September 30, 2020
For nearly thirty years, the NSRC has helped develop Internet infrastructure and network operations communities across Africa, Asia-Pacific, Latin America-Caribbean, and the Middle East, facilitated the deployment of dozens of Internet Exchange Points (IXPs) in all world regions, assisted with the formation of National Research and Education Networks (NRENs) in 50+ countries, and provided technical guidance to dozens of ccTLD registries for stable, secure DNS operations. Over the years, NSRC teams have helped provide technical skills and knowledge transfer to 50,000+ network engineers operating thousands of networks in all regions of the world - working shoulder-to-shoulder with people in their local network environments.
In 2020 in-person activities came to an abrupt stop with Covid-19. The NSRC group decided to update our Virtual Training Platform, or “VTP” as we like to call it, to develop a new engagement model that still allows for lab-based, hands-on learning about designing and operating computer networks - with training participants distributed in multiple countries, and NSRC instructors working with them from numerous locations. For the past decade, the NSRC VTP has utilized a virtualized network and server setup on a single machine with access via SSH and the Web to allow students to work in a simulated network environment and to configure and instrument the environment using hands-on labs.
Starting in March of this year the NSRC team worked together researching potential cloud provider solutions where we could make our virtual training platform “cloud-ready” and accessible to participants of online events. NSRC personnel tested cloud solutions from Amazon, Google and Microsoft. In the end we chose to use a physical server instance run by Amazon (AWS) in their Sao Paulo data center for our first event utilizing the redesigned platform with the Latin American and Caribbean Association of ccTLDs (LACTLD). NSRC and LACTLD, with support from the Public Internet Registry (PIR) and the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), taught a 2-day workshop on Network Monitoring and Management for registry operators on July 7-8. The workshop was taught in Spanish to a group of 22 ccTLD operators from Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay and Uruguay. NSRC personnel who helped teach this course included Network Engineers Carlos Armas and Antonio Lobo as well as Assistant Director Hervey Allen. More details about this workshop are available:
This experience was invaluable for developing new models and techniques, and participant feedback confirmed that the general approach was effective and useful for learning. Below you can see our workshop group photo, which seems to be the new normal for many events these days:
During our Zoom sessions LACTLD coordinated a simultaneous channel in English. For the LACTLD event the NSRC deployed a new version of our popular Network Monitoring and Management course using a new iteration of the VTP that we built running on an Amazon cloud server in a data center in Sao Paulo. Students were provided with their own individual Linux instance (Ubuntu 18.04) using LXD containers. For some exercises students worked in groups to configure heavier weight software packages on a larger Linux VM instance. During the LACTLD event we provided a fully configured central Network Operations Center server with the network monitoring and management tools taught in the workshop pre-configured to monitor the entire virtual training platform. This NOC instance connects to our virtualized network environment using available Linux network bridging tools.
In addition to the tools that come with Zoom we used WhatsApp groups to chat with participants, organizers and between the instructors. This combination of tools worked well. After the workshop LACTLD wrote a summary of the event (in Spanish) that you can read at:
One of our participants, Alfonso Boza Tuckler who is a technical and support advisor at NIC.NI (https://www.nic.ni/), explained that the training allowed them to:
"Learn about the practices of other ccTLDs regarding resource monitoring and diagnostic activities in order to improve our standards and achieve a proactive early response to the various incidents we face on a daily basis.”
As we planned for this workshop we realized that a different approach was going to be needed. After having organized, taught and participated in about one thousand network training workshops and events over the years NSRC has gained considerable experience about what works and what does not for practical, technical training programs. Some of the core tenets we have learned include:
- There is nothing better than doing to learn how something works - experiential learning
- Long presentations are hard on participants and retention will quickly drop after 20 or 30 minutes
- Clean and simple slides are easier to understand and retain
- Imagery is worth many words and can make a strong impression
- Local hands cultivating local expertise (scaling workforce impacts)
When moving to an online environment all of these points are true, but with some interesting twists, including:
- Mental fatigue sets in more quickly when training via video
- Feedback is reduced, which is hard on both the presenter and the participant
- Working in groups or with partners is challenging
- Assisting participants with interactive labs is slower and can be difficult
With this in mind our days consisted of 2 sessions of 2 hours with breaks on the hour and an hour break between the sessions. Because our timeline was so compressed one of the things we did not do was to have each participant introduce himself or herself to the group and explain who they were and the work they do in their ccTLD registries. A recurring comment we received after the workshop was that the participants wished we had more communication between themselves as well as the instructors. Lesson learned! We now take the time to make introductions between everyone participating in online events, even with our compressed timelines.
Our updated, online version of our virtual training platform supports several different topologies so that we can teach online, hands-on classes for network monitoring and management, routing, switching, security (including RPKI and DNSSEC), systems administration and more. A few of the topologies we’ve built are represented below:
Moving forward we are working on and have already participated with a number of different teaching paradigms, including:
- Teaching in hybrid environments (some participants and instructors in a location together with a mix of some remote participants distributed in other locations).
- Teaching a week-long course in which participants do the lab work on their own time and we reconvene via group videoconference for additional lectures and Q&A.
- Teaching single-day, hands-on tutorial style.
To make all this simpler our interface to our online platform has been significantly enhanced to make connecting to all the various resources provided during our workshops that much simpler. We use a variety of tools and information resources during our workshops, so these are now made available in a single web dashboard that we provide. An example is shown below:
While technical, hands-on participation is critical to learning how to build networks, NSRC has found that the human relationships built during events are just as important, if not more so, than the technical knowledge gained.
Working virtually challenges our ability to teach as much material as we have done previously in person and to build the social bonds that in-person events provide. Learning how to do this with remote tools and new paradigms has become part of our mission in 2020 to continue facilitating the growth of sustainable Internet infrastructure via technical training and engineering assistance. While we look forward to the return of in-person events with our Internet colleagues and friends, the knowledge we have gained at NSRC and continue to refine in this new model will be invaluable and enhance what we and others can do going forward.