Nicole Harris reports back on the REFEDS BOF at APAN33, Feburary 2012.

Back in February, Licia and I were lucky enough to be invited to present a REFEDS BOF at APAN33.  APAN is roughly equivalent to TERENA but serving the Asia-Pacific community and has seen a steady rise in interest in from research and education federations and other general middleware activities, as supported by the APAN Middleware Working Group.  All of the presentations from the BOF can be found on the REFEDS website.

REFEDS BOFs give us an opportunity to focus in on some of the core issues that REFEDS is exploring and to look at community issues in a specific context.  The APAN community now has several maturing federations such as the AAF, Gakunin, CARSI and Tuakiri but also emering federations such as the Malaysian federation.  As part of the REFEDS sesssion I asked Nate Klingenstein to reflect on some of the similarities and differences he has experienced working with both western and asian federations and the answer in brief was (to coin a local phrase) same same, but (slightly) different.

One of the major differerences encountered was a starting point of a lack of identity infrastructure within institutions in Asia.  In some ways this can be a blessing (lack of inherited problems) but leaves a massive goal to achieve before an identity federation can be conceived. Nate also highlighted that critical mass of users seemed to be more important than a ‘killer app’, which is often the driver in western contexts.

One of the core lessons for all of us though seems to be the importance of joining up.  Due to the nature of funding, development plans and maturity levels, federations have tended to grow reasonably organically.  Although most research and education federations have a similar conceptual framework, the reality is that they are all very different – as seen in the REFEDS analysis of federation policies.  The time is now ripe to look at bringing ourselves back together and providing a standardised approach across our services as well as a focus on standards in the technologies we use. This means the time for REFEDS is definitely now.

I’m hopeful that several REFEDS activities will help federations of all sizes across the globe. As well as revising federation policies,  better understanding of our entire community via the Metadata Explorer Tool will be immensely helpful – as well as work to speak as a single voice to Service Providers.  It would be great if we could develop a common approach to providing assurance profiles and not have non-interoperable systems. Finally REFEDS is ideally placed to address the difficult questions that interfederation concepts put on our table.

One of the outcomes from the meeting at APAN is to arrange a timezone busting conference call a couple of times a year that is simply a chance for different federations to give a 10 minute update on what they have been doing, what is working well, and what problems they are facing.  What is certain is that as long as we are all continuing to engage in a dialogue, identity federations will continue to grow.