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Strategic Directions | Feature

NJEDge.Net: Advancing Education and Research

A Q&A with Ed Chapel

Edward V. Chapel joined NJEDge.Net as the Senior Vice President in November 2014 after serving as a higher education CIO for 14 years at Montclair State University. As one of the many state and regional research and education networks that comprise the national network of networks — The Quilt — NJEDge has been delivering value to its connected members by way of a consortium-based shared network services model. NJEDge primarily serves the higher education community (institutions of all types) in New Jersey along with many organizations in the state that are affiliated with and have interests in education — there are numerous K-12 members, healthcare, municipal, nonprofit organizations, and research entities. CT talked with Chapel about the role of a research and education network (REN) and asked him to share how NJEDge.Net serves the education and other nonprofit sectors.

Mary Grush: What does a REN offer its members?

Ed Chapel: "Stronger Together" is the tag line of many among the Research and Education Networks (RENs) throughout the U.S. like NJEDge.Net. This is the essence of the ethos that makes for a successful consortium whereby the members all acknowledge that there are things we are able to do together that cannot be accomplished were we to act autonomously. By sharing in the costs and the effort to provide value added services to the education and non-profit communities we are all able to enjoy a higher level of research capacity, performance, Internet bandwidth and throughput, and perhaps most importantly, connectivity to Internet2 to help members conduct the business of education and especially the business of research.

Grush: How does your organization, NJEDge.Net, fit into the fabric of RENs in the U.S.?

Chapel: NJEdge is one of nearly 40 organizations throughout the U.S. that comprise a body called The Quilt (the network of regional networks). We are, if you will, kind of the cog in the wheel of education and research that ensures that the full spectrum of higher education institutions are able to participate in the Internet2 program and big science and analytics work, and to enjoy Internet services that do not have the interference of commodity Internet noise (such as social media and commercial advertising). Internet2 is a frictionless, research-centric and education resources-centric network for our members.

The nation's RENs, by virtue of their coalition as The Quilt [] and their connectedness with Internet2 [] empower a committed community of member institutions not only to reap the benefits and value of high-performance networks and related advanced technologies, but also to participate in and influence the national agenda for the information technology and infrastructure that affects and advances education and research.

Grush: What motivated the education institutions in New Jersey to form a networking and research consortium, initially?

Chapel: We wanted to be able to buy through a consortium model: The consortium model is really the foundational element of the actual ability to buy Internet and Internet2 services.

NJEDge was conceived late in the 1990s. At that time, the cost of a MB of Internet was somewhere in the neighborhood of $1,500 or $1,600 (per MB). Everybody knew that the Internet and Internet2 were going to be important to realizing their educational strategic missions, but the cost was out of reach. So we built a buying consortium to leverage our economy of scale. With many members to share in the costs, we were able to leverage our buying power to reduce the costs from service providers of Internet and Internet2 connectivity.

Grush: Has the notion of consortium buying spread beyond straight network services?

Chapel: In the ensuing years, the notion of consortium buying persisted. And now, beyond connectivity, we also focus very heavily on tools, products, and services for education.

With input from our membership, we assemble RFPs: We write specifications for education- and research-focused products that can be purchased through the consortium-delivered RFP. In the case of the State of New Jersey, we were designated by our legislature as an Educational Research and Services Corporation, a status which allows any State entity to buy from our RFP-based product offerings without doing a bid on their own.

A recent and very poignant example of the success of this model is the VMware product purchasing program that NJEDge developed. This program, it is safe to say, can legitimately take credit for accelerating the pace of virtualization of computing throughout the higher education community and other state agencies more broadly. We put forth a special purchase agreement with VMware — the leader in virtualization technology — to provide our members with the products to virtualize their data center environments on the order of magnitude of about 60 percent off the best available education pricing out there at the time. We did all this at a time when the State of New Jersey was also floating various bonds intended to fund expansion for educational capacity and physical plant improvements, for which the virtualization project qualified. So, New Jersey became a leader in virtualization: virtualized data center, virtualized network, and virtualized desktop/laptop computing. And this has saved tremendous amounts of money for our members, both in direct purchase costs and indirect costs — including cost avoidances associated with utilities (power and cooling) and systems/equipment administration and management personnel.

Grush: Are there other examples of leveraging the consortium buy beyond virtualization?

Chapel: Oh, certainly. We do this for learning management systems, tutoring tools, for research and outcomes assessment analytics, and security products, to name a few. There are many domains we touch.

We have used our consortium to purchase security threat mitigation tools, which are generally very costly to put in place at any given campus. But buying these tools in a shared services model, and installing them on one or two devices on our network backbone, makes is possible for everyone's traffic to pass through them.

Grush: Are there benefits beyond network connectivity and consortial buying power?

Chapel: The network is central and of dominant importance to all of this, but what's very interesting and particularly rewarding is that once you bring together a variety of higher education institutions via a physical network connection, they become a network of professional interests as well: They end up doing so much more than sharing a physical connection. I believe the network catalizes an enduring sense of community and collaboration across the membership.

As I mentioned earlier, we like to say that we are "stronger together". The research and education network allows for individual members to accomplish things in unison with their consortium partners that they couldn't possibly get done alone.

Consider the example of video conferencing and synchronous learning, which results in tremendous amounts of academic collaboration. Faculty members at one institution are able to teach at another in a real synchronous learning environment. That's just one example…

Grush: I’m sure you could cite endless examples, but what do you yourself consider among the more impactful of these?

Chapel: One area where the research and education network is also a key facilitator for moving the needle on large projects and big ticket items, is in professional development, helping our members acquire expertise by sharing in the costs of training in things such as instructional design, security best practices, instructional design and pedagogy best practices, and technical specializations such as the Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL), Control Objectives for Information and Related Technologies (COBIT), and Project and Portfolio Management (PPM) as well.

