Duke ITAC - September 24, 2009 Minutes

Duke ITAC - September 24, 2009 Minutes

ITAC Meeting Minutes
September 24, 2009 4:00-5:30
Allen Building Board Room

  • Announcements & meeting minutes
  • Emerging trends in e-textbooks/e-readers (Lynne O'Brien, Amy Campbell)
  • Virtual Computer Lab (VCL) demonstration and directions (Klara Jelinkova, Susan Gerbeth-Jones, Mark McCahill, Charlotte Clark)

Announcements & Meeting Minutes

Terry Oas opened by asking ITAC members present at the September 10, 2009 meeting if they had comments on the minutes. Noting no objections, Terry accepted the minutes and stated that they would be posted on the ITAC web site.

Kevin Davis announced that the traditional ITAC annual photo will be be added to a future agenda where time permits.  The photo is for all ITAC appointed members.

Emerging trends in e-textbooks/e-readers (Lynne O'Brien, Amy Campbell, Robert Walker)

Amy Campbell introduced Bob Walker from the Duke University Textbook Store. Amy said CIT has been monitoring the e-textbook and e-reader market. Her goal is to get the input and ideas from ITAC members and faculty about e-textbooks.  Bob W. said a recent article mentioned a National Association of College Stores publication stated that 35% of students do not know they can purchase electronic versions of textbook.  In addition, approximately five percent of all textbooks are available as e-books. Duke is partnering with CourseSmart (http://www.coursesmart.com/) in association with the Book Store System. This will allow Duke students to access books as a downloaded version or as a web access version. Robert Wolpert asked if this access expires. Bob said the content access will expire, though the expiration date may vary. Alvy Lebeck asked if students would have to physically show up to scan to obtain the digital books.  Bob said it will be available via the website also.  Bob said printing capability is about ten pages at a time throughout the duration of the subscription. He added that it may not fit all needs, but that his group wants to engage early to be able to provide these service to students.

Robert W. asked if the content would be tied to any platform. Amy said most publishers have proprietary software formatted for their systems. Bob added that CourseSmart is a collaboration with the five major publishers.  Amy said the variety of publishers and formats are one current challenge. Bob said the CourseSmart catalog is currently about 150-200 out of Duke's 2800 titles.

Julian Lombardi asked if e-book means "rented content." Amy said it depends on the business model. Bob said the most economical solution is to purchase the book and sell it back with the faculty adoption before the end of the term prior.  One can then pay at 50% of the price for about a 25% usage fee.

Amy said many institutions are looking at different e-book models. Some schools are evaluating e-textbooks in different devices where others are looking at physical textbook rental models. Amy showed a few e-book models to ITAC members. She noted that Amazon Kindle's DX was designed to better handle textbooks.  Amy noted that there are many different models in the marketplace.  Amy said the Edge by Entourage is a prototype model that is a hybrid of a netbook and an e-book reader.

Amy described what some other schools have tried and some of their experiences.
Northwest Missouri State has had a physical textbook rental model for a while they tried the Sony e-book reader for a semester and got some feedback.  The following semester they evaluated netbooks. (http://chronicle.com/blogPost/Northwest-Missouri-State-U/4469)
The Ohio University Systems is partnering with CourseSmart so students can purchase e-textbooks through the university's portal.
The University of Texas started a pilot for a site license that will enable students to get textbooks for a fee every semester, for a limited number of students and courses.
Some schools are looking at physical textbook rental models.
Amy said some e-book issues that have been raised include formats, standards, cost, content ownership, and overall functionality. In some cases the cost of the e-book is on par with the physical book.  One area of academic interest is the ability to markup or interact with the content, such as note taking, highlighting, etc.  Amy said it would be useful for Duke University to understand what drove its e-book goals: environmental impact, cost savings, functionality, etc.

At Duke, Amy said the bookstore is helping students look at e-books where they can go along with physical texts.  The stores are also exploring other models. In addition, the Library is looking at Kindles for "new and noteworthy" titles.  Amy added that the Library catalog currently has e-books. CIT is exploring devices and analyzing their functionality as relates to the academic experience.  Amy said some Duke University faculty are already using e-books.

