The European Organisation for Nuclear Research, or CERN (Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire), may be based in Geneva, Switzerland, but it is a thoroughly global institute. Tens of thousands of physicists and engineers from around the world collaborate on a range of projects as they seek to better understand the fundamental structure of our universe.
Very little of CERN’s research is done on-site in Geneva, says outreach and education coordinator of the ATLAS experiment at CERN, Steven Goldfarb. Only about 10% of CERN researchers actually work on location in Geneva. This makes communication and connectivity vital: collaborators need to be able to share their work, share presentations and communicate their results. To meet the needs of this massive global dispersed community, CERN uses a software package called Vidyo, which allows hundreds of people to participate in a single meeting at any given time, and multiple meetings to be run simultaneously. In total, thousands of people within CERN – including administrators, scientists, technicians and managers –use the Vidyo technology on a regular basis.
In a country like South Africa, where overseas connectivity remains a constraint, researchers face particular communication challenges. There are about 80 CERN collaborators at various institutions in South Africa. At UCT, Dr Andrew Hamilton and Dr Tom Dietel in the Department of Physics are collaborators in the CERN ATLAS and ALICE projects respectively.
“There are 3 000 collaborators in the ATLAS project,” says Hamilton. “And on any given day there are dozens of meetings scheduled within my project alone. Those meetings could include anything from 10 to 100 people.”
“The quality of the connection within those meetings is critical”, explains Hamilton. “With so many meetings running in a single day, and so many members participating in each meeting, a few small connection problems can easily translate into hours of time wasted.”
South African collaborators in CERN limped along for a few years. The Vidyo conferencing worked, says Hamilton, but not with the efficiency required for this level of collaboration. Finally, in 2014, Hamilton and Dietel reached out to the newly established eResearch Centre to find a solution to their critical communications challenge.
Part of the eResearch mandate is to reduce barriers and connect researchers to the relevant service providers. As the eResearch team began to investigate Vidyo for CERN communication requirements, it quickly became apparent this was a problem that required a nation-wide solution.
“We realised we were not just serving UCT researchers, but the whole community of CERN collaborators in South Africa,” says Ashley Rustin, eResearch specialist.
The eResearch team first reached out to CERN. The global videoconferencing services manager, Joao Correia Fernandes, suggested they provide a VidyoRouter to the South African collaborators - something they had done to improve connectivity in a number of other countries. This VidyoRouter is the engine that enables video calls; it is an efficient way of sending video and audio streams to users. Once CERN agreed to pay for the software, eResearch contacted the Tertiary Education and Research Network of South Africa (TENET). TENET is a national network established to secure, for South African universities and associated research and support institutions, internet and information technology services.
The team from TENET readily agreed to assist on the project. They procured and set up the necessary hardware in Cape Town and reserved the required international bandwidth. While CERN set up and configured the software to ensure it connects seamlessly with the infrastructure in Geneva.
“This was a prime example of the eResearch team joining the dots,” says Rustin. “We knew who to reach out to and what to ask for. Once we began knocking on the right doors, everything really just fell into place.”
With the new video conferencing software installed, anyone connecting from a South African academic address to CERN will go through the Cape Town VidyoRouter. This ensures a consistently reliable connection, effectively plugging the South African collaborators in to the global CERN network.
"Since the VidyoRouter was installed in Cape Town, our video conferencing has been much more stable and reliable,” says Hamilton. “This is one of the many important steps we need to take as a research community to ensure we can have effective international collaborations."
TENET, in the meantime, is working to expand the local Vidyo infrastructure to further support the collaboration needs of the South African research community. Other research groups have been quick to get on board. The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) another massive global research project, has also begun to use Vidyo for its collaboration needs.
“Traditional video conferencing approaches can no longer meet the needs of the increasing number of global scientific collaborations like the SKA and CERN,” says Rob Bristow from TENET. “Thanks to this collaboration the whole South African research community can now benefit from the CERN experience with Vidyo.”