30 years of Belnet: interview with managing director Dirk Haex

Published on Wed, 12/20/2023 - 11:08

“The ability to continuously fulfil our crucial role in an ever-evolving society is only possible thanks to our dynamic and talented team. And I am incredibly proud to be a part of that.”

For 30 years now, Belnet has been playing a crucial role, often behind the scenes, as the IT partner for research, education and public services. In 1993 the organization was founded purely as a research programme within the Federal Science Policy. At the time, it had 3 employees and 27 connected organizations. Today, 80 Belnet employees go the extra mile day in day out for Belnet’s core mission as NREN and far beyond.

Fun fact: this year, Dirk Haex is also celebrating his 20th Belnet anniversary. Dirk started at the company back in 2003 as a Senior Engineer and over the course of two decades – the last of which as Technical and, currently, General Director – he has seen Belnet evolve into the mature and versatile organization it is today.

De Tijd saw this as the ideal moment for an interview with Dirk earlier this month. And because there was so much to tell within the limited editorial space of a newspaper, we also had a talk with Dirk. The result: an even more extensive interview, published in two parts here on our own website.

Today, in part one, we look at past and present: which role does Belnet play today and how have the past thirty years shaped that current role? In part 2, coming soon, we’ll put full focus on the future.

For those who are only partially familiar with Belnet, we’ll kick off with the – perhaps – most difficult question: can you explain Belnet's complex role as briefly as possible?

Dirk: "Keeping it ‘brief’ will be the difficult part, indeed (laughs). Because in the last thirty years, Belnet has become more and more important in increasingly diverse fields. Let me start with our core tasks, such as our National Research Network role. Over 650,000 students, teachers, researchers and administrative staff in 147 institutions - colleges, universities, research centers, hospitals and federal scientific institutions - use Belnet’s services. Students and researchers may know us from eduroam, which provides them with easy and secure access to their own and other participating organizations’ wireless networks. In addition, more than 215,000 employees of more than 100 federal government institutions and organizations of the public sector work via the Belnet network.

In fact, Belnet impacts almost all Belgian residents, often without them even knowing it. Everyone knows the e-gov services such as My eBox, TaxOnWeb, and MyPension. Well, these are made available to Belgian citizens and businesses via our Belnet network. In addition, a significant amount of the internet traffic from people at home or at work finds its way from ISPs, such as Proximus, and content providers, such as Netflix, via BNIX, our ‘roundabout’ of the Belgian internet.

Belnet also participates in technological progress in many other ways. For example, as a mandated organization of the EOSC Association, Belnet helps support the shift to Open Science. And as part of the BeQCI consortium, we’re rolling out a Belgian quantum communication network. We’re also part of the pan-European research network GÉANT.

An interview about 30 years of Belnet can’t do without a flashback to its key milestones. For you, Dirk, which significant events and evolutions have contributed the most to shaping Belnet into what it is today?

Dirk: "First and foremost, 1995 was a big year for us: in that year, we co-founded ISPA, the Belgian federation of internet service providers, of which I've recently become one of the board members. We also founded BNIX and became a part of the predecessor of GÉANT that year.

In the 2000s our scope expanded rapidly. First, besides research institutions, we also started working for government clients. And we developed FedMAN, short for 'Federal Metropolitan Area Network' - since 2017, we've even been, both operationally and strategically, the single point of contact within G-Cloud (the government's community cloud) - a big responsibility that we are extremely proud of.

A few years later, we embarked on a long-term collaboration with the Walloon and Flemish governments concerning access to the Belnet network for recognized higher education institutions. The law of May 6, 2009, further extended Belnet's responsibility regarding specific activities and telecommunications networks of public authorities, administrations, and government institutions.

In the early 2020s, we also acquired important roles in various innovation projects, such as EOSC Focus and BeQCI, and took over the management of the government's WANs. The latter enables federal government departments (FPSs) to seamlessly connect their central locations with headquarters in Brussels over one single network. This marks the second service for which we are 'service owners' within the G-Cloud.”

Visit our "History" section to know more about timeline and Belnet milestones.

We will circle back to some of those tasks later on, but having arrived at the year 2020, we cannot ignore COVID. It had a big impact on everything and everyone, so most likely also on Belnet.

Dirk: "Definitely. When you realize just how crucial research networks and governments were at that time, it was even more important than ever for them to count on a high-performing and stable network. Higher education also needed to be able to keep going from a distance. All those factors put everyone here at Belnet on high alert.

We also saw the impact of corona on BNIX, which had to process unseen traffic, with averages of 220 gigabits per second and peaks of over 600 gigabits per second. Unprecedented times for the Belgian internet, which BNIX handled flawlessly, because BNIX was and is always prepared for unexpected circumstances – which will also be the case for the new platform that we will have fully rolled out in the first half of next year. It was also interesting that the traffic peaks suddenly shifted from evening to daytime, mainly because of the massive work-from-home situation."

Unfortunately, also 'popular' in the twenties: DDoS attacks...

Dirk: "A phenomenon we are indeed facing, with attacks becoming increasingly sophisticated. Sometimes they specifically target the Belnet network, other times they target, for example, government websites and services or educational institutions. Those attacks caused downtime here and there, which is basically inevitable, but all in all, our team can be very proud of the way it has mostly repelled these attacks, or, if not, solved them quickly and without serious consequences and with immediate communication to affected customers.

We have made several investments in this area over the past two years, including our dedicated 'Advanced DDoS Security' service. This protects our customers and the National Research Network and any associated services even better against volumetric attacks. We are currently also preparing ourselves for the upcoming NIS2 legislation. This is an important update to European regulations on securing networks and information covering federal governments, which also affects Belnet as a partner for the entire higher education sector."

Let’s go back to the positive stories, like GÉANT. Why is that network so important for our society?

Dirk: "The short answer would be ‘together we are stronger!’. As a consortium of 36 national research networks, including Belnet, GÉANT is a crucial partner for all Belnet customers and their end-users. It plays a key role in facilitating cooperation and data exchange between research institutes and universities at a European level. As a result, a lot of innovations originate with GÉANT. I expect GÉANT's role to increase and shift even more in the future, and I’m really looking forward to helping shape that process as a member of the GÉANT association."

More informations about GÉANT.

You have been loyal to Belnet for 20 years now, what do you like most about your job?

Dirk: "Working for such an important organization gives both the entire team and myself a lot of satisfaction. And when I look at all the things we do, it never gets boring. After all, the ever-accelerating social and technological changes and challenges have a major impact on how we fulfil our core tasks. This is only possible within a dynamic and talented environment, and I’m very proud to be a part of one. It also forces us to keep looking ahead: we are working on a new strategy for 2025-29, including a new vision and a renewed branding and website.

We will talk more about that future - and GÉANT's - in part 2, coming soon, when we will also take a closer look at Belnet's involvement and vision around the captivating fields of open science, quantum computing and AI, for which Belnet is co-leading several innovation projects. So be sure to keep an eye on our LinkedIn page.

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