“The most successful distributed environment I’ve encountered”

“The Nordic eInfrastructure Collaboration (NeIC) has developed the most successful distributed environment I’ve ever worked in, states Jon Kerr Nilsen of the University Center for Information Technology (USIT) at the University of Oslo. He is so pleased with the NeIC system that he intends to replicate it to a large degree when designing a High Performance Computing operations environment between four Norwegian universities.”

Jon Kerr Nilsen, who heads the Research Infrastructure Services Group at USIT, is highly proficient when it comes to evaluating distributed working environments. He has worked in this area for over 10 years, after starting on his doctoral degree in particle physics at the University of Oslo in 2007.

“Much of my doctoral thesis focused on data networks, based on the fact that the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) produced such a colossal amount of data that it could no longer be stored locally. I’ve seen a calculation showing that one year’s worth of CERN’s data output stored on yesterday’s standard CDs would reach more or less to the moon. So CERN decided to store data in multiple locations around the world. My thesis studied how data could be securely transmitted and stored across a distributed network,” explains Dr Kerr Nilsen.

Distribution and meta-distribution

After completing his doctoral degree, Dr Kerr Nilsen continued as a post-doctoral research fellow on an EU-funded project to develop middleware for CERN’s distributed data storage system, Worldwide LHC Computing Grid (WLCG). In 2013 he came to NeIC to assist in the development of the grid’s Nordic computer centre. He greatly enjoyed his time there, staying at NeIC until 2016.

While at NeIC, Dr Kerr Nilsen worked on developing calculation methods for use in the Nordic Data Grid Facility (NDGF), one of the 13 Tier 1 computing centres to receive and store data from CERN. CERN now distributes data storage across 13 centres around the world as part of a system where the Nordic centre is even “meta-distributed” in that data storage is further spread among centres in Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland.

The World Wide Web was created and developed at CERN, in part due to the high cost of convening thousands of scientists for frequent conferences. What CERN needed was a global information workspace, which is why Jon Kerr Nilsen came to NeIC with a wealth of experience in distributed processing and information sharing. But he had never encountered a system that worked as well as the one used by NeIC.

Sense of shared ownership

“NeIC’s head office is in central Oslo, but I wasn’t there very often. Instead, I continued to work from my office two or three kilometres away at the University of Oslo, cooperating closely with colleagues located in other Nordic countries. I have never experienced a distributed environment that worked that well before, and it was a delight. Day-to-day communications were primarily via chat, but we also had an annual all-hands meeting as well as three or four physical meetings with all partners during the year on top of that. We met one another fairly often at conferences as well,” Jon Kerr Nilsen says.

Jon Kerr Nilsen believes the key to a successful distributed workplace lies in achieving a sense of shared ownership among all those involved.

“The NeIC administration has made sure that everyone situated throughout the Nordic countries has local colleagues to rely on, and has also taken steps to ensure that everyone has tasks that give them a sense of ownership to the entire process and the system alike. The nature of the various tasks is also such that it encourages everyone to communicate with one another,” Dr Kerr Nilsen explains.

Learning from the NeIC experience

In addition to his position as USIT Head of Group, Jon Kerr Nilsen also coordinates operations for all High Performance Computing centres in the Norwegian university and university college sector. He has just recently acquired a new High Performance Computing system now located at and operated by UiT The Arctic University of Norway together with the universities in Trondheim, Bergen and Oslo.

“We need a distributed operational environment, which I’m now trying to set up based on the model I learned at NeIC. That demonstrates pretty clearly how pleased I was with how well it worked,” he says.

It took some time to adapt to NeIC’s use of chatting via a social media environment as its primary channel for everyday communications, with the occasional video conference or physical meeting when necessary.

“The basic technology and components employed in distributed teamwork have been around for some time, but it’s taken time for organisations to move beyond the physical office. You could maybe say that it is not just the technology that has changed, but also the people. We’ve become more used to working like this. It was also interesting to see that it worked perfectly fine to get to know others in this way. After a while you start to feel that it’s almost more productive to reach out by chat than to walk over to a colleague’s office three doors down the same corridor,” he says.

Go anywhere without having to travel

NeIC team members generally retain their affiliation with the universities they come from, which is one of the organisation’s major advantages. “Everything NeIC does is about creating added-value for the Nordic research community. This is why it’s set up for us to draw on the expertise of those in our proximity and include them in the distributed environment. In essence, NeIC is tapping into a greater pool of resources than it would if everyone in the organisation was working in a centralised head office instead. Moreover, the various projects benefit the Nordic research community even more,” Dr Kerr Nilsen states, noting that such phrases such as “the virtual office” and “new working life model” from several years back have finally become a reality. This is great news for people who’ve spent more than their share of nights in a hotel room and seen more than enough of the inside of airports.” “I have been sitting in my own office working for different clients, all the while collaborating with international researchers abroad as successfully as if we were all in the same office. The great thing about distributed workplaces that are truly effective is that you can go anywhere without having to travel.”