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The Evolution of OAUNET: Lessons from Sub-Saharan Africa

Clement ONIME <conime@oauife.edu.ng>
Musodiq BELLO <mbello@oauife.edu.ng>
Abraham OLA <aopaleye@nacetem.oauife.edu.ng>
Adeniran OLUWARANTI <aranti@oauife.edu.ng>
Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife
Nigeria

Abstract

OAUNET, the campus-wide network of the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife (the largest campus in Sub-Saharan Africa, covering an area of over 14,000 hectares), currently serves about 1,000 registered users and thousands of unregistered public domain access seekers. The network consists of local area networks (LANs) in 10 individual complexes connected by Spread Spectrum wireless equipment, as well as remote sites connected through dial-up access. A number of neighboring universities and related institutions have been connected to the Internet though OAUNET.

This paper focuses on lessons learned in the establishment, rapid expansion, and maintenance of the OAUNET in the face of poor infrastructural facilities, unfavorable economic and political superstructures, and general ignorance among the users of the newly emerging information technology. It is an assessment of what worked, what did not, and why?

Also, strategies for deploying and supporting both the physical, human, and support infrastructure required to provide viable and sustainable Internet access to the more than 26,000 students and 5,000 academic and nonacademic staff members that make up the University community are also discussed. The impact on the academic and social lives of the community  is analyzed.

Contents

Background

Ile-Ife, generally accepted to be the cradle of the Yorubas of southwestern Nigeria, is a small town with an estimated population of about 255,000. It is a semi-rural agrarian setting, lacking both basic industrial infrastructure and commercial friendliness. The major institutions in the town are the Obafemi Awolowo University, some national and international centers located within the university, the Obafemi Awolowo University Teaching Hospitals Complex, a few banks, small-scale industries, historical monuments, and tourist centers. The university covers a land area of about 14,000 hectares, caters to about 26,000 students, and has about 5,000 academic and nonacademic staff on the payroll. In spite of the rural setting and general lack of infrastructure, OAU has the largest computer network in the country and is still the only university that has full Internet facilities.

Before the establishment of the campus-wide academic computer network and subsequent connection to the Internet, the means of communicating with the outside world was basically limited to:

It was difficult to carry out research requiring current information. International collaborative research was hardly feasible and publication of joint papers with colleagues in other countries was herculean. Conferences would often have been over before the notices were received here.

Recognizing the state of isolation of scientists in the developing countries, the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Phycsics (ICTP), Trieste, Italy, initiated a Programme of Training and System Development in Networking and Radio Communications. The objective of this program was to establish computer networks in institutions in developing countries that would be connected to the Internet through the ICTP or through national networks to facilitate access to information for scientists in developing countries. Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife (OAU) was selected as the first pilot project for the establishment of an academic computer network in Africa generally and Nigeria in particular under this program. Consequently, a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was signed between the ICTP and OAU in 1995 in which the two institutions agreed to collaborate in the establishment and future evolution of an educational and research computer network at OAU. Staff members at OAU were trained under the agreement and staff members installed the campus network (OAUNET) in April 1996 in collaboration with the ICTP staff.

Structure of OAUNET

OAUNET network consists of local area networks (LANs) in eight individual complexes around the campus, connected by spread spectrum wireless transceivers (at 915 MHz and 2Mbps) and dial-up nodes in two other buildings. The LANs are generally a combination of bus and star topologies based on the considerations of cost and the physical structures of the buildings (the buildings were not designed with any network in mind). The point-to-point capabilities of AT&T's WavePoint® and WaveLAN® wireless transceivers were converted to a point-to-multipoint arrangement by pointing all the directional antennae in the various subnets at the omni-directional antenna in the computer buildings, which serve as the "nerve center" of the network. The omni-directional antenna is then linked to a Linux PC with multiple interface cards serving as the router.

The operating system on all the servers is Linux (cost considerations too), connecting other Linux, MS-Windows, or MSDOS (using PC-NFS) clients. The network protocol is Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP), except in the university library where the existing Novel Netware network was linked up using a Netware emulator on a Linux PC. The servers typically store the users' home directories, which is then made available to other servers using NFS and AMD (the automounter daemon). NIS is used to distribute the password and related files across the network. The clients typically obtain their IP addresses (which are typically those for private networks) and other network parameters (router, domain, DNS server, etc.) from the servers via DHCP. Users can thus have transparent access to their home directories, mails, and other network services from any workstation around the campus.

