India builds data network to reach the stars

Photo caption: A spider-web in the Kosovo village of Acareva, Oct. 24, 2006. (Hazir Reka/Reuters)

NEW DELHI, India — A nondescript, Soviet-style government building houses several floors of offices with small cob-webbed cubicles, creaky furniture, squeaking fans and smelly restrooms.

But one floor stands out. It looks like a high-tech, air-traffic control center. And it may hold the key to India's effort to become a dominant force in research and science.

Accessible only with a key code and fingerprint verification, the floor contains electronic equipment worth $22 million, including a giant video wall caged in heavy glass without a speck of dust in sight.

This is the hub of the National Knowledge Network, which, when completed in December 2011, is expected to be the world's largest high-speed data communications center. A $1.33 billion government project, the network will connect more than 1,500 universities and research institutions in India to foster collaborations and the sharing of ideas.

The network aims to offer a variety of benefits to the country's higher-education system. The hope is to allow undergraduates at low-quality colleges access to lectures at top institutions, to share research papers and scientific journals, and to help scientists and students from across the country work together to solve problems specific to a globalizing world.

With underground fiber-optic cables and above-ground wires criss-crossing the length and breadth of India, the network will cover almost 100,000 kilometers (62,100 miles). When completed, it will have data flowing at 10 gigabits per second, putting it on par with similar networks at many European and U.S. research universities.

A limited version of the network has been running since January 2009 and has so far connected 76 institutions and helped set up 48 virtual classrooms. Complementing the network is a separate, $1-billion effort to provide computers to 18,000 colleges across India, so they can be integrated into the National Knowledge Network.

Today in India, except at the elite Indian Institutes of Technology and some top public and private engineering and management universities, most higher-education facilities don't even have functioning computers, except for maybe a few in their libraries.

While college officials have computers in their offices, many don't know how to use them; they have their assistants check and print out emails for them. Although most students are computer savvy thanks to numerous internet kiosks in big cities, and even in small towns, many colleges don't use computers and technology as teaching or research aids.

At the knowledge network's temporary hub — it will move to new facilities in a forthcoming IT park in Delhi — about 40 people, called facility managers, are intently looking at their own computer screens and glancing every now and then at the giant video wall in front of them.

The video wall displays the large network in action on several maps of India. They show the active network with blinking lights at the nodes, its speed and connectivity, and its usage. Different alarms sound if there is an error or a connection needs fixing. About 10 managers are dedicated to looking exclusively at the video wall, to spot any fiber cuts, link breakdowns or equipment malfunctions.

The project is the brainchild of Sam Pitroda, who chaired India's National Knowledge Commission, which was set up in 2005 and ended in March with the purpose of advising the Indian government on how to improve the quality and infrastructure of secondary and higher education.

"It sort of looked like a wild idea when I suggested it," said Pitroda, who is now the Indian prime minister's official adviser on infrastructure and innovation.

"People said, 'Why spend all this money?' But I said, 'If you want to focus on knowledge, we need infrastructure and digital highways.' I think it is very important that we share knowledge so not just 50 people in a classroom of a good college benefit."

S.V. Raghavan, the person in charge of the project, is a veteran professor of the world-renowned Indian Institute of Technology in Chennai, and the program is being overseen by the National Informatics Centre, a government agency that focuses on IT.

"The National Knowledge Network is a game-changer," said Raghavan. "It integrates India's higher education and research. If an institution in the northeast wants to collaborate with an institution in the south, it used to be that they had to find a way to do it themselves, which was difficult so there was no motivation to do it. Now if you provide them the infrastructure to do it they will use it."

The network will facilitate research collaborations that could solve many problems the country faces in areas like health, sustainable development and the spread of technology.

Raghavan says the network is working with India's state-owned telecommunications providers to make the ambitious project a reality. "This is the hidden treasure of the nation," Raghavan said about India's public telecommunications infrastructure. "In a large socialist democracy, state intervention is the best way to reach the masses."

The knowledge network will be a marked improvement, Raghavan said. "Scientific institutions have had linkages, but they've been suboptimal. Now we provide unparalleled optimization. An institute can ask for advice in the morning on a research issue ... and can get the answer at the latest by the evening," he said.

The network has already helped with the shortage of faculty members in India's eight new Indian Institutes of Technology. Before the new institutes opened, the seven older ones suffered from a dearth of professors, and the expansion drew criticism for that.

The knowledge network helped make virtual classrooms at the new institutes. Classes at the older establishments were broadcast to students at the new ones. And it wasn't a one-way interaction. A professor could see students on a large screen, and they in turn could ask questions and have discussions with the teacher and their peers.

That didn't completely solve the faculty shortage problem, of course. It is difficult to develop relationships remotely, and the students at the new institutes wanted to have occasional tutorials in person with teachers. But it helped alleviate the problem in the short-term.

The knowledge network is focused on public universities, but it will benefit private ones too.

"We are linking even the private colleges and universities for two to three years at no charge because we want to create a cultural change," said a senior technical director at the National Informatics Centre who declined to be named. "After the initial free period, we might ask them to pay operational costs and everyone will pay it. ... They will get addicted."

In addition to helping Indian higher education connect to itself, the knowledge network will link it to the outside world.

For example, the network has assisted India's ability to contribute to research efforts with the Large Hadron Collider, the giant particle accelerator in Europe. Indian scientists are studying data generated by the collider, and the network has helped them receive and process that data.

The senior official with the informatics center says Canadian and American universities too are "all excited to be able to connect to Indian institutions," in part because of the network's capabilities.

For their part, Raghavan and Pitroda envision almost limitless possibilities thanks to the network — the discovery of life-saving drugs, new entrepreneurial ventures and more.

"Welcome to life at 10 gigabits per second," said Raghavan.