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The Network Startup Resource Center, Botswana and a Better Internet


AfNOGAfNOG, the African Network Operators’ Group, has become a Spring tradition for me for more than a decade. The snow starts to melt; the more youthful and energetic trees start sprouting experimental leaves; the temperature starts to hover above freezing for literally hours at a time and I start searching through the backs of cupboards looking for anti-malarial tablets.

Once per year since its inaugural workshop in 2000 AfNOG has flown in instructors and equipment and transformed a perfectly innocent hotel in some African city into a high-tech workshop facility, pulling in temporary network, overhauling the hotel wifi, and setting up truck-loads of Unix workstations ready for hundreds of students to arrive the following week, flying in from their home countries. The setup of the workshop environment is itself a model of what the workshop hopes to teach its students — that you make do with what you can find and you think on your feet; you don’t wait for anybody else if you can find a way to build it yourself.

These days it’s more likely that the setup crew will find good in-building wiring and the students tend to come with laptops and don’t need the workstations. The days of watching local metalworkers beat satellite dishes back into shape and pulling lengths of cat5 cable through palm trees may be behind us, but the same pioneer spirit remains.

This year, as in previous years, Dyn generously supported me spending two weeks in Africa as a volunteer instructor for the Network Startup Resource Center (NSRC). I’ve volunteered with NSRC for many years in various parts of the world, and in my experience there is nobody who does this work better. Always ready to help but only when asked, and sensitive to long-term stability of the information and infrastructure they leave behind, NSRC is a model of sustainable knowledge transfer. Every year there are yet more independent regional meetings, workshops, exchange points and businesses that exist because of the legacy of pragmatic engineering that NSRC leaves in its wake.

group photoIn Gaborone I helped teams of instructors from Ghana, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, South Africa and elsewhere teach students about the Internet’s naming and routing infrastructure in theory and in practice. Across all the various workshop tracks, students built national backbone networks, exchange points, mail servers, web services with single sign-on, DNS services and all the monitoring infrastructure that properly goes along with them.

Dyn and NSRC might seem like very different environments, and it’s fair to say that I spent more time pulling cables between rooms and gaffer-taping them to carpet in Botswana than I normally do in New Hampshire working in Dyn’s Infrastructure team.

However, the two organisations share a pragmatic approach to getting things done, and are both working hard to extend the reach of the Internet — Dyn by enabling its customers to deliver new services on-line more quickly and more reliably, and NSRC by fuelling the Internet’s expansion into new communities, empowering people to take control over their own communications and ultimately enabling a global network of people, working together to help each other.

Joe Abley is Director of Infrastructure at Dyn. He lives in Ontario, Canada with two increasingly sardonic children, a motorcycle and a long-suffering, incontinent cat called Lucy.