HEAnet – celebrating 25 years of supporting education and research in Ireland
HEAnet provides essential infrastructure and services enabling Irish education to engage with, collaborate and compete on the global stage
HEAnet, Ireland’s National Education and Research Network, provides high-speed Internet connectivity and ICT shared services to all levels of education and research throughout Ireland. Over one million students, researchers and staff rely on the HEAnet network every day.
HEAnet’s national and international reach provides Irish learners, educators and researchers with access to educational resources and research infrastructure located across Ireland, Europe, and the rest of the world. In essence, HEAnet enables the Irish education and research community to both collaborate and compete on the world stage.
This year, HEAnet celebrates its 25th year of delivering valued ICT shared services to Ireland’s education and research community. Ronan Byrne, chief executive of HEAnet, recounts the HEAnet journey and shares its future plans.
“The origins of HEAnet can be traced back to the 1980s when the then seven universities came together under a project collaboration to explore the provision of network and compute resources under a shared services model. The success of this model subsequently attracted funding from the Higher Education Authority (HEA), with HEAnet formally incorporated in 1997 with the mission of managing and developing this shared service success.”
HEAnet has since evolved from being a provider of connectivity services to the University sector to one that now provides connectivity to all education levels. HEAnet has extended its shared service model beyond the University sector to publicly funded third-level colleges, Institutes of Technology (now merging as Technological Universities), Educational Training Boards, research institutions and other associated organisations, in addition to all 4,000 primary and post-primary schools across the length and breadth of Ireland.
“The ICT landscape is unrecognisable from when HEAnet was incorporated 25 years ago”, Byrne said. “The Internet, and the myriad of services it carries, is now an integral part of our everyday life and a critical supply chain for businesses worldwide. We’ve witnessed an ever-increasing appetite for bandwidth, accompanied by a demand for ubiquitous coverage. Mobile device affordability really took hold from 2008 which, together with increasing global bandwidth supply, has enabled the exponential age of cloud computing and cloud platforms that we know today. This digital revolution has also coloured how education and research are delivered.”
In its 25 years since incorporation, HEAnet has responded to ever-changing client needs as they continually seek to incorporate greater digital infrastructure and digital services into their teaching, research, and operating models.
In parallel to a widening client base, the breadth of the HEAnet services portfolio has also expanded over the intervening twenty-five years. Where once connectivity was its core offering, clients now look to HEAnet for identity, security, procurement, and other ICT services.
“We also provide managed SaaS (software-as-a-service) business applications covering Student Administration, HRM & Payroll, Finance, and Student Credentials via our subsidiary company, EduCampus Services, which we established in 2015. EduCampus Services is a further success story and is now also expanding its client base on foot of strong demand for its managed cloud services.”
This summer, HEAnet upgraded its network provision to UCD, which is now receiving resilient 100Gbit/s connections. This capacity level would have been considered breathtaking 25 years ago.
HEAnet is also very active in supporting the Irish research community, leading in emerging areas such as open science and the development of quantum communications infrastructure. More generally at a research engagement level, HEAnet continually strives to meet the future networking capacity needs of research – both at national and international level – to enable greater research impact and innovation.
“Our evolution has always been informed by listening and collaborating with our clients and stakeholders. Our strategic vision is ‘Enabling Ireland’s Digital Ambition’, which we achieve by aligning to client requirements and national strategy. Our current strategy orients around five strategic themes of connectivity, security, identity, brokerage, and research engagement,” he said.
Quality broadband is the lifeblood of today’s business operation and the business of education is no exception. Connectivity is fundamental to creating, accessing, and sharing information. The ability of Irish education institutions to do this effectively, at scale, is realised by the nationwide connectivity that HEAnet provides. The HEAnet network links teachers, learners, and researchers to each other, but also to digital resources that can be hosted at any location across the world. Connecting learners and researchers through accessible, reliable, high-quality infrastructure is one of HEAnet’s principal obligations.
“We are constantly improving the connections we offer to clients across all levels of the education system. For example, we are currently working on providing enhanced broadband connectivity to approximately 900 primary schools that are in areas that don’t yet have access to high-speed commercial broadband provision and that fall outside the National Broadband Plan (NBP) intervention area. This project is managed by HEAnet on behalf of the Department of Education and will result in these primary schools receiving a 100 Mbit/s symmetrical connection from HEAnet.”
Off-campus connectivity is a natural pre-requisite to the blended learning model, where education is delivered via remote and on-campus teaching. Blended learning infers that a student has access to a suitable laptop or access device. However, this is not always the case.
Ahead of the academic year 2020-21 commencement, HEAnet was proud to play its part in expediting the delivery of 16,700 laptops to disadvantaged students as part of the Irish government’s Covid-19 response.
The relentless battle against malware and cyber attacks is a particular challenge, as the education and research sector has become the most targeted, compared to other business and public service sectors. The increased incidence of high-profile ransomware attacks in the early summer of 2021 has firmly set mitigation of cyber-security attacks as the highest client priority.
