Collaborative Working

EU's big tech research projects reach a crossroads

The effect the debate over the UK’s projected departure from the EU has had on various aspects of European life has intensified over the past few weeks with a variety of different organisations contributing their views.

The scientific community has been keen to emphasise the part that the EU plays in inter-country co-operation and the effect that the UK’s potential departure would have. But whatever your views on the UK’s membership it has had one clear benefit: it drew our attention to the level of scientific collaboration that takes place across the EU.

And it was something that was brought even more sharply to our attention in April when the European Commission announced the launch of the European Open Science Cloud. The aim of the project is to provide the 1.7 million scientific researchers and the 70 million scientists working across Europe with a virtual environment for sharing data and storing their research. The Commission hopes that the creation of the Open Science Cloud will provide a boost to European research and ultimately a kick-start to the European economy.

While the initial premise hinges on what it can offer the scientific community - in Europe and among its global partners - the user base will over time be enlarged to the public sector and to industry in general. But in order for this to happen there needs to be some deeper thinking of how the project can be developed.

According to Bob Jones, leader on the Helix Nebula scientific procurement project, the launch of the Open Science Cloud will have ramifications for the EU member states as they ponder the implications of the project.  “The immediate impact that it will have will be the member states – how will they contribute to the Open Science Cloud.  They will have to work with the [member states'] national plans on how to work on the European level.”

Jones says that some of the big scientific research projects, such as GÉANT, the high-bandwidth network initiative, and EGI (European Grid Initiative), with its considerable expertise in supercomputing and HPC, will be major parts of the process. But he adds that there are questions for the commission to consider as the project goes forward. As a leader of the procurement project, he says that he has to ask about its future: “How do you involve commercial cloud providers like Helix Nebula?”

And it’s not just the big players who will be facing concerns as to how to work with the Open Science Cloud. According to Silvana Muscella, chief executive of research and marketing organisation Trust-IT, it’s a great project for the scientific research community but she has doubts about effects on the European SME market. “I run two SMEs,” she says. “How’s it going to benefit me?”

While the initial target is going to be scientific researchers, she says that there does need to be a sense to how it’s going to play with the wider community – both private enterprise and public sector.  “They’re not saying this is going to change an SME life. What’s the value proposition for these?” Muscella asks. “You could argue there are scientific users who are also SMEs. Something like this is going to be effective for them, but there aren’t many. How many SMEs use EGI and [high-performance computing advancement project] PRACE?  I wonder if anyone does.”

The Open Science Cloud should not solely be dependent on interest from the research community. One of the factors that the European Union and the member states have to face is that the Open Science Cloud is only the starting point. Jones is aware of the shortfall. “It will need investment from the private sector to ramp up to the scale that the EC wants,” he says.

One factor that won’t derail the Open Science Cloud initiative is the disruption that would be caused if the UK were to vote to leave the EU, a move that may encourage other member states to similarly disengage. Jones believes that any effect would be minimal.

“It won’t have a massive impact. There’s already plenty of interaction outside Europe – with North America and Australia, for example. Take something like the European Geosciences Union [conference] which was held in Vienna in April: it attracted something like 14,000 people from 109 countries. We can’t just be an island. “

There’s a real feeling that Open Science Cloud is exploring a new area, one with no boundaries and with no map to help participants find their way. Jones acknowledges that it’s a new path. “In some senses it’s almost a green market – there’s no equivalent to G-Cloud (the UK’s digital marketplace for public sector procurement). “You need a clear legal framework, one where T&Cs have to be acceptable, for example, in areas like the recognition of intellectual property rights.”

The Open Science Cloud will have to fit in with the EU’s plans to rationalise the procurement process, something that the EU has been working on since EC commissioner Neelie Kroes first laid out her cloud computing strategy. “We’ve been working with the guys at Slalom [a European project on cloud SLAs] and with PICSE [a cloud procurement initiative]; it’s all still very young,” says Jones.

For Muscella, there are deeper questions to be asked about the Open Science Cloud project. She calls for some business model to be associated with it so that it doesn’t lose its effectiveness.

She also raises another worry: whether people will actually use it.

“Researchers tell me that they use AWS: they won’t put it in writing, but they use it.”

Of course, one of the key elements of the Open Science Cloud is that there would be no need for AWS. The system would be robust enough and so simple to use that researchers would find it the natural choice. And, points out Muscella, there will be quite a data repository for researchers. “Amazon doesn’t have that, “she says.

There are several cloud-based initiatives coming from Europe right now and the Open Science Cloud is just one of them. It many ways it’s an ideal showcase for how the European Union can genuinely facilitate co-operation; the natural propensity of scientists to share ideas and collaborate sees to that.

But that also means that it’s a standard bearer for the way such projects pan out.  If it’s kept for the benefit of a narrow base of technologists and scientists, it’s going to lose a lot of its impact. Jones is surely right when he says that the member states must take the idea and run with it and future plans will have to incorporate the private sector too. It will be an interesting couple of years to see how this pans out.


Related reading:

EU takes aim at datacenter power hogs

It’s UK versus Europe in the battle over data protection

France’s bid for cloud power smacks of deja vu


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Max Cooter

Brighton, England-based Max Cooter has spent about 25 years writing about technology, when not obsessing about his beloved Brighton and Hove Albion football and Sussex cricket teams

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