the form of “Call for Proposals” at different phases under various Work Packages (WPs). Six different WPs were crafted where proposals were asked for WP2 to WP6 defining various categories with WP1 being considered as a special work package. The principal goal was to render support for the emerging NRENs so that they can help their community which eventually will bridge the digital divide. Enhancement of collaboration among the NRENs was another important objective to take care of. This particular project titled “facilitating Distance Learning using Digital Conferencing facility [fDLuDCf]” was one of such kinds which was awarded by TEIN*CC to BdREN under WP5 (Promoting Asi@Connect-enabled research and education collaboration for societal benefit) of the 2nd Call for Proposal.
The project from its very inception was a signature of collaboration. NORDUnet came forward as “Technical Advisor” of the project and was the Co-Principal Investigator. Besides BdREN there were five (5) other NRENs as beneficiary countries. They were: DrukREN (Bhutan), LEARN (Sri Lanka), NREN (Nepal), PREGINET (Philippines) and ThaiREN (Thailand).
|Figure 1: Scope of Project and Status of participating countries|
The initial Project period was from September 2018 to April 2020. However, due to enormous success of the project and economic use of its budget, the project was extended twice, first time till December 2020 with added scope and next time till June 2021 to finish the completion of outstanding procurement activity.
2. Performed Activities
There were altogether 22 activities which were planned and performed in three (3) different phases [Initial, Second and Third phase]. Please refer to Figure 2.
|Figure 2: Schedule of Performance of Activities|
The brief of the performed activities was:
The details of each activity have been provided in Annexure…………..
3.1 Installation of Zoom on-prem version
In line with the project plan, initially NORDUnet configured only one server at BdREN Data Center and configured zoom controller as well as meeting connector in that server. The setup was good enough considering the deliverable of the projects which was to run the project as a pilot one. However, with the outbreak of the pandemic, there was a huge surge in the use of the zoom application and the beneficiary countries had no other options than to utilize the available licenses on production mode. It needed the NRENs to configure their own on-prem zoom controller and meeting connector to make sure that NORDUnet Data Center was not overloaded and thus not getting choked. The installation and configuration were successfully done by the beneficiary countries in respective Data Centers/University premises. The benefits of installation of “On-prem” version had been manifold:
3.2 Procurement of equipment for beneficiaries
End-devices were procured in two phases for testing the system. In the first-phase one (1) desktop, one (1) laptop, one (1) android, one (1) iPhone and one (1) iPad were purchased for each of the beneficiary countries for test purpose. Moreover, two (2) laptops were procured for conducting the operational activities of the project office in BdREN.
In the second phase, eight (8) zoom rooms [codec, camera, LCD panel and control terminal) were procured for five (5) beneficiary countries. Among them four (4) were procured for BdREN and one (1) each for the other four (4) beneficiary countries except Philippines. PREGINET (Philippines) was excluded from this procurement as it was not found to be interested to continue after the first phase.
3.3 Exponent of Collaboration
Six (6) beneficiary NRENs BdREN, DrukREN, LEARN, NREN, PREGINET and ThaiREN were involved with the project although PREGINET was not included once first phase was completed due to their nonchalance in moving ahead with the project. NORDUnet, the RREN of the Nordic countries, was the Co-PI and acted as the technical collaborator. Out of six (6) DLE courses two (2) were conducted by representative from University of Colombo School of Computing and rest were conducted from Bangladesh. The participants in the DLE courses were from many different countries across Asia and Pacific. In the DigiNar programs experts from many other NRENs under Asi@Connect project and also from other parts of the world like GEANT, Internet2 and UbuntuNet participated as speakers. Additional awareness workshops were arranged in APAN46, APAN47 and APAN48 held in Auckland, Daejeon and Putrajaya where representatives from NRENs across the world did participate. Two (2) Train-the-Trainers programs were conducted in Colombo and Kathmandu organized by LEARN and NREN respectively. Furthermore, four (4) Train-the-Trainees programs were conducted in Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and Sri Lanka organized by BdREN, DrukREN, NREN and LEARN respectively.
