Working with Alibaba Cloud, we're exploring a solution for students and staff based in China, to improve the quality and performance of connectivity, and reliable access to course material and virtual learning environment (VLE) systems while not on campus. Once completed, we plan to extend this support out to other countries.
International students bring almost £7bn per year to the UK economy, comprising around 20% of the student population. Of those, 23% are from China - more than the total number of students from all EU countries that are studying in the UK.
There has been a great deal of uncertainty for our students based in China with the COVID-19 pandemic becoming a global disruptor. Many returned to the safety of their own country, to continue their studies, and their examinations and assessments online. The focus is now to invest in our international students to ensure they receive the best quality and equitable experience for the start of the new term in the autumn, with the inevitability that they will be learning online for at least the first part of the academic year.
Key to thriving in the new norm is our collaboration with other institutions, sector bodies and businesses. We're working with ucisa, Universities UK International and the British Council to both listen and respond to our collective members’ needs, through valued, impartial and independent advice.
Your interest in a solution to support your China activities is critical to successfully achieving a high-quality, robust, reliable and affordable outcome. Fill out our form to register your interest.
Solutions are required not only for the short term, but to be robust and reliable for long term delivery. Working with other partners and our collective members, Jisc’s role is to:
- Understand in detail the challenges to be addressed in accessing content in China that helps provide solutions in the long-term which may also support students and staff based in other countries
- Develop high quality, efficient and effective technical solutions, testing these to ensure viability at small and large scale – taking the pain out of this process for institutions doing this individually
- Develop options for members to engage with solutions appropriate to their needs
- Aggregate demand, to enable us to work with suppliers and negotiate the best costs for our members
We've been working with Alibaba Cloud on a solution using their Cloud Enterprise Network (CEN). This will allow students in China to access their VLE hosted either on their UK university campus or elsewhere on a third-party provider’s network.
We have invested our efforts in two pilot projects, a small-scale project with four institutions (Pilot 0), and a larger scale project (Pilot+), running in parallel, with a larger number of institutions and end-users.
For Pilot 0, Alibaba Cloud have offered a no-cost trial period of one month for four UK institutions. The pilot project, with Jisc as the coordinator, has been initiated and testing started in June. Universities involved are the University of Southampton, University of York, Queen Mary University of London and King’s College London. This pilot uses the London-China route on the Alibaba Cloud infrastructure.
Pilot+ is a paid-for service contracted between any university with an immediate need for enhancing connectivity between July – September 2020, for example for pre-sessional courses. This is a bridging solution between Pilot 0 and the establishment of the Global Education Access Framework, and is open to any UK education institution and any number of users. This pilot uses the Hong Kong-China route on the Alibaba Cloud infrastructure and will allow comparison with the London-China route in Pilot 0.
About the Alibaba Cloud Enterprise Network
The Alibaba Cloud Enterprise Network helps establish private low latency networks across the borders of China, navigating the best way for cross-regional network connection while complying with local regulations globally.
This is not an end to end VPN solution, it is a VPN via the client software from the end user in China to the Alibaba cloud in China. Access is through a Smart Access Gateway (SAG) where traffic is routed through the Cloud Enterprise Network to Alibaba’s Virtual Private Cloud in London which then breaks out to the Janet Network or other cloud provider networks. As this is a connectivity solution, there is no need to change infrastructure or platforms such as VLEs.
Learning from the solution in Australia and globally
A similar Alibaba CEN solution is already in operation in Australia, supporting over half of Australian universities. The solution that we're working on with Alibaba Cloud has been tailored specifically for UK universities, with access being provided through London.
During the course of the pilot we are in regular touch with both CAUDIT and AARNet, the equivalent organisations to ucisa and Jisc respectively in Australia, as well as an Australian university to learn how the Australian solution is working operationally. We are also working closely with UK institutions that have taken up the Australian solution to learn from their experiences in developing a final, optimal solution for our UK members.