Grush: What are the benefits to the academic side of the house at member institutions?

Chapel: On the purely academic side, there are collaborations and constituent groups all across our consortium. So the network of people who are relying on the network of wires and switches also become more proficient academicians — we have resources and groups that convene around all manner of academic concerns: gamification, instructional design, the use of rich media, media-capable classroom design, and more, to advance teaching and learning.

Grush: How do you communicate with your members, and what are your governance and funding models?

Chapel: Our primary vehicles of communication are though the activities of community groups and forums that we run — NJEDge has a host of constituent groups, such as a data resources group, a security resources group, an academic technology group, and so forth. These are service-based groups who convene regular meetings. There is likewise a forum of all the CIOs, who are convened with virtual and site visits on a regular basis.

In terms of governance, NJEDge was created by, and its corporate ownership is made up of, all the college presidents in the State of New Jersey: the New Jersey Presidents' Council. And we are operationally overseen by a board of trustees, a subset of the New Jersey Presidents' Council and comprised by a formula-based representation of institutional leaders including presidents, provosts, CIOs and other C-suite executives — proportionate to the size of their sectors within the State.

NJEDge is particularly adept at the community engagement elements of running a Research and Education Network and this is quite helpful in making the REN vital and useful for its membership.

While our staff at NJEDge only amounts to about 10 full-time equivalent (FTE) roles, we have significant community participation to help guide and contribute to the work of, importantly identifying priorities and specifying solutions that need to be delivered.

Funding is a fundamental challenge for all aspects of higher education operations, and the Research and Education Networks are no exception. Funding models vary considerably among RENs across the U.S. In NJEDge's case, aside from a little initial seed money, and occasional grants we are able to win through competitive bids, in our case, we are entirely self-sustaining and member-driven. By that I mean we exist as a direct by-product of our members paying their annual dues and investing in the products, goods, and services that we offer.

Grush: Does NJEDge support or promote its members' efforts in new product or technology development, entrepreneurship, or innovation? Do you have examples of such development?

Chapel: Absolutely. We deliver to our members a pure software as a service-based video conferencing solution that supports all manner of meetings, collaboration, and certain use cases for synchronous learning. In addition to this, we provide our members with a digital repository service, NJVID — which is a bit of a misnomer as it supports all manner of rich media content as well as simple documents and images. The service allows for content to be stored, curated, and managed in accord with digital rights management standards, using Shibboleth-based federated identity management standards. And it provides the key elements required for universal accessibility for ADA compliance including closed captioning and translation. The service includes a feature-rich and platform-neutral delivery service for content streaming as well. It is tantamount in feature and functionality to the industry leading commercial products in this domain and, because of our consortium-based product development model, we are able to make it available to our members at a fraction of the cost. It's also noteworthy that we sell the NJVID product to other RENs throughout the country, at times rebranded to match the name of their own organization.

Grush: Is there an area that's newer in terms of the development or evolution of RENs — something that's either just being established or is really growing now at NJEDge or at RENs in general?

Chapel: Perhaps the last piece of the picture, currently, for most RENs is this: One of the areas where research and education networks really excel, is in advancing big science or the big science/big data agenda. The NSF in particular has been promoting, very aggressively, regionalization and collaborative projects. At NJEDge, for example, the physical interconnections across all of our members provides the opportunity to develop innovative and valuable research zones where the network has been built specifically to conduct high-performance computing research projects.

The secret sauce in this area for the whole fabric of RENs, is that while we are data rich (we have massive databases related to disparate aspects of national and international interest such as transportation, health care, learning outcomes, climate, and environment — you name it), they are often housed at disparate locations over great distances. The model that funding entities such as the National Science Foundation (NSF) has actively promoted is the formation of broad-based regional research collaboratives designed to share these data resources via a frictionless, high-performing network that is custom designed to ensure these disparate resources are shared and accessible to the largest community of scientists possible. A way to think about this conceptually, is to envision a scenario where data resources can rest in place, while the nation, perhaps even the entire globe, has become in aggregate if you will, the computer that will touch these resources through the wires of research and education networks. And the RENs are really nodes on the backplane of one big computer. So, we've opened the door for everyone to have high-speed, unfettered access to data resources that can remain in place at their original institutions.

All this may sound obvious or simple on the surface, but the determined push for this is an important step that has really raised the bar on the quantity and quality of research that can take place, and on the interconnectedness and collaboration of researchers at member institutions, among RENs, and ultimately among the discipline domains as well — truly advancing research.

Historically, most RENs were built to answer immediate, practical problems — like network access. But another layer of high-performance data analytics is emerging for research — with new infrastructure and business requirements — that seems to be providing a glimpse into our future and the problems we will all be working on.

Grush: Hopefully the RENs will be up to the challenge.

Chapel: When you look at big data hub research projects, there's an emergence of and lot of focus right now on large, regional projects — smart transportation, or earth science and environmental projects, to name a couple of areas — and there is a very real and important role for the RENs to serve as connectors among the players. That may be the avenue of greatest opportunity. But we are really just scratching the surface of what's to come.

As a former CIO at Montclair State University, New Jersey's second largest public institution and at Fairleigh Dickinson University, the largest private institution, I was privileged to join with a relatively small number of visionary colleagues back in the late 1990s to create the vision and the first iteration of New Jersey's Research and Education Network – NJEDge. We are now on the fourth generation of the network and we have certainly expanded the scope and complexity of what we do. Nevertheless, the thread that runs so true throughout all that we have done and all that we hope to accomplish in the future, is shared services. We are, indeed, "stronger together" — sharing costs, sharing resources, sharing risk, sharing knowledge. An enduring commitment to this consortium ethos is the secret to our long-term success.


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