After the surge of COVID-19, LEARN first came up with the “On-prem” configuration concept of zoom application. The other NRENs immediately followed suit with praiseworthy cooperation from LEARN engineers. Later on, BdREN came up with a “Scheduler” software to enhance the zoom application account utilization which was later shared with LEARN when it faced shortage of zoom account. Considering the shortage of hardware capacity of Nepal REN, BdREN offered its own hardware to NREN which was an exponent of hardware sharing most probably never happened before in Asia-Pacific NREN community.
In short, the success of fDLuDCf project lies in the collaboration among the participating NRENs and thus one of the major deliverables “Enhancement of Collaboration and Support” could be delivered in a far more effective way than it was speculated during the planning phase of the project.
3.4 Knowledge sharing
In this project “Transfer of knowledge” was considered to be one of the most critical outcomes and as planned three (3) Digital Seminars (DigiNars) and two (2) Digital Talk-shows (DigiTalks) were organized in the first and second phase of the project respectively. All the sessions were either on burning issues relevant to NRENs or on state-of-the-art technologies. The distinguished speakers were arranged from all parts across the world and the audience participated mostly from the beneficiary countries and countries across Asia-pacific. In total 357 Males and 26 Female participants were there which signifies the extent of knowledge that were exchanged from these events. The details of the events are in the Annexure.
3.5 Capacity Development
Capacity Development was accomplished in three (3) formats:
3.5.1 DLE Courses
Six (6) DLE courses were organized all on advanced technologies. The topics were:
All the instructors were experienced academics or renowned industry professionals. For “Cyber Security” and “Practical Cryptography” the instructor was arranged from “University of School of Computing”, Sri Lanka and for the other four (4) courses the instructors were managed from Bangladesh. The trainees, both professionals and students, participated from the beneficiary countries and countries across Asia-Pacific.
The success of these capacity development initiatives is unearthed out of the statistics saying that altogether 2678 trainees participated in the capacity development programs of which 2242 were male and 436 were female.
3.5.2 Train-the Trainer/Trainee Programs
The other form of capacity development initiative was Train-the-Trainer and Train-the-Trainee initiatives. Train-the-Trainer programs were organized in Colombo, Sri Lanka and Kathmandu, Nepal. Basic and Advanced level of configuration, both cloud based and on-premises using federated services, of Zoom Application were trained in the Train-the-Trainer programs. The instructors for the Train-the-Trainer programs were from Denmark and Sri Lanka whereas participants were taken from the beneficiary countries.
Train-the-Trainee programs were organized in four (4) beneficiary countries where the “Trainees” who participated in the “Train-the-Trainer” programs conducted the trainings. It was an exponent of true capacity development and its utilization. In total 137 trainees were trained of which 127 were male and 8 were female. Thailand, one of the beneficiary countries, couldn’t organize any training program which remained as a stigma to the project.
3.5.3 Training on LMS Configuration
Another way capacity development took place was through organizing training program on “LMS Configuration” targeting “Moodle” application. In total 60 participants from 5 different countries were trained of which 49 were male and 11 were female.
The details of Capacity Development programs are placed in the Annexure.
3.6 Minimize Gender Disparity
The project was a catalyst for minimizing gender diversity. In total under capacity development program 480 female trainees participated against 2678 male trainees. Figure 3 below expresses the percentage participation of male and female.
|Figure 3: Minimizing Gender Disparity|
It has been found that out of all the capacity development programs 15% female participants came out as registrants among all the trainees which is a good sign considering the gender disparity in the Least Developed countries.
3.7 Online classes during COVID
With the onslaught of the pandemic, all the educational institutes across the beneficiary countries started closing down which created the opportunity for NRENs to offer their licenses for conducting online classes. The community welcomed the decisions of the NRENs and embraced the offer with open heart. The process started in the month of March 2020 for most of the beneficiary countries. The figure below (Figure 4) expresses the staggering level of usage of offered Zoom Licenses in conducting online classes over a period from March 2020 till June 2021.
|Figure 4: Use of Zoom Licenses in conducting online classes from March 2020 to June 2021|
It is implied from Figure 4 that BdREN had the highest use of the facility with the second spot taken by LEARN. Figure 5 also vindicates the same in terms of “Maximum” and “Average” number of monthly meetings.
|Figure 5: Maximum and Average number of monthly meetings|
It is to be mentioned that probably this is the first time NRENs of the beneficiary countries could offer services which were badly needed by their member institutions. And the services could be offered readily off the shelves and also at “free of cost”. The NRENs could make the member institutions well understand their worth and could make them indispensable at least for the time being. Those NRENs could earn a significant level of acceptance from the member institutes.