In response, HEAnet is assisting the sector with two new initiatives. One being the provision of cyber security advisory and awareness training, and the other being the development of a Security Operations Centre (SOC) and Security Incident & Event Management (SIEM) service for the higher and further education sector.
“As a trusted shared services provider, HEAnet is uniquely positioned to provide security services to our client community. Last year’s high-profile cyber attacks across Ireland have brought heightened attention to the area of cybersecurity investment. And in response to client priority, our team is now working closely with clients and stakeholders in establishing a SOC and SIEM service for the higher and further education sector”.
HEAnet has been providing a national federated identity service to the higher education sector since 2010. This service enables easier sharing and access to online resources using just your assigned college user account. This solution works nationally, but also internationally, managed by HEAnet and its network peers across the globe.
This identity management solution also enables access to the HEAnet eduroam service.
eduroam is a wi-fi service that enables students, researchers, and staff to securely access the internet at their home institution, but also at any other eduroam-enabled location. The eduroam brand is well recognised by the student population as it gives them free internet access wherever eduroam is available.
Against the backdrop of remote access challenges arising due to Covid-19 constraints, HEAnet has strived to ameliorate evident gaps in broadband coverage, with the expansion of the eduroam wi-fi roaming service beyond the campus perimeter. HEAnet has brought eduroam to almost 500 new locations since the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020.
“HEAnet initiated an ‘eduroam Everywhere’ project upon the advent of Covid-19 restrictions in 2020, which had the objective of ameliorating poor broadband coverage and so enable students to stay connected to the education system from their remote location. I am very proud to report that this initiative has now made eduroam available at almost 500 new locations around Ireland, bringing the service to every county across Ireland,” Byrne said. “This success is on foot of excellent support from Minister Simon Harris, which helped foster great collaboration with other public infrastructure providers across government departments.”
HEAnet Brokerage Services, in partnership with the Department of Education and the Office of Government Procurement (OGP), assists clients in streamlining their ICT procurement processes by running aggregated procurements, including framework agreements, and mini-tender competitions via the OGP. HEAnet also collaborates with peer organisations across Europe and via international partners such as GÉANT, the pan-European member association of education and research networks. These partnerships deliver very significant savings for the Irish education and research sector.
An independent value for money study conducted in 2021 reported that HEAnet Brokerage Services generates savings of more than €7 million annually across the education and research sector.
“Our Brokerage Services Team are driven by saving our clients both time and money. The team is determined to secure the best possible deals for the sector when it comes to procurement frameworks and community agreements. In addition, they have established a ‘HEAnet Store’, accessible via the HEAnet website, which provides access to an array of discounted software and hardware products for both students and staff.”
A specific focus under the current HEAnet strategy is to develop a deeper engagement with the Irish research community. HEAnet works closely with the research community to support the development of research infrastructures, foster collaborations, and identify funding opportunities. HEAnet is also a key contributor in the advancement of open science and research data management in Irish universities, institutes of technology and research centres. HEAnet capacity planning anticipates increasing demands ahead, particularly in the areas of high-end computing and quantum communications infrastructure.
“HEAnet has made significant progress in the research engagement space by collaborating with clients and stakeholders around Ireland, but also globally via our participation in GÉANT and other European programmes. Research is driving innovation and our goal is to work even closer with the research community to enable more impactful outcomes in the years ahead. ”
Looking to the future
Collaboration remains key and HEAnet will continue to develop its infrastructure and enable greater digital transformation in consultation with its clients and stakeholders. HEAnet is a trusted shared service provider which enables it to harness the collective strengths of the community.
“In terms of strengths, our greatest strength is our people. Within HEAnet, I am surrounded by highly talented colleagues who share a collective passion for making a difference. It is a privilege and a pleasure to work with them every day.
“I am particularly proud of how we have navigated, and continue to navigate, the Covid-19 pandemic together. Our attention to wellbeing during these pandemic times has won external recognition in the guise of winning a ‘Best in Health & Wellbeing’ award from InBusiness Recognition Awards 2021 (run by Chambers Ireland), and just this month, we have again secured the IBEC Keep Well Mark accreditation”, Byrne said.
“In a time of the pandemic, I am proud that we can provide evidence that we value each employee, care for their wellbeing, and that this has been recognised in the wellness awards that we have secured over this past year.
Looking ahead, HEAnet will progress greater digital advances by continuing to work closely with its client members, the Department of Education, the Department of Further & Higher Education, Research & Innovation, as well as other Departments and governmental agencies. HEAnet will also participate in European programmes via its membership of GÉANT and the European Open Science Cloud (EOSC) Association.
“We will also work closely with our talented colleagues at EduCampus Services to build on our collective successes as we devise strategies at a Group level, leveraging our collective strengths for greater impact.”
“As we arrive at our 25th anniversary, HEAnet stands as an exemplar shared service organisation, and custodian of an essential national asset. This has only been achieved via sustained investment in people and technology. Our responsibility now is to leverage this asset for greater impact in an ever changing, ever challenging, but exciting technology landscape.”
HEAnet is publicly funded through the Department of Education, the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation & Science, and its client charges.