All hooked up

Networking is essential for science and innovation. SWITCH links up the entire Swiss research

Text: Christoph Witzig, published on 08.10.2014

The history of the SWITCH foundation is closely tied to the construction of the network linking Switzerland's universities. SWITCH connected the academic network to the Internet – and thus to the whole world – right from the start. This is of vital importance for Swiss research. Over the years, the foundation has consistently succeeded in making the most of promising new information technologies.

It took a big step ten years ago with "dark fibres", renting optical fibres and operating the hardware itself. Now SWITCH is making another leap forward with the ALPSTEIN project. Following a period of careful evaluation, SWITCH selected a manufacturer at the end of last year and began installing its new optical hardware in the spring. The project will be completed in summer 2015. The network will then be capable of transporting data at a speed of 100 Gbps across 80 different channels. This paves the way for Swiss education and research to be at the forefront of network technology.

New trends in research and practice

Of course, network technology continues to evolve at breakneck speed, and SWITCH is constantly weighing up which trends are nothing more than short-lived hype and which might be put to use in its productive IT infrastructure going forward. Software-defined networking (SDN) and network function virtualisation (NFV) are very much in vogue at present and could indeed open up new possibilities between the backbone and the data centre. SWITCH is currently laying the foundations to make this happen with ALPSTEIN.

Authentication and authorisation

This physical network is not the only SWITCH service bringing universities together. More than ten years ago, SWITCH introduced AAI, the cornerstone of a national, federated authentication and authorisation infrastructure. The staff and students of all Swiss universities now use AAI to access more than 800 services daily. In developing and rolling out AAI, SWITCH took on a pioneering role within Europe, as a result of which many other countries have also adopted AAI. This has given rise to a completely new form of networking: access to services in other countries' AAI federations, referred to in the jargon as "interfederation". SWITCH now takes the lead in this respect as part of the GÉANT project, which supports scientific research groups in making increased use of AAI services across national borders ((Link)).

Lifelong access

SWITCH AAI is also growing at the national level to create the Swiss edu-ID, a lifelong identity for education and research. The benefits are clear. Universities can simplify their processes in line with the concept of lifelong learning, and students can continue to access the relevant services after completing their course – yet another form of networking for Swiss academia.

Collaboration through networking

It is a virtuous circle: networking promotes collaboration, which in turn fosters networking. SWITCH provides a broad range of collaboration services for university members – based on AAI, naturally. As well as technologies to aid video conferences and online meetings, there is the SWITCH Toolbox, lecture recordings, a video portal and our latest innovation, SWITCHdrive, a secure alternative to commercial cloud storage services that can be used to synchronise data between several devices and make them available to selected other users.

The SWITCH community

SWITCH does not focus solely on networking with the aid of the latest IT. The foundation also stands out through its efforts to bring university members into direct contact with each other. This is expressed perfectly with the term "SWITCH community". SWITCH working groups within the SWITCH community bring together members of all Swiss universities to discuss network and security topics, negotiate licensing terms, address IT-related legal issues and much more besides. Collaborative projects develop and launch new services, and SWITCH has in the past also secured funding for universities from political higher education bodies and federal authorities.

The SWITCH community's achievements over the past 20 years make it clear that SWITCH has made a sustainable contribution to networking in many respects at both national and international levels. It will continue to do so in the years ahead.

This article appeared in the SWITCH Journal October 2014
About the author
Christoph   Witzig

Christoph Witzig

Christoph Witzig has worked at SWITCH since 2005 and is currently Head of Infrastructure & Identity Services. After studying particle physics at the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, he gained his doctorate at CERN in Geneva and held a number of positions, some in the US.

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