Internet2, NLR update their merger soap opera

Will they or won’t they? Internet minds want to know.

Can two research networks find true love and happiness as one?

This is the burning question in the continuing love/hate saga of Internet2 and National LambdaRail (NLR), two non-profit research networks that have been promising – threatening even – to merge for the past two years. The latest twist in this soap opera occurred this week when the two organizations issued an update on merger talks that were apparently – and very quietly – rekindled last month after an acrimonious split late last year.

First, some history: the two first proposed marriage back in July 2005, claiming that the union would reduce redundancies, relieve the financial burden of universities funding multiple initiatives, and help Internet2 move forward with its next-generation “Abilene” backbone. Abilene is also leased from Qwest, and that contract expires in October 2007.

Internet2 has since announced that Level 3 would be its backbone transport provider and that Abilene will be decommissioned.

But things slowed to a crawl from there before falling apart altogether. Internet2 issued a progress report in a December 2005 newsletter claiming that progress was being made “towards a plan that can be presented to both organizations’ boards.”

The newsletter reiterated the encouraging rationale behind the plan: “A merger promises to provide the research and education community in the United States with greater access to experimental networking facilities, and cutting-edge Internet applications and services, as well as significantly enhancing the community's ability to organize and execute the development of new technologies that will serve as the foundation for the global Internet of tomorrow.”

But matters did not progress through 2006 until the plan totally unraveled late last year. The two organizations broke off talks a year ago over governance issues, as explained by NLR CEO Tom West in a blog entry referring to the University Consortium for Advanced Internet Development (UCAID), the group sponsoring Internet2.

And then in December 2006, NLR Director Polley Ann McClure wrote a candid assessment of the failed merger for EDUCAUSE, the non-profit association promoting information technology for higher education. In that report, titled Shame on Us, McClure said the merger failed because of “an adversarial approach” by both parties to the merger process.

“In the end, this adversarial process, inherently defensive of the past and also of current separate interests, destroyed trust among the parties and caused the group to lose its grasp of the future possibilities,” McClure wrote in her report.

Now fast forward to mid-March, 2007. NLR and Internet2 apparently decide to kiss and make up, and resume their courtship. They plan to have the final Definitive Agreement to Merge presented for approval to both the Internet2 and NLR boards by April 20, and to complete the merger by June 29.

And this week, the chairs of both organizations issued an update on their unusual mating ritual.

“Much of the most important work so far has been done by the Network Planning Team (NPT). They have been assimilating a mountain of information and guidance from the community to develop a coherent set of recommendations,” wrote NLR and Internet2 chairs Tracy Futhey and Jeffrey Lehman in a letter e-mailed to Network World. “Their task is to develop a plan for leveraging the community’s assets to create a national backbone architecture that best serves the research and education community’s needs.

“As the NPT wraps up its work, the baton will be passed to a new six-member Merger Planning Team (MPT), which we will lead,” the chairs state in their letter. “The MPT will focus on the business (as opposed to the technical) aspects of the merger. It will be the MPT’s responsibility (with the assistance of counsel) to prepare the definitive agreement that will be presented to the NLR and Internet2 Boards.”

The letter urges interested parties to be patient during this process and to expect another update at the Internet2 Member Meeting April 24. It concludes by stating, “The feedback we have received from the community since our message last month...has strengthened our conviction that a merger will provide our shared community a positive path forward. We look forward to continuing to work on your behalf.”

Don’t you just love a happy ending?

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