VRE as the instrument to efficiently manage specific and tailored communities needs

“Spontaneous” communities are dynamically aggregating practitioners sharing an interest for a research activity or, more generally, a task to be performed in a collaborative way. Providing these communities with working environments enabling effective work to be carried out in a shared interest is challenging due to several factors, with cost the most critical. Setting up a working environment from scratch is time and effort consuming; it requires collation of heterogeneous resources (data, computing, services) usually spread across several providers, and complementing this interest-specific set of resources with collaboration-oriented facilities (e.g. a shared area for exchanging material, a communication area for discussions) and management-oriented facilities (e.g. managing users, monitoring service availability).     

The BlueBRIDGE best practice


To enact the creation and management of web-based working environments for “spontaneous” communities BlueBRIDGE relies on an underlying infrastructure (D4Science.org) that put a wizard-based mechanism for creating dedicated Virtual Research Environments in place. Such environments are web-based, built by aggregating the resources required to serve the needs arising for a specific context of application. The aggregated resources cover the entire spectrum of components requested to implement the envisaged working environment. These range from the machines needed to operate the services, to the data to be made them easily available, the services themselves, and the GUI components to enable easy access and use of aggregated resources. The process is started by a request for a VRE: a user on behalf of a spontaneous community can create a ticket with the request for a VRE (including a brief description). The managers of the underlying infrastructure analyse the request and, if the proposal is suitable, they provide the requesting party with a VRE Manager role. By using a wizard, the VRE manager (i.e. the actor requesting a VRE) is allowed to characterise the environment s/he needs in terms of data and facilities by selecting potential assets from a catalogue. Once the specification of the VRE is produced, it is automatically transformed into a deployment plan consisting of a set of services to be deployed and configured to operate according to the expectations of the VRE Manager. Once this deployment and configuration phase is complete, the VRE Manager is provided with a ready-to-use web-based application realizing the envisaged VRE. In some cases the deployment of the VRE requires the development of new components. This development is performed in the context of the VRE itself so that the component can be almost immediately plugged in to the expected working environment and interact with the rest of components. Once the VRE is complete, the VRE Manager can start promoting it and managing the requests for access.



Why this is considered a best practice  

Best Practice Analysis


The effectiveness of the practice is demonstrated by the number of diverse VREs that have been created within the project (See https://bluebridge.d4science.org/explore). Several stakeholders tested the approach and managed to develop the VREs they needed. Today the infrastructure counts over 2000 users.  


Such web-based working environments promote new approaches for implementing user tasks. In essence, once exploited to implement tasks, users are used to introduce an innovative way of implementing such task, e.g. open collaboration and communication are there by default, analytic tasks are supported by documenting the entire procedure leading to a certain result.

Success Factors

The approach is particularly appealing for communities that (a) do not have an established and consolidated environment for supporting them, (b) do not have the resources (time and effort) and expertise to develop and maintain the environment they need on their own, (c) are willing to openly cooperate and collaborate, (d) are flexible on open to trust and exploit tools developed by others and rethink their tasks and thus to benefit from new settings. 


This practice is based on an infrastructure that puts “economy of scale” and “economy of scope” strategies in place. In practice, the “reuse in many contexts” motto enables to stronger components to be developed and the development cost spread across various stakeholders. Over the years, this has led to a core set of services that can be easily and effectively used to serve the needs of very diverse communities. 

Replicability and/or up-scaling

The practice is independent of the scope applicable to any “spontaneous” community. Moreover, service provisioning is up to the underlying infrastructure that is open and based on a technology that is open. This makes it possible for stakeholders to choose from various set-ups, e.g. create and operate their own instance of the infrastructure, provide specific services to an existing infrastructure and thus promote reuse, simply use the infrastructure to create the VRE needed.  

Lessons Learnt

The approach promoted here makes it possible to create VREs easily and efficiently. The immediate impact of this approach on end users is the time reduction to create a working environment and a limited “yet another tool to learn” effect. In fact, VRE deployment time is certainly reduced with respect to the “development from scratch” case thanks to the re-use of existing components. Moreover, VREs share common services for specific tasks users are familiar with, e.g. a shared workspace resembling a typical file manager, a post-based mechanism for discussions, a catalogue for searching and browsing the resource space. 

However, developing VREs is a challenging process: it is largely affected by the almost open-ended set of facilities and resources a community can be interested in. BlueBRIDGE has limited this issue by providing each community with a core set of common facilities (file repository, communication tools, wiki, VRE members management, etc.)  that largely simplifies the task of developing a new VRE.

Among the main challenges underlying this approach is the fear of communities losing the control of their own resources, lock-in disputes, and sustainability discussions. Such challenges have been addressed by having well defined terms of use, making the system and its services as open as possible and standard-based to simplify the access to what is (produced) in a VRE, having specific Service Level Agreements regulating the provisioning of the VRE.