UND, NDSU Ask for $5.7M to Stay Connected to Research Network

The University of North Dakota and North Dakota State University are calling on state legislators to fund access to the Northern Tier Network, which connects the schools to other research universities.

by Sydney Mook, Grand Forks Herald / April 1, 2019
University of North Dakota Shutterstock/Jacob Boomsma

(TNS) — Officials at the University of North Dakota and North Dakota State University are asking state legislators to invest about $5.7 million in a network that connects the North Dakota schools with other research universities across the country.

The Northern Tier Network is an ultra high-speed regional network that supports research and education across Alaska, Idaho, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

The Northern Tier Network had been funded for at least a decade through the North Dakota University System budget until 2017, when the schools used reserve funds to support it, UND President Mark Kennedy said. However, those reserve funds are now depleted.

"If we don't get this funded ... we are basically going backwards in terms of research dollars," he said, adding the campuses would have to find the money elsewhere to continue in the network. "It would be the equivalent of getting a budget cut on research."

The schools have placed a $5.7 million request in the higher education budget to allow the schools to continue to access the Northern Tier Network and Internet2, which the network is connected to. The funding would be for the entire biennium and would be split between the two schools, and would include five new positions to connect users throughout the state with the "best access to high performance computing."

Internet2 connects almost all research universities in the country as well as most national laboratories, said Marc Wallman, vice president of the information technology division at NDSU. Internet2 dates back to the 1980s as a research project that was just connecting a limited number of universities, he said.

Both UND and NDSU have been members since 1996. The schools pay a fee to access Internet2; however, this also allows K12 schools and other universities in the state to access it.

The money also would help fund infrastructure upgrades that would allow the universities to "catch up with peers," Kennedy said.

"It is vital for North Dakota to stay on the cutting edge with our peers; we need this investment," he said.

Kennedy said investment in the network is necessary to support research and collaboration of North Dakota research universities among regional and national peers, including the University of Minnesota and University of South Dakota, as well as national laboratories and cloud providers.

Additionally, as the two Internet2 members, NDSU and UND are committed to pay the fee that allows all North Dakota University System and K12 schools access to the collaboration infrastructure, he said.

Madhavi Marasinghe, chief information officer at UND, said in order to do solid research, the universities need to have a solid network that allows them to work with high levels of data in a quick and timely matter.

Being able to share data is a big part of doing research, she said, and some research grants are denied because the school doesn't have enough bandwidth for research to do their work.

"This is very impactful for our institutions, not just at UND and NDSU but for our state as well," Marasinghe said.

Marasinghe said there are researchers across UND campus — such as the biology department, aerospace, the medical school, the Energy and Environmental Research Center — that are using huge amounts to do their research. That data needs to be transferred from one point to another at high speeds, otherwise people simply spend time trying to transfer data, which is time they should be spending analyzing it, she said.

"They do need to have the bandwidth to compete with other institutions, as well as to collaborate (with other schools)," Marasinghe said.

The primary users of Internet2 and the Northern Tier Network at NDSU are chemistry, engineering and pharmacy, Wallman said. The school is expecting agriculture to use the network more in the future as precision agriculture continues to develop.

"It's a must and we have to figure out a way to fund it," he said. "It would be a problem for us. There would be research programs that would be hurt. There would be opportunities that wouldn't be available."

Not having the funds would also make it difficult to recruit faculty because NDSU and UND would be one of the few research universities in the country that didn't have this technological infrastructure.

©2019 the Grand Forks Herald (Grand Forks, N.D.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.