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Redefining scientific work in the new normal with a secure Confluence

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Humankind believes in the impossible: clean energy, the cure for lethal diseases, the secret of longevity... And we use science to constantly redefine what can be done.

It’s rare for such different endeavors to coexist under the same roof, but somewhere near the Alps, these and many other dreams of human progress are becoming real. The European Synchrotron (ESRF), located in the Polygon Scientifique of Grenoble (a French scientific version of Silicon Valley) reaches an almost surreal peak of diverse experimentation. Here’s where incremental improvements in catalysts are getting closer to making liquid hydrogen a sustainable form of combustion. Here is also where a study recently found that moisture is the main reason why Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’ has been rapidly deteriorating after its theft in 2004. In another room, patients with brain tumor are treated without recurring to invasive surgery. As many as 6 Nobel Laurates have conducted their research at ESRF, and many experiments related to the development of vaccines for COVID19 are currently under way. 

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What do all these projects have in common? All of them have benefitted from the brightest X-rays on the planet, which can be used to analyze reality at an atomic level. Thanks to the 24 beamlines that are scheduled around the clock in a similar fashion to the large astronomic observatories of the Canary Islands, Chile or Hawaii, the European Synchroton is a goal for scientific pilgrimage across the globe with 9,000 annual scientific visitors.

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Like any other synchrotron, the main accelerator at ESRF is a circular structure that may remind casual observers of Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino. Similarities don’t end there: both organizations seem to have a knack for pushing the boundaries of what’s technically feasible. 

“Do you have Confluence?” 

ESRF is by nature a site of knowledge exchange: the smallest technical innovation in operating the beams can have the broadest applications more quickly, provided that they are disseminated efficiently with a proper knowledge management system.   Until recently, ESFR was using a free, open source solution. 

“But so many of the new hires and visiting scientists would come to us with the same question: Do you have Confluence?” 

That’s how Staffan Ohlsson remembers it. 

Ohlsson is an Infrastructure Engineer at ESRF and Atlassian administrator. “The opportunity finally presented itself when we decided to implement Jira Service Desk, and Confluence came along as the most natural choice to supplement the Help Center”. It was January 2019. New arrivals would still raise the question “Do you have Confluence” and were happily onboarded into the tool. At the same time, a dedicated person at ESRF started offering trainings and workshops on how to best use Confluence. She makes sure that it’s used consistently across beamlines and research groups so that information does not scatter and helps late adopters offboard the old wiki currently being replaced.

ESRF’s Confluence is organized into three types of spaces: Public spaces contain the protocols and instructions required to operate the beams that visitors need to access to design and conduct their experiments; Team Spaces are used for HR matters; while Group Spaces are devoted to sharing the knowledge and technical findings that can really make a difference when facing the specific challenges that users of the same beamline have in common.

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Beamline specifications of BM29 BioSAXS, “dedicated to the study of proteins, macromolecular complexes, viruses etc., in solution”. Staff and researchers engaged with this beamline contribute to a dedicated Confluence Space and work together in solving their common challenges. 

Atlassian’s documentation platform seems to have secured a position as a de facto standard for the scientific community, and 2020 might be the year that made the difference. Despite his early predictions of around 300 regular users, Ohlsson will soon have to update the user tier from 500 to 10,000. But user growth was by far not the main challenge they encountered. 

Accessing Confluence during lockdown 

Following the instructions of the French central government, the ESRF closed its doors on March 2020 due to the lockdown measures to fight the COVID19 global pandemic. Like many other institutional buildings globally, the premises were deserted. Thousands of empty square meters with state-of-the-art scientific machinery were being accessed by a maximum limit of ten people. At the same time, only the beamline devoted to remote collaborations was fully operational.  How could the staff keep active without having access to their instrumentation? It’s safe to imagine them adjusting their daily routines to focus on childcare and the work they normally wouldn’t have time for: improving the documentation, proactively communicating findings and interesting beamline settings. 

And at that point, Confluence’s popularity made the platform fail.

Just two or three days after the lockdown started, Ohlsson knew that the security settings for remote connections to Confluence had to change. His mailbox was full of complaints, his phone kept ringing.

The problem, covered in more detail in this case study, was that the VPN made Confluence navigation slow... and even slower the more concurrent users were logged into the system. As a result, users took ages to edit, were being continuously kicked out... and simply stopped recording their work. It was unacceptable. 

The challenge at that moment was to give access to Confluence in a way that was at the same time frictionless for users, but also secure for the entire organization. 

Ohlsson decided to use resolution’s SAML SSO for Confluence to connect their Server instance of Confluence with Keycloak. The user experience problem disappeared, the content in the spaces of several beamlines started growing again.  

But the benefits of a Single Sign On approach did not stop there.

As the lockdown entered in phase 1, Ohlsson realized that with one click he could enable anonymous access to public spaces when accessing from the ESRF IP, while still securing remote connections via Keycloak.

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Back to normal 

How does it feel to go back to the accelerator these days? 

“We must wear masks whenever there are two people in the same office. There’s also a designated direction to go around the entire site, there’s arrows everywhere!! No crossing in corridors, floors, elevators or stairs”, describes Ohlsson.

Granting remote access to visiting scientists will remain an essential need for the foreseeable future.

In August 2020, ESRF will open its doors again to visiting scientists. They will be able to benefit from the unparalleled Extremely Brilliant Source (EBS), a new beam technology that multiplies the intensity of the current X-rays by a factor of one hundred. However, experiments will be conducted by remote user access and sample mail-in until the last day of March 2021. 

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The exponential growth in synchrotron brilliance will peak this year with ESRF’s EBS.

The implication is that Confluence will, perhaps more than ever, play a pivotal role in onboarding visiting scientists to the procedures, dynamics and services that they can access remotely to run their experiments.

Will scientific collaborations and visiting regimes change forever at ESRF thanks to the great user experience of a remote and secure Confluence instance?

While there have been conversations about the potential impact, the outcome in a post-pandemic world is not predictable just yet.

Before the facilities closed to work on EBS, a visiting team of 10 people would be funded to stay at Grenoble for a time typically ranging from a few days to several weeks. On the one hand, shortening the physical visits to the time that is strictly necessary for operations that can’t be conducted remotely would be an enormous financial saving for always constrained scientific budgets. On the other hand, we all know that face-to-face interactions and cohabitation can’t be replaced with any remote connectivity, no matter how speedy and enjoyable it is. While the exact details are not yet there, it’s certain that ESRF leaders will find a way to strike the balance between a vibrant and diverse scientific community at its facilities and an effective culture of remote and secure research with Confluence and SSO at its core. 

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