John Board asked what was the state of the art model for annotating, highlighting, and taking notes. Amy suggested that the Kindle has a pretty full feature complement. She speculated that a "tablet-type device," leveraging CourseSmart would provide a good experience. Amy said being able to save notes along with text is an open question. Julian asked if faculty could assemble disparate content and deliver it through an e-book. Terry said Eric Toone in Chemistry did this. He went through the bookstore. Terry said the key point is the copyright on the material. Bob said Pearson custom publishing provides the ISBN to Duke. Julian said the use case he was thinking of was taking open courseware information and providing it to students on these devices. Terry suggested assembling open courseware information differs from assembling chapters or excerpts from copyrighted material.

Amy said some groups are starting to examine that. For example, Flat World Knowledge and (http://www.flatworldknowledge.com/) and Connexions (http://cnx.org/), out of Rice University, are trying to assemble open-access content and allow faculty to put together the material as they want.  She said the question about providing this content on a variety of devices is not fully resolved. Michael Ansel, an ITAC student representative, said the newer Kindle supports more formats.

Robert Wolpert said the model of grabbing chapters has existed for years. The constraint was negotiating with publishers to get the rights to print that content. Terry said the package costs paid by students covered the licensing rights for the copyrighted material.

Amy added that a Florida educational system is attempting to put together a more systematic approach to open source material-based textbook library and encouraging faculty to use it.

Amy asked if ITAC wanted to hear about this topic because of possible e-textbook directions. John B. said there have been conversations about the rise of netbooks on campus. He said netbooks lend themselves to being a reading platform.  Lynne O'Brien said her experience in this space has been that if something is running on a given device, it is great for a collection of books; however, the overall experience is not the same as a physical book. She said the value-add from these devices may be added functionality at the end of the book, such as end-of-chapter quizzes or a glossary.

Lynne said she has toured some college stores and that several are pursuing a rental program where students pay a flat "textbook fee," and get access to all the texts they need. Bob W. added that in some of those cases, students have to commit to multiple terms.  Bob said Cengage (http://www.cengage.com/) offers a turnkey, online rental program. His group is willing to support whatever direction best fits Duke's needs.

Awa Nur, the Duke Student Government (DSG) President, said long-term cost cutting is of keen interest to DSG. She said DSG is tracking the Kindle's marketing at other schools. John B. asked her opinion on the value of highlighting and annotating as an e-book functionality. Awa said it depends on the type of book. Specifically, as a Humanities student, she frequently underlines her texts. Michael A. said with Math or Engineering courses, problem sets are generally on separate paper, thus, writing in books is not essential. Awa clarified that DSG is most interested in lowering book costs to Pratt and Pre-Med students since they tend to have higher priced texts. Terry clarified that the overriding student interest in e-books was on cost reduction rather than technological features.  Awa concurred.

Bryan Fleming, an ITAC student representative, asked what are the e-book textbook prices compared to their physical bookstore counterparts. Bob W. said North Carolina State University's (NCSU) experience has been that CourseSmart one-year rentals cost approximately 53% less than the physical book.

Amy C. mentioned a recent article that suggested e-book texbook costs may be higher than they need to be.  Terry added that this aligns with the notion that the physical production of textbooks accounts for a fraction of the overall cost. Amy added that the used textbook market means that new textbooks only have one semester to make a profit.

Amy said CIT is happy to continue collaborating with faculty with this as a pilot. Terry said the "feature" of his Chemistry class' Cengage published book is called WebAssign.  He said WebAssign is integrated with Blackboard. He noted that WebAssign's infrastructure has not been able to support the demands put on it. Brian F. asked if Duke had an SLA with WebAssign. Terry does not believe there is. Tracy added that Duke is not in the middle of this process since WebAssign is something that comes with the textbook purchase.

Tracy noted the textbook market is evolving. She said if Duke had faculty that wanted to explore different ways of delivering their content, it would provide a great experiment opportunity.

Virtual Computer Lab (VCL) demonstration and directions (Klara Jelinkova, Susan Gerbeth-Jones, Mark McCahill, Charlotte Clark)

Terry said traditional lab models are being evaluated. Computer labs need to be upgraded regularly and require maintenance.

Mark McCahill said OIT worked with NSOE this summer to get a pilot Virtual Computing Lab (VCL) environment running.  He described VCL as a web based provisioning and reservation system. Users select their environment and the service delivers that custom environment as a Virtual Machine via remote desktop, VNC, or X-Windows.

