Making the education connection

The UAE’s Ankabut is bringing the latest solutions and technologies from across the IT spectrum to build, connect and enable the Emirate’s education establishments to become leaders in collaboration and research

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Making the education connection Ankabut holds regular meetings with its stakeholders, and twice-yearly end user conferences to drive awareness and help to plan new service launches.
By  Mark Sutton Published  March 10, 2013

Bandwidth limitations can plague organisations of any kind, but for the higher education sector, particularly in research, access to high volume bandwidth can be essential when conducting collaborative research or sharing data. From the earliest days of the Internet, academic institutions have used connectivity among themselves for co-operative work, but as research becomes more and more complex, and volumes of data rise, so providing adequate bandwidth, at an affordable cost, becomes more and more challenging.

It order to meet these bandwidth needs for higher education, the academic sector has created its own solution, in the form of National Research and Education Networks (NRENs). First touted in the US, NRENs are generally run by the academic sector itself, on a not-for-profit basis, to provide a closed network that serves member organisations such as universities. The concept has been widely adopted by academia around the world, and while the Middle East is still somewhat underserved in NRENs, the UAE’s Ankabut, which was conceived in 2006, has ambitious plans to rank among the best in the world.

Ankabut, meaning ‘spider’ in Arabic, is the Emirates Advanced Network for Research and Education, and was brought into being with the signing of an MOU by the Institute of Applied Technology, Khalifa University, United Arab Emirates University, Zayed University and the Higher Colleges of Technology in 2006. The network is managed by Khalifa University (KU) and funded by the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Fund, with the first institutions getting connected in 2010.

According to Fahem Al Nuaimi, CEO of Ankabut, the organisation’s mission is clear: “Ankabut connects schools and public institutions together, across the UAE, and with universities throughout the world, with an effective cost model. It enhances the ability for universities to collaborate, to conduct research worldwide.”

At present, Ankabut connects 56 university campuses across the UAE, serving around 70,000 staff and faculty. The network also provides global connectivity, to the US-based Internet2 NREN, creating links to another 500 institutes.

Ankabut is based on a backbone of 10 gigabit speed, deployed in six core switches in the main cities of the UAE, to provide a dark fibre of 1 gigabit to each institution. The network is fully IPv6, and network operation is outsourced to UAE telco Etisalat.

Al Nuaimi took on the role of CEO in December 2011, having held various roles in the telecoms sector in the UAE for the past 21 years, including senior vice president of Technology Strategy Planning for Etisalat. He expects a total of 70 campuses to be connected to Ankabut by the end of this year, with all higher education establishments in the country connected by the end of 2014.

The network is not just limited to universities however, with schools also connecting, and future plans to connect other institutions such as healthcare centres and libraries, to also share in the benefits, Al Nuaimi explained, as part of the Emirates’ commitment to innovation and progress, and to establishing a knowledge-based economy.

“We are the only research network in the GCC, we are targeting to be one of the top ten worldwide by 2015,” he added.

Ankabut’s mission goes far beyond just connectivity however, with the organisation developing a wide range of advanced services for its members. The organisation offers a number of basic services to members, including web hosting and email, VPN, DNS and NTP service, along with knowledge sharing to help members implement these services. These services are just the tip of the iceberg however, with much wider educational, research and collaborative services already deployed or in development, Al Nuaimi said.

“We introduced high performance computing, we introduced video conferencing, we are collaborating with Alcatel to introduce virtual classrooms. We have already signed a consortium for e-libraries for the UAE,” he said. “We are establishing a new data warehouse for higher education in the UAE — today there is no single repository for higher education in the UAE, we working on a project with the higher education ministry and ADEC to establish a data warehouse.

The organisation has an impressive line up of services planned. At the heart of these is its new data centre, which is about to be completed, which will form the basis for cloud services from Ankabut. The data centre, which is hosted at Khalifa University, includes a hundred gigabit core, with state-of-the-art support infrastructure.

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