Internet - TENET, SEACOM, SANReN & all that stuff…

Published June 17, 2009 by soren

South African universities have been hampered in their attempts to use the Internet for research and teaching by inadequate capacity.  Demand for Internet bandwidth has vastly exceeded supply, resulting in congested connections, unresponsive or sluggish web browsing, and limited ability to access larger content, be it software, scanned manuscripts, or streaming audio/video.  Overseas, campus internet connections are typically two orders of magnitude faster than the 2Mbps access circuits we have been using at Unizulu. Internet research and collaboration tools that make use of these high-speed connections, such as desktop videoconferencing, are becoming ever more common.  More and more websites have interactive content that does not function effectively on our congested Internet access, and even “recreational” sites such as YouTube are being used for real academic/teaching purposes such as for “podcasting” lectures or instructional videos.

Two factors have restricted our Internet capacity.  Firstly, the cost of overseas connectivity on the Telkom SAT3 cable is extremely high.  TENET currently pays approximately R12,500 per megabit/second per month for the connection between London and Johannesburg. (Compare this cost to the approximately R85 per megabit/second per month TENET pays for “transit” connectivity from London to the rest of the Internet).  Secondly, the high cost of overseas connectivity has kept the overall demand for network bandwidth in South Africa at a low level.  As a consequence, Telkom has limited capacity for high-speed network connections.  Neotel may be building a more modern, fibre-optic based national network that has more capacity for high-speed connections to customer endpoints, but Neotel has a long way to go before its services are available outside of the major metropolitan areas, and its prices are also still very high.

Hopefully, massive relief is at hand.  Everyone living in Mtunzini has noticed some aspect of the preparations for the SEACOM cable,  such as the signs that say “SEACOM” leading down Station road.  Some will have noticed the construction of the cable landing station down below the railway line next to the bush tavern, and nobody could fail to notice that huge trucks that have been cutting “slots” and laying large blue and green plastic pipes in the slots along several of the roads in Mtunzini and also along the N2.

The new SEACOM submarine cable will soon connect Mtunzini to London, with an aggregate capacity of approximately 1300 Gigabits/second.  Back in mid-2007, TENET was offered the purchase of a 10 Gigabit/second circuit on the SEACOM cable for US$20,000,000.  This is roughly 40 times the aggregate international capacity currently used by TENET member institutions.  Unizulu is one of 26 TENET members who committed to joint financing of the purchase of this 10 Gigabit circuit, and we have committed to purchasing the right of use of 200 Megabits/second of bandwidth for the lifetime of the cable.  We will pay off the cost of purchase of this long-term right-of-usage over the next 5 years.

This 200Mbps capacity on the SEACOM cable is approximately 130 times the international capacity we had in place at the start of 2009 and will put us in the same league as our overseas peers.  The unit price of bandwidth on the SEACOM cable will be approximately 90% less than the currently outrageous charges we pay for SAT3 capacity.

What is also significant is that we will be purchasing capacity, rather than leasing it.  Our purchase gives us the right to 200Mbps of capacity on the SEACOM cable for the 20+ year lifetime of the cable.

While this sounds like the solution to our problems, we still have the problem of getting the SEACOM bandwidth to our campus.

In 2007, when we gave our commitment to the SEACOM collective bid, the understanding was that SANReN (South African Research and Education Network) would be deployed by the Meraka institute at the CSIR with the assistance (and over R100M in government funds) of the Department of Science and Technology.  SANReN was supposed to provide fibre optic connections to all university campuses at speeds between one and ten Gigabits/second.  Because of the substantial government funding to cover the network infrastructure, the costs of connecting to this new network should be minimal.

SANReN is still in the pipeline, but is at least 6 to 18 months away.  Meanwhile, SEACOM is imminent and TENET will be switching from SAT-3 to SEACOM bandwidth by September 1.  TENET is enacting interim plans that include:

  • constructing of a fibre-optic backhaul link from the Mtuzini SEACOM landing station to a Durban “PoP” (Point-of-Presence) at DUT.  This link is costing approximately R12M, and as of today, fibre has been laid from Mtunzini to Umhlanga.
  • leasing of high-speed temporary backbone network solution from Neotel to connect to all the other major urban areas.

This interim solution should enable institutions in the major urban areas to connect to SEACOM at significantly greater speeds than they currently have to the current TENET GEN3 network.

Unfortunately, this does not help Unizulu directly.  Even though the SEACOM cable lands in Mtunzini, the nearest place we can connect to it via TENET will be in Durban.  However, there is a proposal that Unizulu fund the construction of a 25km fibre optic run from the SEACOM cable station to the kwaDlangezwa campus, and that we will be able to make use of spare fibre optic pairs in the TENET Mtunzini-Durban backhaul link.  Even so, the costs of a 25km fibre optic run are considerable, almost as large as the purchase cost of the 200Mbps of overseas bandwidth.

The economic argument for the proposed “SEACOM plus fibre-optic backhaul” solution is compelling.  The annual repayment costs for this would be about 25% more than our current solution, but would deliver roughly 25 times our current capacity.  For the same cost as this solution, Telkom Internet would provide only 10Mbps of international bandwidth.

In the interim, substantial efforts have been made to alleviate the current bandwidth crunch.  TENET ADSL circuits have been installed on main campus and the demand from the student labs is now divided between a 2Mbps ADSL circuit on main campus and also the 2Mbps ADSL circuit at the TuziGazi campus.  We are currently bringing in about 150% more WWW traffic per day than we were at the end of 2008.  This has brought some relief, but the Internet is still extremely slow at peak times.  Until we have the “grand solution”, we will take additional steps to monitor Internet access and curb excessive and/or unjustified use.

We are on the cusp of a new era in South African higher-education and research networking.  The availability of massive new Internet bandwidth/capacity on a high-speed network backbone will make possible new research and collaboration initiatives.  Some of the research projects that have provided the demand for SANReN have been the Karoo SKA (Square Kilometer Array) radio telescope, the SALT (South African Large Telescope) at Sutherland and the national CHPC (Centre for High Performance Computing) together with the emergent SAGrid (national distributed grid computing infrastructure for research).  The advent of SANReN will also have a major influence on ICT strategy at universities and research institutions in South Africa.  There will be increasing opportunites to share resources and move university ICT resources into shared service centres.  The possibility of leasing IT infrastructure such as servers, or email systems or even student information systems rather than owning it will become an attractive option.  Already, the success of companies like Amazon, with their EC2 (elastic compute cloud) service show that the shift from owning on-site infrastructure to leasing infrastructure in the “cloud” is well underway.

Filed under Uncategorized

Comments (0)

Comments RSS - Trackback - Write Comment

No comments yet

Write Comment