Apart from the subnet servers, a mail server processes all mails either for local or external delivery and doubles up as the Web server (this is expected to change soon). One subnet server doubles as the DNS server and also the communication server to which modems are attached for dialing out and for dial in by users. The international link used to be via Unix-to-Unix Copy (UUCP) to the ICTP, Italy, through a relay machine hosted in Lagos, providing e-mail only international access. In Janaury 1999, the university's 64 kbps VSAT link was commissioned to provide full Internet services to the community. This necessitated the use of a proxy server, a firewall machine, and a Cisco router for the international links.

About three neighboring universities link up to the Internet through OAUNET to send/receive mails using UUCP. A College of Education and a host of other research and academic institutions also dial in.

Available infrastructure

The telephone exchange in Ile-Ife town is still analog, with an intolerably high rate of failure. It was in an attempt to solve the problem of external communications that an IDD line was extended from Ibadan (87 km away) to the computer buildings, but the quality was too poor for data transfer. A triangular relay arrangement then had to be put in place in which a relay machine was placed in Lagos (where IDD facilities were readily available), serving as a link between Ile-Ife and the outside world. The method worked quite well for UUCP but not for Point-to-Point Protocol (PPP) (i.e., it worked for e-mail but not for the Web). With the VSAT connection, phone lines are basically used to allow users to dial in and as a backup.

The supply fo electricity has not been very favorable either. Unlike in the past, the supply of electricity to the campus has been very erratic, no thanks to the perennial fuel crisis in the country. The university acquired two powerful generators to alleviate the problem but thieves saw an opportunity when they stole the control unit of the generators overnight some time ago. Research is now directed towards solar energy as an alternate power supply.

The users

From about 20 in June 1996, the number of registered users on OAUNET has gradually increased to over 850 users in January 1999. Many requests for accounts on the network by commercial organizations have been turned down. This is because only staff members of the university are allowed to have individual accounts, in line with the policy of using the network mainly for academic purposes. Presently, students are allowed to use public accounts although there are plans under way to create student communication centers in which students can have individual network accounts. Figure 1 illustrates the growth of users on OAUNET by faculty. It shows that the faculty of Science and Health Sciences use the facilities more.

However, most of the users are either computer illiterates or have very little practical experience with computing. Many of the user requests for assistance have to do with petty things such as copying e-mails from and to diskettes, decoding attachments, viewing attachments, etc. There have been a few cases when users complained of the computer not recognizing their passwords, only for the administrators to discover that they did not press the return key after typing the passwords. A number of training sessions have been organized to make users more comfortable with the facilities and the university has introduced various types of computer training programs for staff and students. In fact, computer courses have been made mandatory in the curriculum of all departments in the university.

Social aspects

The advent of OAUNET has affected the lives of members of the academic community in more ways than can be quantified. For some, it has created new friendships and groupings as well as other sociological mutations. For many, it has brought meaning to academics in that access to research materials has been highly improved. Contact with colleagues around the world has been greatly facilitated. Funding for a number of projects has been secured through the network. Members of staff have been able to attend many conferences and participate in various programs due to fast communication means occasioned by the network facilities. A professor once wrote: "I am quite satisfied with the e-mail service. I do not know what I would have done without it in the last six months. I have received so many useful documents needed for publications on time. It would have been impossible by normal or courier mail." Notices of meetings, publicity of social and cultural events, and circulation of news and beneficial information has similarly been achieved through the use of the network.

However, it has had some "negative" impacts as well. For some, it has brought isolation, this time from fellow members of the community who have used the instruments of connectivity. Other "disadvantages" can be grouped under four categories:

Legal and regulatory aspects

The Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) is the government hammer that regulates all communication-related transactions in the country. NCC categorically expects the network to investigate and deny access to would-be subscribers in order to forestall exchange of seditious and anti-government materials. The management of OAUNET has from inception allowed free participation in the use of services rendered to the university community. It has not for once investigated any intending subscriber as to his political or ideological leaning before opening an account for users. This stems from the philosophy of freedom of speech as a fundamental human right for which universities are known.

