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SLICES, the first European testing platform for digital sciences

Designed as a scientific tool for digital sciences, the SLICES platform is a unique initiative in the world. Serge Fdida, the computer science professor behind the project, explains the challenges of this infrastructure, which involves more than 100 European universities and research centers.

How was the SLICES project created and what are its objectives?

Serge Fdida: SLICES, for LargeScale Infrastructure for Computing/Communication Experimental Studies, is the first large scientific instrument developed by and for research in the digital sciences, and in particular in networks and computer systems. To make an analogy, it is the first "telescope" to support and validate the results of experimental research in this field. Moreover, Europe is the right scale to carry and implement this type of instrument.

Although many platforms have been developed in the past, none of them is perennial, nor sufficiently large and coordinated to cover the entire life cycle of the research. These limitations have led the scientific community that I have coordinated to evolve from the concept of a set of distributed test platforms to that of a large scientific instrument.

How is this initiative funded?

S. F. : Such an instrument can only be conceived on a continental scale. It will be a joint investment between the European Commission and 12 Member States, which have confirmed their political support for this ambitious initiative by committing to the sustainability of the infrastructure until 2042.

Its funding is made possible by its selection in the ESFRI (European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures) roadmap within the Horizon Europe program. We are proud to have been selected in this highly competitive roadmap in 2021, as the first scientific instrument dedicated to digital sciences, in the same way as large telescopes or high-energy particle accelerators.

The necessary funding will be mobilized as the platform develops and corresponds to the requirements for large scientific instruments, which is far beyond what has been committed before.

What were the major milestones in this project?

S. F.:We started the initiative in 2017 and successfully conducted the design phase, which allowed us to demonstrate that we mastered all the elements necessary for the construction of SLICES: this includes interest in scientific issues, support from a large community, ability to mobilize both financial and political means.

We have also worked on the sustainability of the instrument by preparing the financial viability of its future construction and operations, and by moving towards the creation of a specific legal entity to manage the complexity of its economic model and its European dimension.

We are now entering the preparation phase, which will also cover the pre-implementation phase and the gradual opening of the service from 2024. Starting this year, we will be experimenting with a number of technological solutions that will be the foundations of SLICES.

Today, we have a community organized around 15 member states and about 100 organizations (universities and research centers). This approach is coordinated with other international players, notably the USA, Japan and Brazil, in order to ensure interoperability of the test infrastructures designed to be a global scientific instrument for our communities.

To whom is this infrastructure intended?

S. F.: The platform is open to any researcher in the world, provided that the scientific questions asked are relevant. These questions are evaluated by an international scientific committee.

SLICES also maintains and develops close cooperation with the industrial world, particularly on post-5G, 6G and the cloud. SLICES should help accelerate research in these areas.

In addition, the digital sector is facing a real challenge in terms of training and skills development due to a significant shortage of candidates in the face of the sector's strong needs, and intense competition to attract these talents. This is why SLICES has also created the "SLICES Academy".

What types of applications will it test?

S. F.: First of all, future technologies such as 6G, which should be launched commercially around 2032. To develop 6G, we need to ensure the feasibility of a number of technologies, solutions and algorithms. SLICES will act as an incubator for these solutions and test areas.

This platform will also allow us to test other applications in the field of the cloud or the Internet of Things, particularly in the context of smart cities, energy and transport, virtual twins or metavers, which use a lot of digital technologies.

We are also part of the global objectives of reducing the environmental and climate footprint of our companies' activities, enabling the development of new solutions and technologies to prepare the next generation of digital infrastructures with a reduced environmental footprint.

Will it allow open access to the data that will be produced?

S. F.: Built as a common good, open access to research data and reproducibility of experiments is as important as the infrastructure itself. We have therefore undertaken to define the organization of the data and their interoperability with the EOSC (European Open Science Cloud) initiative. We also propose a framework allowing the reproducibility of experiments and the availability of digital objects (data and programs) for our entire community.

What role does France play in this initiative?

S. F.: SLICES is organized as a distributed research infrastructure, with a central node in France and distributed nodes in all partner countries.

As coordinator of this initiative, France has committed to supporting the development of the French SLICES-FR node organized around the main research organizations and universities involved, including Sorbonne University, INRIA, CNRS, ITM and EURECOM. The French Ministry of Higher Education and Research, which I would like to thank for its enlightened support, has included SLICES-FR's support in the framework of the 5G and Cloud priority research programs and equipment (PEPR), with funding of 17.5 million euros. This support shows that France can play a leading and pioneering role in the field of large scientific instruments and research in the digital sciences.