This provides a full-time, on-demand environment, Mark said.  Duke would no longer need to determine which labs get which software. In addition, the image can be delivered anywhere, so customers would not need to go to a lab. The support is also simplified because maintenance can be done on the master image and then delivered on subsequent reservations.  In addition, the compute resources purchased are also used more efficiently, said Mark. When the resources are not used for classrooms, computing can be utilized for research computing needs.  This was an approach advanced by Jeff Chase when Duke received a grant from IBM. NCSU developed this around four years ago. (http://vcl.ncsu.edu/) NCSU estimates that CPU usage is approximately 68% (~6000 hours) per compute node.  Mark speculated Duke's lab usage utilization is about 25%.

OIT took the VCL software and based it in our VMware environment. In addition, Duke's implementation leverages Grouper to manage class groups based on SISS office information. This means faculty need not manage groups in VCL.

Mark said the VCL pilot is running on some IBM hardware acquired through a grant.  This hardware is also running part of the DSCR.  There are currently sixteen nodes in use. Mark showed how the utilization might be distributed throughout the day.

Mark said each VCL image instance would get a clean machine personalized for each user. The implication is that data needs to be stored somewhere else.  The data can be stored to AFS or to the local computer. The team found that home broadband connections are sufficiently fast. John B. asked how students are responding to the need to save their data. Peter Harrell, a GIS professor, said graduate students have a wide range of technical knowledge. He said they have not pushed VCL to students with less technical knowledge because GIS software alone can be complex. They have had challenges getting AFS and GIS to work together. This is not a VCL issue since they have similar constraints on physical machines, he said. Students have found that loading GIS files directly from AFS is slow.

Robert W. asked if forty students utilizing a single wireless access point (AP) might overload the AP. Molly Tamarkin said VCL allows for the distribution of the network usage since students can be at home and access VCL. Robert W. said that model does not apply when instructors are actively teaching a class. Molly asked if that was part of the intent of the VCL implementation. Tracy said it was being looked at with that goal in mind. Terry said the model would be that any class could become an effective computer lab used during class.

Molly asked if VMware was being used on top of VCL. Mark said VMware was the back end nodes. He said the team is working on optimizing the configuration. Mark said NCSU has about 600 nodes.

Mark did a demo of the VCL request and usage process.  Mark noted that one item that requires further investigation is the "immediate machine request" provisioning process. It currently takes approximately 12-15 minutes to provision those requests. Jeff Chase, a Computer Science professor, asked if this was just provisioning time. Mark said it's a function of the provisioning time and the way that VCL decides a system is available.  VCL gives users a fifteen-minute grace period after the scheduled time expires to provide time to copy data off to remote locations. Tracy said this provisioning issue will have to be addressed. She added that it would be great if the system could become "intelligent" and predict user's needs based on previous usage. Klara added that this initial effort is a small-scale pilot that was not designed to production strength.

Bryan asked if Duke has performance metrics that can compared to NCSU's experience.  Mark said NCSU stages up the popular images, and the provisioning time is closer to a couple of minutes. Less popular images take closer to 12-15 minutes to provision.

Michael A. asked how much personalization has to be done at the provisioning time as opposed to at logon. Mark said one case is having to load an image that did not previously exist. If the image does exist, Windows provides some challenges with how the AFS configuration works, Mark said. Liz Wendland, one of the VCL developers, said Linux machines take about a minute to create. Susan Gerbeth-Jones said NSOE evaluated different approaches to how to implement the different image options. NSOE ran a test requesting all sixteen nodes simultaneously running GIS. NSOE found that AFS was not a good solution, but that sixteen concurrent users were not a problem.

Mark said if GIS files are copied locally to the VCL, the performance is comparable to local, physical machines. Mark said the GIS files perform optimally if installed on the local disk. Klara asked if this was a general issue with the GIS software and network file systems. Mark agreed that GIS software wants to have data stored on the local disk.

Dave Richardson asked if a user could extend their currently open session. Mark said the session can be extended from the web site. Robert W. asked if machines could be reserved for 24 hours. Susan said NSOE limits the maximum length of reservation blocks. Mark added that NCSU has developed a number of tools to implement policy decisions. Robert W. asked if instructors have the ability to reserve extensions for a class. Mark said the individual requests their extensions. Liz W. said the software allows that functionality. Susan said at this point there are many policy questions that need to be addressed. At this point only 35-40 people have used the pilot VCL. The next phase for NSOE is to roll it out more broadly.

