In today’s digital world, computer networks are essential for universities, enabling seamless collaboration, data sharing, and resource access, which is crucial for cutting-edge research. NRENs, like Sri Lanka’s LEARN, provide a dedicated infrastructure for global collaboration, catalyzing research and education advancement. In recent times, LEARN has played a pivotal role in connecting Sri Lankan academics with the world, showcasing the transformative impact of robust networks in facilitating knowledge transfer for national development.
Reflecting on this progress, LEARN recently hosted a gathering of network/systems engineers from its member institutions at its Annual Network Operations Center (NOC) Meeting. This exclusive session explored the challenges and triumphs of these professionals in building a strong digital foundation for their respective institutions. Over two days, these discussions emphasized the pivotal role of network infrastructure in higher education, covering recent advancements and the obstacles faced in nurturing a digitally connected educational ecosystem. By observing these conversations, one can witness a vivid picture of the state of academic connectivity in Sri Lanka.
LEARN Operations Update
The first presentation at the NOC Meeting was from the LEARN team, represented by Operations Manager Wathsala Dayananda and Assistant Projects & Solutions Manager Shashini Withanage. The duo provided a comprehensive overview of LEARN’s activities in recent times. The duo opened by highlighting the NREN’s growth, sharing that it now has 59 members, including 18 Full members, 16 Associate Members, and 25 Affiliate members. As such, the LEARN team is also continuously expanding to serve these institutions better. Further, students in member institutes are invited to join its internship programs, with two positions already open for operations interns and several positions available for technical interns.
Impactful activities undertaken by LEARN
The team then highlighted LEARN’s role as a specialized Internet Service Provider (ISP), licensed by the Telecommunication Regulatory Commission of Sri Lanka. The ISP license, renewed every five years, enables LEARN to offer diverse services alongside membership and network connections. LEARN’s service portfolio today includes DNS and Domain Name Server hosting, email services, Technical Assistance Center services, international and local training programs, LEARN eduID for staff and students, network connections at concession rates, federated identity management via LIAF (LEARN Identity Access Federation) and eduGain, Eduroam subscription, VoIP services, and free backup links for high-bandwidth subscribers.
Among its array of services, a notable one is LEARN’s offering of free Zoom accounts, a lifeline during the pandemic, ensuring uninterrupted higher education. Even in a post-pandemic world, LEARN continues to provide this invaluable service at concessionary rates, emphasizing its commitment to fostering accessible and quality education. Additionally, a strategic investment of LKR 25 million in 17 DTEN units significantly amplified remote collaboration capabilities for member institutions.
Crucially, LEARN plays a pivotal role in upskilling network professionals of its member institutes through a series of workshops. In a notable shift, many of these sessions were conducted in person in 2023, which offered participants an enriched learning experience. Notably, LEARN organized more workshops in the past year to meet the growing demand for professional development. Furthermore, 2023 marked a milestone as LEARN expanded its workshop portfolio to include teachers, initiating sessions focused on teaching and learning with online tools. This strategic move underscores LEARN’s commitment to empowering educators with essential digital skills, and fostering innovation in teaching practices.
LEARN is opening global doors for local academics
Since its inception, LEARN has been dedicated to advancing its mission of connecting Sri Lankan academics with the world. This commitment has manifested through an extensive network of international partnerships, contributing to regional collaboration and progress. These partnerships encompass a diverse range of influential organizations, including APNIC, APAN, Asi@Connect and EU, TEIN*CC, SingAREN, BdREN, CERNET, Cisco, Telstra, GÉANT Network, NORDUnet, India’s National Knowledge Network, LKNOG, eduGAIN, among many others.
A notable example among these global engagements is LEARN’s partnership with the Indonesian Cyber Education Institute (ICE). Through this initiative, Sri Lankan undergraduates gain access to free online courses using their eduID accounts. Additionally, LEARN has played a proactive role in enabling local academics to participate in regional conferences. The most recent and prominent examples are APAN56 (organized by LEARN) and SANOG40, which offered a limited number of free seats to its member institutions. By facilitating access to regional events, LEARN empowers Sri Lankan academics to engage on international platforms and exchange knowledge with their global peers.