3.8 Follow-up project
Considering the sustainability of the project a follow-up project has been planned curbing the weaknesses revealed under the fDLuDCf project. The main weakness was found in the form of absence of computing devices. As soon as the system was offered for production services, NORDUnet Data Center hardware started getting choked. NORDUnet was not in a position to allow the services to run in production mode at the cost of exhaustion of its own computing resources. As a solution, an idea sprouted up that if the Zoom Licenses can be configured to work on “on-prem” mode then only NORDUnet hardware can be spared. All the NRENs tried to switch the licensing mode from “cloud” to “on-prem” mode. NORDUnet computing resources could be spared and NORDUnet could be satisfied, but the problem shifted to the end of the beneficiary countries as many of the beneficiary countries didn’t have enough hardware to accommodate all the licenses. Although the problem could somehow be managed by different NRENs by following varieties of ways, yet it remained as a long-term problem to be resolved. To remedy the issue a project has been initiated under CFP5 where distributed Data Center Infrastructure has been proposed in four (4) beneficiary countries [Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and Sri Lanka] and also two (2) other LDCs [Cambodia and Laos] have been included as beneficiary countries. NORDUnet has again come up to provide Zoom Software Licenses under this project for another two (2) year period. This project, if gets through, will contribute massively to the sustainability of the fDLuDCf project.
4. Financial Report
|Figure-6: Project Financial Status-1|
|Figure-7: Project Financial Status-2|
5. Challenges faced and measures taken
5.1 Running Zoom in Production Mode
As soon as COVID-19 pandemic stroke the world with all its thunder, the NRENs of the beneficiary countries started offering the zoom application as well as the licenses that were there at their disposal to respective member institutions “free of cost” in order to facilitate the member institutions face the disaster. The offer was well embraced by the institutions. The overwhelming popularity of zoom services resulted in soaring of usage of the application which caused consumption of the NORDUnet computing capacity. NORDUnet immediately came back and expressed their reservations to let the beneficiary countries continue using zoom application in production mode saying that it was out of the scope of the project. However, the hard reality and accompanying necessity brought forth the resolution of the problem. LEARN first came up with the “On-prem” licensing solution which allows classes/meetings to reside in the Data Centers/Server Farms of the beneficiary countries rather than consuming the resources of the cloud. The other NRENs started following the example set by LEARN. As the solution could spare NORDUnet hardware, NORDUnet allowed the beneficiary NRENs to use the licenses in “Production mode”. The innovation of “On-prem” licensing and subsequent approval of using the licenses on “production mode” by NORDUnet brought inordinate relief for all the beneficiaries.
5.2 Shortage of Zoom Licenses
Although number of zoom licenses allocated to beneficiary countries was good enough for defined project activities, yet the number of licenses was not adequate enough for using them on “production” mode during this pandemic period. All the beneficiary countries were in crisis and requested NORDUnet to increase the allocation, if possible. As always, NORDUnet didn’t disappoint the beneficiaries. They doubled the previous allocation of 10,000 licenses to 20,000 and distributed the additional allocations at varying proportion. BdREN got 2,500 of the additional allocation which resulted in a total allocation of 7,500. But even that amount was not adequate enough as BdREN needed around 20,000 to cater the burgeoning demand from the community. Again, innovation from the part of BdREN Software team came to its rescue. BdREN Software Team developed a scheduling software which could increase the efficiency of each individual Zoom license many a times to provide a stopgap solution. Later on, with demand surpassing the supply for LEARN, the software was shared with LEARN as a gesture of collaboration and empathy.