Klara said Duke developed a lot of work to port the NCSU VCL implementation to work with Duke's infrastructure.  She added that Duke worked with NCSU to shibbolize NCSU's VCL implementation.

Michael A. asked what the backup is if VCL fails. Klara said OIT is working with NCSU to potentially failover to their environment. Mark said it would be optimal to partner with a school in a different timezone to balance our usage.

Susan said some software has challenges working in the VCL environment.  For example, Nvivo had some licensing issues that NSOE had to address.

Alvy Lebeck asked what other applications have been tested and asked what their performance was. He added that he wanted to identify what the distinct issues were with AFS versus GIS. Peter Harrell said GIS is known to be one of the most demanding applications to run across a network. Michael A. said he'd experienced performance lags with other types of applications. Tracy clarified that Duke needs to understand both the distinct issues around data-intensive applications, VCL, and AFS network connections, and where those issues might converge. Terry asked if AFS was problematic. Klara said the AFS environment is being upgraded right now and being moved to faster storage. Mark said the VCL storage was being shared with DSCR jobs.  The result was that large DSCR jobs that were submitted had a direct impact on VCL performance. Klara said OIT is evaluating the AFS design.

Charlotte Clark described Nvivo as a qualitative data software program (http://www.qsrinternational.com/products_nvivo.aspx). The data may be images, audio, and/or video.  One can import that data into Nvivo to analyze and classify it. The application is very data intensive and allows up to 4GB file sizes.  The operations are done repeatedly in real time. Charlotte said there are three considerations with Nvivo. First, people may only need the application for a small amount of time. Second, the software is specific to Windows. Third, if one uses a low horsepower machine, this software can still be accessed.  One concern could be the wait involved if doing a large project that would have to be transferred to the virtual desktop. Charlotte said different groups on campus are using the Nvivo for varied data analysis needs. Susan added that the lab structure from last year made it difficult to bring students in to teach Nvivo and the VCL addresses that.

Mark said group chat in an jabber conference is useful to replicate the physical, social lab experience. Michael A. asked if shared screens were an option. Mark was uncertain but thought it would be a good experiment.

Klara said OIT surveyed the participating students as part of the pilot. The thirty question survey showed the key issue to be the wait for immediate provisioning.  Klara said 93% of respondents found the VCL performance acceptable.  Klara showed a quote expressing an appreciation for the convenience of running specialized software at home.

Molly asked what the possibility was of delivering older digital environments in this space; for example, presenting content in the operating system it was designed to work in. Mark said this would be a perfect solution for that need.  John B. added that running legacy software was a stated use case at NCSU. Mark added that this solution allows images to enable students to have "root" system privileges on machines. Mark said the deployment of VCL has encouraged system administrators to question basic assumptions about what a "lab machine" should be. Susan said departmental system administrators could build custom images or components and look to OIT to help "VCL-enable" it.

Jeff said data intensive applications raise some challenges but that configuration decisions using this model can help alleviate that. He asked if students could opt to have their current image captured as a snapshot so that future creation times would be slower. A discussion ensued about technical alternatives.

Klara said one of the survey questions was whether or not students experienced any data loss issues. No one reported problems.

Peter H. said the GIS license allows for broad installation except on home machines.  He suggested VCL was a great opportunity for addressing this.

Tracy introduced Jeff Chase as a Computer Science professor who has been working this space for some time. He collaborated with NCSU on their efforts.

Bryan asked about how system profile settings that are saved.  Would there be a way to have those profile customizations be made available through VCL? Mark said the type of settings captured and pushed down are an optional setting that could be made available. Klara added that the possibility of leveraging Active Directory to retain and present some of that information for the Windows environment.  Susan said roaming profiles are a great concept but are fraught with technical challenges.

John B. asked if there were any other alternatives in this landscape. Mark said VCL is advantageous to some commercial offerings because it has been tested in an academic environment. Mark said OIT is looking at another Hyper-Visor solution. In particular, Microsoft's Hyper-V (http://www.microsoft.com/windowsserver2008/en/us/hyperv-main.aspx) may become more cost effective with Duke's Campus Agreement.

Mark said Duke implemented different tools to manage the back-end technology than NCSU uses. He suggested that adding other management tools should be easier.