For long, NITEL, the state-owned Nigerian Telecommunications company, was the only company that handled telecommunications within and outside the country. International pressures, especially from the World Bank and the Internaional Monetary Fund, that the government deregulate the economy has forced the latter to relax its grip. A few other companies have been granted licenses to provide telecommunications facilities within the country and a government-backed company has joined NITEL to provide international links. It is this second company that is providing OAUNET the gateway to the Internet through a 64kbps VSAT. It is to be noted that but for the regulations, especially on the International link, OAU would have been connected much sooner through various international collaborative projects.

Another lesson everyone seems to have learned in the country is that the government cannot provide all the needed facilities alone. The prolonged stay of the military in government, which has given rise to a new system of government -- militocracy, in which the government sees itself as self-sufficient and rules by decrees-- has stunted development and human creativity in the country. The little breath of life injected by the beginning of democratization coupled with international pressure has witnessed the blossoming of a new era in which many telecommunications companies and Internet Service Providers compete freely to provide affordable and quality service for the people in this area.

In addition, the fact that the government is unable to retain skilled human capital in the productive sectors by executive fiat and decrees as exemplified in academia, coupled with the failure of the worst case scenario of internal security violation, has forced the government to rethink its regulatory strategies on telecommunications and interconnectivity. This will subsequently result in more people being able to participate in research and contribute meaningfully to economic growth and political development.

It cannot be ruled out that Nigerians, being their ingenious selves, will soon find some not-too-conventional use for the Internet, which may surprise not only the home government but the whole world at large. Yet, it is neither the lack of infrastructure nor the construction of too many checkpoints that will prevent the Information Superhighway robber. Rather, there should be more traffic that will dissuade the potential felon and permit others to move around and accomplish some task. After all, it is not yet a perfect world.

Strategies for maintaining connectivity

Recognizing the importance of the human factor, the university has concentrated largely on capacity building and human resources development. A number of staff members have been sent on training internationally and in-house training is organized periodically for potential network administrators. Effort has also been made to diffuse the knowledge gained to other institutions -- government and private, commercial and otherwise. In October 1997, the university hosted the largest Information Technology Training Workshop in West Africa, where over 45 engineers from Nigerian universities, inter-university centers, and some research centers were trained in all aspects of Information Technology in order to end the state of isolation from the Global Information Society. A number of similar workshops have also been held by the university under the general name INFONET. Users are also brought up-to-date from time-to-time via seminars and public lectures. An electronic magazine -- OAUMagnet -- is already in the pipeline to further enlighten the ever-increasing users on the campus and the new community of net users just developing around the country.

Another approach has been to keep the network as simple as possible so as to ease administration and management. DHCP is used to dynamically allocate IP addresses and network parameters so that the addition of more nodes to the network does not pose extra responsibility on the administrators. Users are presented with a menu-shell that has provisions for most of the facilities a typical user needs when logged on to the network. Wireless equipment is used to link the buildings and not cables, which are susceptible to tampering and pilfering and which provide many potential problem points.

Another important strategy has been to keep costs down. A PC assembly and maintenance unit was established to produce computers to be used around the campus at reduced prices. To date, most of the computers on the network are assembled in the university. Rather than awarding contracts, the network was designed, built, and is being maintained by staffers of the university with the assistance of the ICTP (the VSAT link was handled by a company though). Some techniques employed to reduce costs include using a Linux PC as a router instead of a Cisco; using a free server operating system -- Linux; and implementing a point-to-multipoint approach to connect the buildings rather than having a mesh of point-to-point links. Also, public access rooms with a few computers were provided in each building because it was not possible to provide network nodes in each office.

In addition, users were made to pay a token amount of money for services enjoyed on the network. Although this payment could transform into large amounts for heavy users, it was still affordable for many. A professor of physics wrote: "The OAUNET has been the greatest thing that has happened to me since my arriving on this campus. Not only has the world been brought to my doorstep but the charge has been very reasonable and affordable. My worry is that this service may not be maintained for all times. I do hope that whatever assistance users can offer to ensure a sustained service they should be ready to give."

Perhaps the most significant strategy was getting the authorities deeply committed. Offices of the principal officers of the university were one of the earliest to be linked, and once they got "hooked" it was easier for them to commit funds for the network. The same strategy is being employed to sell the Internet culture to other universities through the Nigerian Universities Commission (NUC). It is hoped that the benefits of connectivity will filter out of the ivory towers and permeate all sectors of the country as it is already doing and that we shall end up with a country that is better for us all.

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