5.3 Inadequate Hardware Capacity
As soon as the “On-prem” licensing was enabled the computing capacity of the beneficiary NRENs’ Data Center/Server Farm started getting utilized and with soaring usage of the zoom licenses the crunching of hardware started taking place. Various NRENs’ tried to approach the mitigation process in various ways. BdREN replaced its “vmware” virtualization software with “proxmox” as a short-term solution and on a longer-term basis it procured new hardware. LEARN mitigated the problem by distributing the load across the server farm of multiple universities. Also LEARN advised respective universities to stagger their classes. NREN (Nepal REN) started using the spare capacity of BdREN Data Center. DrukREN and ThaiREN didn’t face similar challenges.
5.4 Multi-nation procurement
The project had two (2) procurement processes involved within its scope. The first one came up in the form of various end devices for test purpose and equipment as well as accessories for project management. The second one involved procurement of zoom room. Considering the variation of import taxes and availability of equipment cross multiple countries, it became very challenging to meet the estimated cost. However, with active involvement and cooperation from TEIN*CC all the equipment for all the beneficiary countries could be purchased locally within the project time period.
5.5 Overseas Transaction
The project involved cross-country payment as consultancy fees and reimbursement fees against travelling expenses and expenses for other logistics like arranging workshops and trainings. BdREN had to face enormous challenges in taking permission for such overseas fund transfer. In addition, calculation and imposition of taxes on various occasions also came as a burden.
6. Learning Lessons
6.1 Need for Data Center
To run zoom application in “on-prem” mode, the beneficiary countries needed the computing capacity to hold the meeting which was conspicuously missing for NRENs other than BdREN. LEARN somehow managed it by distributing the computing load across university server farms, however the capacity was less than what was needed. Had the beneficiary NRENs had enough computing capacity, the licenses could be better utilized.
6.2 Highest level of support from NORDUnet
At different stages of the project highest level of assistance was received from NORDUnet. First and foremost, NORDUnet allowed the beneficiary countries to use the offered zoom licenses in “production mode”. Then, while the beneficiary NRENs lodged requests to increase the zoom licenses, NORDUnet doubled the number of licenses than that was allotted earlier. In addition to that whenever the project was decided to be extended, NORDUnet agreed to offer the allotted licenses free of cost. Last but not the least, considering project sustainability NORDUnet decided to continue the licenses till zoom comes up with a reasonable offer for the NRENs to be accepted by the NRENs.
6.3 Increased utilization of TEIN Network
It was anticipated during the project planning stage that the activities to be conducted under the project will result in increased traffic in the TEIN network. But surprisingly the reality was found to be betraying the speculation. The cause might be due to the fact of zoom coding efficiency, the increase in traffic was too minimal to be differentiated.
6.4 Nonchalance from the participants
During the project activities it was observed that the other NRENs were not particularly serious in joining the sessions particularly during Digital Seminars and Digital Talk shows. Also, the participation in the DLE courses was mostly found from BdREN and LEARN. This aspect was a bit negative side of the project.
The activities of the project were well-circulated using exclusive project web portal [https://dle.asiaconnect.bdren.net.bd] and TEIN*CC portal [http://www.tein.asia]. Also, all the activities used to be published in BdREN “Facebook” page [https://www.facebook.com/BdRENUGC/]. The recorded presentations and video lectures were stored in the project web portal for being downloaded or played directly from the web page.
Other than regular project activities visibility and awareness programs used to be arranged in APAN46, APAN47 and APAN48. Special panel session focusing the success of the project during the pandemic was arranged in APAN50 hosted virtually by HARNET. Similar talk shows defining the success of the project in mitigating the need of the higher education sector was arranged in APAN51 hosted virtually by PERN. Articles were published in local newsletters of BdREN and PERN and also in TEIN*CC Newsletters. Special feature was published in ISOC Newsletter [https://www.internetsociety.org/blog/2021/04/boosting-education-and-research-during-covid-19/].
Arrangement of Video-conferencing Licensing Centrally: For sustainability of the project it would have been better if TEIN*CC can convince Zoom to sign an agreement for a big chunk of licenses at an affordable cost and then distribute it to each NREN against its specific demand. This will allow the NRENs to offer the video-conferencing facility to its member institutions at reasonable cost.
Building Asi@Connect Data Center: As computing facility is essential for use of “On-prem” licenses, Asi@Connect can plan installing centralized Data Center at a particular country or distributed Data Center across different countries so that the required computing facility can be managed.