New records, new challenges: SURF in 2018

SURF's new Strategic Plan was adopted in 2018 and we will be implementing the plans from 2019 onwards. An interview with Erik Fledderus, Managing Director of SURF: “What the institutions want is to get more done together, that’s clear”.

Erik Fledderus kijkt in de camera

This is a good time to look back on and forward to the core themes that SURF and its members are working towards: good education, excellent research, and facilities to support the two as effectively as possible. According to Fledderus, the need for digital services is increasing every year: “Every year, new records are broken. At the start of the new academic year, a large number of people logged in to SURFspot and SURFconext, for example. We see that there is a great need for the digital educational and research facilities offered by SURF. The figures show the importance of the infrastructure that we all keep at the state of the art and further develop”.

Security and privacy

This digital infrastructure must meet high standards. Security was an important theme in 2018, and will continue to be so in 2019. With attention to technology, awareness and organisation. In 2018, SURF again organised a major cyber crisis exercise: OZON. Work conferences on security & privacy have been started at the administrative level. The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) poses complex challenges to educational institutions. “What the institutions need in this area is clarity and control over this complex matter”, says Fledderus. “Institutions and publishers collect data from employees and students in a variety of ways. The question then is: is that allowed, and how do you record it? Do you know what you are doing and doing it carefully and are you complying with the laws and regulations? It is the institutions themselves that are in charge, and SURF provides them with guidance, for example in carrying out a privacy impact assessment of the key processes at a university or a university of applied sciences. It is an important task of SURF to provide clarity and to translate this into concrete examples”.


Digital identity

Identity fraud and abuse is one of the major concerns in both education and research. That is why in 2018 we continued to work on the further development of our authentication and authorisation service SURFconext and on SURFsecureID, the service that offers two-factor authentication.We have also launched the Science Collaboration Zone, a pilot to make it easier for researchers to log in securely. We are also investigating the potential of a single eduID. A trusted digital identity contributes to digital security.

twee studentes schudden elkaar de hand SURF

Flexible education

Another major challenge in education is flexibility: students increasingly want to determine where, when and how they study, and they want to be free to compose their curriculum from subjects at several institutions. But this flexibilization brings with it a paradox, according to Fledderus: “If you want to become more flexible, you have to move towards a certain degree of standardisation. Nobody likes that, and certainly not in education, where you have to deal with creative processes. But you shouldn't shy away from talking about it. The Education Innovation and IT Acceleration Plan, for example, talks about breaking up a curriculum into small educational units, such as microvlogs. What works and what doesn't? Among other things, SURF is helping to find adequate support for the choices made by the institutions, for example by working with them to explore the potential of an eduID”.

Accelerating research

SURF works to accelerate research and data sharing. For example, via Support4research, SURF seeks to ensure that IT services are better aligned with the research carried out by educational and research institutions. Together with partners such as RDM, GO FAIR and LCDRM, SURF is providing an impetus to accelerate research, including open science. SURF facilitates this with fast networks, computing, and providing data services. After all, open science is also about sharing data, good storage and accessibility.

In the discussion about this, Fledderus sees both technical and political as well as policy challenges returning, whose solutions will need to reinforce each other. “Research data management (RDM) is very important for researchers. This includes the development of standards, which are necessary if you want to share information. We do this together with partners, for example in GO FAIR, in which both research communities and experts in information management work together. This is closely in line with Dutch and European policies. In 2018, we helped our institutions achieve their RDM ambitions in a number of ways, including through training, advice and joint pilots for new services. In the National Coordination Point for Research Data Management (LCRDM in Dutch), experts from research institutions at the national level work together on policy development and knowledge sharing. In 2018, the LCRDM started to work in a different way: flexibly and with a greater focus on the needs of researchers”.

FAIR data

SURF's goal is to share expertise on FAIR data (data that is Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, and Reusable). To this end, use cases describe among other things the development of standards and the storage of data at various projects, institutes and university libraries.

onderzoeker achter een microscoop in een lab

Collaboration on innovation

Innovation is SURF's core business. Fledderus: “As a rule, we always work with institutions on innovation, both for scientific applications via concrete use cases (e.g. deep learning for numerical simulations with WUR, Radboud University, UU, Leiden University) and for technology development in collaboration with information research (e.g. development of digital data exchange and data transfer nodes in collaboration with the University of Amsterdam). In addition, we also work in innovation with the business community, especially as technology providers (e.g. Intel for scalable machine learning) and in the development of new services (e.g. Wi-Fi on campus)”.

This interaction between industry and science is also important when it comes to supercomputing in Europe, says Fledderus: “Europe must invest in technology in the field of high-performance computing . This development will benefit if we also involve other applications and industries. Think of self-propelled cars, smart cities or smart energy supply. Collaboration is essential: the importance for Dutch researchers to have access to excellent national and European facilities is evident. Within SURF, we coordinate with the members on how we can use initiatives such as PRACE and euroHPC to arrange this connection between local, national and international infrastructures”.

SURF Open Innovation Lab

The SURF Open Innovation Lab has been set up for innovation within SURF. The lab offers space for experiments and knowledge development that are very early in the process of innovation (ideas and proofs of concept) and where it is not yet clear what the exact results will be. In 2018, for example, we carried out projects in the areas of quantum computing, quantum internet machine learning with applications in radiology and climate simulations, IoT, and 3D printing of scientific data.

On campus

According to Fledderus, the role of educational and research institutions in the field of IT is changing. “Do you develop and manage everything yourself, or are you more of a director who ensures that there are good facilities? Do you make use of developments outside your own institution that you can use to speed up education and research? What is your core essence, what can you contribute? That's what on campus is trying to bring forward. The role of IT, the library and research support is not cast in stone; it’s constantly changing. Institutions determine how fast that happens. SURF's role in this respect is to explain, substantiate, and to point out the consequences. When institutions make a choice, we have to say what that means in concrete terms”.

Smart Campus framework

A part of on campus is the Smart Campus pilot. We are developing a smart campus: intelligent buildings that, based on data collected via sensors, automatically create the desired situation. This ensures a pleasant working and learning environment for the students and staff of educational institutions. Important wireless network facilities that play a role there are wifi-calling and 5G.