As a broader aspiration, interest has been shown in the range of solutions from Alibaba by Canada, the USA and Nordic and European countries. By working collaboratively with our sister research and education networks across the world, Jisc will explore the possibilities of a global approach and solution.
The solution is:
- Fast and reliable, with guaranteed service availability and low latency and no packet loss, which can be implemented quickly, and ideal for small cohorts of students or ad hoc activities such as examinations
- Fully legal and compliant with Chinese government regulations and laws
- Simple to access for students via the Alibaba Cloud Smart Access Gateway client through an allocated username and password, and requiring no configuration
- Fully configured, no network configuration is required by the institution and subscriptions are managed at the institutional level through Alibaba’s portal
- Easy to monitor by the institution’s account holder, with the capability to manage bandwidth used on the CEN to allow enough to meet their specific needs, at any time, which is critical to managing cost of the solution. Any upgrade or downgrade can be implemented within five minutes of the request
- A stable connection, guaranteed cross-border network connectivity with a 99.95% availability service level agreement (SLA)
- Significantly improved latency in comparison to standard networking solutions available
- Short/flexible contract terms with a minimum one month sign up and rolling subscription
- Flexible subscription and bandwidth increases and decreases can be managed in a timely way via a portal
- Short lead time so the solution can be implemented within 48 hours
- Scalable to support more than tens of thousands of end-users
What the pilot project will test
The project will test:
- Latencies: evidence of improved speed in accessing documents, large file up/downloads in comparison to non-Alibaba solutions
- Access to applications within course material or hosted on platforms such as G-Suite (Google)
- Authentication: Single Sign On (SSO) with Multi Factor Authentication (MFA) which would be preferable to the UK community. Other Alibaba solutions use a third party but this incurs an extra level of charge
- Flexibility and management of bandwidth: the solution can be a short term or ad hoc solution (eg for examinations) or longer-term implementation, providing consistent high-performance connectivity for students in China; ease of managing bandwidth to reduce costs
- Scalability and the impact of cost for any larger cohorts requiring simultaneous or prolonged access to be an affordable solution; costs per student in different scenarios
- Impact of the ‘last mile’ connectivity in different regions and provinces of China
What happens after the pilot is completed?
During the course of and after the completion of the pilot, we will make 'frequently asked questions' available. These will be informed as we go through the testing phase and as a response to ongoing enquiries. This will be available on the international community Microsoft Teams site (find out how to get involved below) and the ucisa website.
We are working towards having solutions in place for the start of the 2020/21 academic year.
We have initiated an OJEU-compliant procurement process to establish a multi-supplier framework, the global education access framework. We’re working with Alibaba to recommend that short-term contracts could be taken up between your institution and Alibaba Cloud directly until a Jisc framework solution is in place.
We will also be working to ascertain cost savings for both the short- term scenario and eventual framework solution. Critical to successfully achieving a high-quality, robust, reliable and affordable solution in China is the ability to aggregate demand from the UK sector. We therefore ask you to fill out our form to register your interest.
In the longer-term, we are looking at a range of solutions to improve the quality of services and digital experience of remote students and staff wherever they are in the world; the pilot project and enhancing access to online education in China is the first example of this work.
We're keen to hear from you in supporting your international activities.
We know that you will have many more questions than cannot all be covered here. We have therefore initiated a series of opportunities for you to be engaged with this pilot project as well as other Jisc and sector activities focussed both around China and the rest of the world.
Jisc and ucisa delivered a joint panel session for our collective members about the Alibaba Cloud pilot projects on 25 June, during the testing phase of the pilot. The recording can be found on the ucisa website.
A further feedback session is planned following completion of the testing phase with all of the organisations and institutions involved in this collaborative effort.
Both the FAQ and briefing information will be available on the Jisc international community Teams site and ucisa website shortly.
In addition to the services, we are also producing both general and country-specific advice and guidance, with the priority being China. This has been, to date, a collaborative activity between UK and global institutions and sector bodies. This will be available shortly.
We have established an international community Microsoft Teams site for discussion and sharing best practice and information between members and Jisc staff.