The critical supportive role of the LEARN TAC team
Afterwards, the TAC Engineer at LEARN, Deepthi Gunasekara, presented insights from the LEARN TAC (Technical Assistance Center) team. The primary task of the team is to provide technical assistance to member institutions and maintain LEARN’s various services. A key focus for the team is the LEARN Identity Access Federation (LIAF), which enables secure access for R&E institutes in Sri Lanka. The team conducted an identity access management training session to enhance this federated identity system in March 2023. This effort resulted in updates to Identity Providers (IdPs) for LEARN and several member institutions.
Looking ahead, the LEARN TAC team has ambitious plans. They aim to implement IDP version 5, introduce multi-factor authentication in IdPs, deploy a WiFi portal for Eduroam, offer IdP-as-a-service, and collaborate with the National Science Foundation (NSF) on a research paper database. Throughout these initiatives, the LEARN TAC team underscores the significance of increased collaboration among member institutions, emphasizing its pivotal role in enhancing the overall educational and research community.
The state of academic connectivity in Sri Lanka
Following the informative presentations by the LEARN team during the Annual NOC Meeting, network professionals from various Sri Lankan higher education institutions took the floor. Each university’s staff provided detailed insights into the structure and scale of their networks, the range of services they offer, and the specific challenges they encounter. These presentations collectively unveiled commonalities, offering a comprehensive overview that sheds light on the current state of academic connectivity in Sri Lanka.
Strong growth expanding connectivity with several services
Looking back, Sri Lankan universities showcase formidable strengths in their network infrastructure, skillfully developed by their adept IT teams. These networks provide robust connectivity, extending seamlessly to faculties and hostels within the university campuses. Notably, the resilience of these networks is fortified by the implementation of backup links, ensuring uninterrupted connectivity even in challenging circumstances. Moreover, leveraging the foundational services provided by LEARN, these universities have transcended mere connectivity to offer a diverse range of services.
The services offered by these teams extend beyond conventional network functions, catering to the holistic needs of both students and faculty. The expanded service portfolio encompasses email services, Domain Name System (DNS), Learning Management Systems (LMS), student and staff management systems, library management systems, single sign-on solutions, file sharing services, Virtual Private Network (VPN) services, access to Eduroam and eduGain (via LIAF), Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), web hosting services, software licensing, comprehensive help desk support, WiFi access, and cutting-edge video conferencing capabilities, among others.
Proactive measures to strengthen networks for future growth
While embracing these achievements, Sri Lanka’s higher education institutions are also preparing for the future by addressing immediate challenges faced by their networks. To that end, they’re committed towards network expansion, connectivity improvements, and capacity building in the coming year. A primary focus remains on the imperative of network expansion and upgrades, acknowledging the need to modernize infrastructure and extend coverage across all areas of institutions to meet evolving academic demands. The management of expanding digital data volumes intensifies the challenge, prompting a comprehensive reevaluation of storage solutions for secure data storage.
Simultaneously, various higher education institutions are proactively addressing macroeconomic challenges by optimizing resources, reducing costs, and augmenting their teams with skilled IT professionals. Looking forward to 2024, universities are dedicated to resolving these challenges, cultivating an environment conducive to knowledge exchange and innovation. This commitment ensures a seamless and digitally enriched future for higher education in Sri Lanka.
The future of Sri Lankan academic connectivity
In assessing the current state of academic connectivity in Sri Lanka, commendable strides have been made by Sri Lanka’s higher education institutions, reflecting their relentless efforts to enhance network capabilities. From the implementation of robust connectivity solutions to the introduction of advanced services that transcend traditional connectivity, these institutions exhibit a forward-looking approach. The resilience of their IT teams, evident in the delivery of comprehensive network offerings and innovative services, underscores their commitment to providing a digitally enriched education experience.
Equally noteworthy are the achievements of LEARN. Over the past year, LEARN has demonstrated unwavering dedication to advancing the nation’s academic infrastructure, fostering robust network connectivity, and promoting collaboration among member institutions. The Annual NOC Meeting served as a pivotal event, showcasing the collective progress achieved as network and systems engineers convened to discuss challenges, share successes, and collectively chart the path forward.
Looking to the future, LEARN and the universities have articulated ambitious plans. LEARN’s strategic initiatives, aligned with the universities’ commitment to addressing challenges for these growing networks, signify a unified effort to establish a seamless and future-ready digital landscape for higher education in Sri Lanka. The shared vision of cultivating an environment conducive to knowledge exchange and innovation paints a promising picture for the academic landscape in Sri Lanka.