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CANARIE’s five-year mandate up for review

Federal government must decide how much funding to give Canada’s high-speed computing network.

by Michael Smith

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Canada’s research community has concerns about the future of CANARIE, Canada’s Advanced Research and Innovation Network, whose five-year funding mandate is up for renewal this March, at a time when the federal government is preparing for some serious belt-tightening. The 18-year-old organization is charged with building and managing the country’s high-speed research computing network, which includes some 19,000 km of fibre-optic cable, connecting all of the country’s universities, research hospitals, colleges, government labs and even a slew of grade schools.

It is a critical network, said Gilles Patry, president and chief executive of the Canada Foundation for Innovation. “If you shut the network down, no one in the universities could communicate – we’re not connected to Rogers or Bell or Shaw.”

And the day-to-day Internet simply would not cut the mustard. The CANARIE network can move data at speeds between 10 and 100 gigabits per second – fast enough, at the high end, to download all the movies on iTunes in seven seconds.

Not that a shut-down is in the cards. There’s a consensus that CANARIE provides absolutely crucial infrastructure, and there’s no other organization that could step in at short notice. But the federal government does have options as it puts together this spring’s budget.

The options for CANARIE range from cutting back on support to expanding and developing it to keeping things pretty much the same. Jim Roche, CANARIE’s president and chief executive, said he doesn’t know what level of funding will be provided but he’s pretty sure what the future holds for the network itself: demand will increase exponentially.

That’s not because there are large numbers of researchers clamouring to join; CANARIE already links just about everybody in the Canadian scientific research community and many outside – more than one million scientists and 1,100 institutions. Instead, the big driver is the sheer immensity of data. Genomics – the study of whole genomes – generates huge data sets. So do particle physics programs such as the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, where several Canadian teams play key roles. Even social science research can use a lot of bandwidth for database research.

Over the past decade, Dr. Roche said, use of the network – defined as the amount of data being shipped over those fibre-optic pipes – has grown about 50 percent a year, and he expects the growth to continue.

“The bad news is that the demand is increasing exponentially,” he said. “The good news is that the cost of meeting the demand is decreasing exponentially, and we think the two trends are meeting in the middle.”

In other words, something like CANARIE’s current budget – $120 million from Ottawa over the past five years – is the right amount for the next five, he said. That budget “ask” would allow CANARIE not only to upgrade and continue to operate the physical network but also to develop new platforms and tools that improve the ability of other researchers to use the network. For example, one expansion that CANARIE recommends is developing a generic, cloud-based research environment with a simple interface during the next five-year funding period. It also recommends implementing a digital accelerator program to speed up commercialization of new digital products and services. The government will have to decide whether it sees enough value in CANARIE to warrant investment in new network tools and programs like these.

From its user community, CANARIE is seeking feedback to government – it has a link on its website asking researchers to “show your support,” with suggestions of what to write in a letter to the Prime Minister and how to raise awareness about the importance of the network with their home university’s government relations office.

Dr. Patry at CFI said it’s important for the university community to make its voice heard. The network, he said, is “fundamental” to the research effort – a fact that administrators sometimes miss. “Very few university presidents are aware of the role that CANARIE [and its regional partners] plays in serving the research enterprise of their own institutions,” said Dr. Patry, himself a former president of the University of Ottawa.

The cost of Canada’s public research enterprise – federal, provincial and territorial – amounts to several billion dollars a year. The money is made more effective, argued Dr. Roche, by the value added by CANARIE.  At about $24 million a year, he said, the network is “underpinning billions of dollars of research.”

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