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Feature Stories - Scientists create continent-wide telecoms test lab

EU-funded researchers have developed new tools and processes to link up or 'federate' specialised telecoms research test laboratories and infrastructure. The end result is an award-winning pan-European platform which makes it faster and cheaper for companies to test and deliver new telecoms devices and services under more realistic conditions and at a larger scale. And commercial spin-offs beckon.

Digital Economy

Last year, smart phone sales exceeded those of PCs for the first time, and since the advent of the iPad in April 2010 highly portable tablet computers are fast becoming the most popular way to access the internet. Both smart phones and tablets typically use a mix of WiFi and 3G networks for voice, text, video chat and internet access. These trends indicate that communications and even internet access will be increasingly mediated by always-connected mobile devices rather than desktops and laptops. This emerging access paradigm will create both new needs and opportunities, leading to new mobile products and services that will require rapid and rigorous testing. That is what the EU-funded 'Pan-European laboratory infrastructure implementation' (PII) project delivers. The main goal of PII was to link relevant innovation clusters in Europe into a federation of telecoms testing facilities, building on the work carried out in an earlier European project which first tackled the idea of a 'pan-European lab' or Panlab for ICT testing. Large-scale testing facilities like PII's enable hardware and software to be put through their paces under real telecoms conditions, while isolated from public networks. As such, these testbeds act as a 'sandbox', where researchers can create any service and see how it performs on a real-world network, without the risks associated with a 'live test'. But while Europe has many of these labs, before PII they were fragmented and even the largest laboratories were relatively limited and could not provide large-scale, continent-wide testing facilities. Reversing the fragmentation problem 'The starting point was to reverse the fragmentation of testbeds and testing infrastructures in Europe,' explains Anastasius Gavras, the coordinator of the PII project. To achieve this, the PII team developed mechanisms and tools to describe, store, locate and orchestrate testing services. The project also created tools which simplified the work of researchers, allowing them to automatically access composite testbeds across multiple administrative domains. The team also developed new mechanisms that will be able to combine and accommodate clean-slate testing methods in the future which enable scientists to better define the testing environment. This is a major advance, permitting telecoms engineers to prototype products and services regardless of the underlying networks in use. One of the project's key achievements was the definition and implementation of a common abstract control framework, which enables the interconnection of diverse testbeds. PII established and elaborated quality assurance processes and tools which reassure the users of the test platform or facility that their results are reliable and handled well. The team also looked at the long-term sustainability of the federation model. 'We fulfilled all our objectives and among the many initiatives we undertook and completed, the main one is a set of tools, collectively referred to as Teagle,' explains Mr Gavras. Teagle offers a number of central services to testbed providers and users. It makes it possible to describe testbed resources in a consistent way, and to register, manage and deliver them, even across a wide variety of different labs and technologies. 'Different resource types can be handled, such as physical and virtual machines, devices, software, as well as abstract concepts and services,' Mr Gavras notes. 'All the current Teagle and federation framework prototypes were developed in the Panlab/PII project and released as open source.' Faster and cheaper testing The PII results will let companies test ICT services and products under more realistic conditions and at a larger scale, but the project will also have a very direct effect on telecoms innovation generally, because it makes it faster and cheaper to do interesting experiments. PII is likely to have a rapid impact because many of the partners are already taking the work further in their own companies and organisations. Some of the partners are developing a business plan for setting up bases or 'Panlab' offices to exploit business opportunities. 'We plan to invest funds and human resources in order to find out whether the concept is financially viable and self-sustaining in the market,' Mr Gavras reveals. Panlab will follow an internet-style entrepreneurship model. That means putting it to the market to see if it works and making any necessary adjustments along the way. Then if it doesn't work, it 'fails fast but fails cheap' says Mr Gavras. But if it works, then you 'expand fast and expand to other sectors'. The business plan assumes the close collaboration between a number of PII project partners who own and operate testbeds. 'These testbeds will form the nucleus of the Panlab federation offering,' remarks Mr Gavras. 'Future plans will attempt to incorporate additional testbed owners.' That is not the only vehicle which is taking the PII project's results forward. Academics and industrial researchers have picked up the results and are carrying them further as well. 'The framework and tools are considered generic, so they are being used for general purpose deployment of service platforms,' notes Mr Gavras. In addition, an important work-in-progress is the establishment of a business offering for brokering testbed resources, including service guarantees. PII's achievements were also duly recognised when the project received an award at last year's Future Internet Awards. The research is set to continue under another FP7 project, called OpenLab. Started in September 2011, it brings together the essential ingredients for an open, general purpose and sustainable large-scale experimental platform. This shared resource will build on PII's work to provide a means for developing early, successful prototypes for Future Internet Research and Experimentation. The EU support for a follow-on project is therefore a crowning achievement for PII. The PII project received research EUR 5.7 million funding (out of EUR 8.38 million total budget) under the EU's Seventh Framework Programme, sub-programme 'New paradigms and experimental facilities'. Useful links: - 'Pan-European laboratory infrastructure implementation' - PII project data record on CORDIS Related articles: - Panlab's Future Internet Award on European Future Internet Alliance - Project call for testbed for future internet services project - Internet of the future could be up to ten times as speedy - Testbeds to breed next-generation systems