Duke ITAC - April 14, 2011 Minutes

ITAC Meeting Minutes
April 14, 2011, 4:00-5:30
Allen Board Room

  • Perspectives on IT (Dr. Tallman Trask III)
  • Announcements, Introductions, and Meeting Minutes
  • Duke Today (Paul Grantham)
  • Telepresence Demo (Ginny Cake, Samantha Earp)



Perspectives on IT

Dr. Tallman Trask III

Dr. Trask began by noting that despite a number of difficult years when he first arrived at Duke, he had been receiving positive feedback on the status of Information Technology at Duke. He recognized that due to the financial situation, many projects and proposals have been put on hold and things may remain that way for some time to come. Duke is a wealthy organization comparatively speaking, in that we’ve limited our losses mostly to endowment, he said. Our operating budget has been adjusted to make up for the equivalent of our lost earnings, and what we had lost is roughly half recovered at this time. Duke has made and will continue to make wise investments whenever and wherever possible.

Dr. Trask again expressed that he feels IT at Duke is viewed by most as a well functioning organization. He is most concerned over recent projects related to administrative systems, primarily regarding advancement and alumni development. He views both as brilliant ideas, which have proven to be more complicated to execute than anticipated. The completion dates for those systems are now expected to be early 2012. In terms of academic computing, Dr. Trask is largely interested in Duke’s high performance computing progress, and has been talking with Tracy Futhey, the Vice President for Information Technology and CIO, regularly about the feasibility of cloud services.

John Board asked for Dr. Trask’s opinion on the Duke-Kunshan University in China and how technology might assist in that endeavor. Dr. Trask responded that much is still unknown and many proposals have been submitted and officials in China are reviewing those. Regardless of those outcomes, Duke will clearly be providing technology and support to the campus. John noted the expectation of limited time to meet those requirements. Dr. Trask responded that he expects one year to be a reasonable expectation and that estimating timelines for building in China can be extremely difficult. Due to significant differences in construction and management practices, once physical progress begins in China projects may be completed quicker than anticipated.

Dave Richardson asked for Dr. Trask’s perspective on benefits of the DKU relationship. Dr. Trask said that generally speaking, internationalized universities will be better positioned in the future than those which are not. The relationship is not targeting a short-term payout, but is rather long-term positioning. Institutions such as Yale and NYU are engaging in similar projects. The DKU initiative is different in that Duke is establishing a physical presence with funding from the host country. Dr. Trask also noted that we don’t yet know with confidence that precise final outcome. Numerous budget models have been examined and which will prove to be true remains to be seen. In the long run if the project is not successful we will not continue.

Given an increasing reliance on IT, Alvy Lebeck asked how Duke is able to assess value of large projects that may not have a quantifiable return on investment. Dr. Trask responded that there exists a balance of cost avoidance and investment in the future. As an example, updates to the financial system have allowed Duke’s accounting office to operate with fewer employees, providing unexpected future savings. Investment in IT is an enabling piece that lets these achievements happen.

Ashutosh Kotwal asked for a status update on Duke’s India campus. Dr. Trask responded that the business school initiatives in India no longer had plans to build a physical campus; the India program is operating out of hotels, conference centers, and other institutions. He also said that most foreign programs are run this way, and that the development of a Duke campus is the defining difference between the project in China and existing global initiatives.

Terry Oas noted that the basic sciences located on the medical campus continue to experience subpar support for IT services in terms of access, facilities, hardware, and support. This is an ongoing problem, and across the street is the university’s highly functional IT system. Terry asked about the prospect of moving basic sciences to the university side of the network. Dr. Trask responded that this conversation was had six or eight years ago, and that the university’s offer to take on basic sciences was politely declined. Dr. Trask continued that if the problem still exists, we are still willing to help. The question has been asked whether the problem could be solved with software and designated networks. Terry noted that doing so adds significant expense, yet for very little, things could be simply switched on the network. He pointed out that despite the political and territorial implications, the bottom line is that they continue to receive subpar services. He asked where this issue could be raised next in order to keep it moving forward. Dr. Trask responded that a number of new clinical projects and the arrival of a new CIO on the medical side could make for an opportune time to argue that basic sciences could be cared for by the university, but he observed that this is a conversation that needs to arise from the particular schools seeking the change rather than being pushed down by the university. He also noted at the majority of places he is familiar with, this divide does not exist. Tracy pointed out that collaboration over the past few years has been very successful, and the improved relationship may also help to resolve this issue if approached again, regardless of the actual final disposition.

John Board asked what plan exists regarding datacenters, noting the inadequacy of the North Building. Dr. Trask noted that the Duke University Health System is also searching for better locations. He said that we should be looking to find a location with optimal capacity and take full advantage of it, rather than relying on an increasing number of small datacenters. The reality is that we have better spaces on campus already, which are not being used as datacenters. Next time we are planning a large building for the sciences it would be reasonable to plan for a sizable machine room in the basement, as long as there is agreement to use it.

Molly Tamarkin raised the issue of increasing tuition and do-it-yourself education. She said the response she hears most often is that Duke need not worry, but asked Dr. Trask for his opinion. He responded that we’ve been hearing concerns over these issues for 18 years and have yet to see anything happen. The argument is not as simple as the cost of tuition when you factor in all of the available financial aid. There are still 30,000 applicants wanting to join a class of 1,600. There are ethical and moral concerns but no problem of supply and demand among elite private institutions.

He said that he believes state institutions may be impacted more in the future than anticipated. In addition, a lot of marginal small private institutions may not be here in 20 years. He also anticipates that there will be a significant backlash against for-profit schools and that we will begin to see significant regulation reducing their numbers. Interestingly, if you play this scenario out, the winner will be the community colleges. As capacity is diminished the low cost provider will thrive.


Announcements & Meeting Minutes

Alvy Lebeck shared minutes from the March 17th ITAC and asked if anyone had questions, comments, or concerns. There was no objection and the minutes will be posted online.  


Duke Today
Paul Grantham

This presentation was given remotely from the OIT offices at the American Tobacco Campus in downtown Durham and attended by audiences in both the RENCI conference room and TelePresence Room 119. Thanks were extended to Jack D’Ardenne and Thomas Freeland for their help in setting up the conferencing system.

Paul began by sharing background on the Duke Today site originally launched in 2006. Innovative for it’s time, the site provided a central resource where content was brought together from a large variety of sources. Working closely with Duke Web Services and the Office of News & Communication; the Duke Today site has been updated often over the past few years, and remains completely internal in its design and production.

Paul began a demonstration of the new site, noting two main tabs titled News and Working@Duke, which provide two separate versions of the same publication. An additional Alumni section may be added in the future. With today’s vast amount of information, these tabs allow information to be targeted to appropriate audiences. The News section will remain externally focused while Working@Duke will focus on internal issues and provide links to familiar resources. Users can also select to view news by topic, only viewing items they have previously indicated are of interest.

Again within the News section two topics are available, Main and Other Headlines. Other Headlines provides large amounts of information that may not necessarily be from primary Duke sources. There is also an option for users of Duke Today to customize the information they receive when visiting the page.

Samantha Earp asked if it is necessary for users to log in when customizing the page. Paul responded that a user might log in if they wish to save customization across multiple computers, but that it can also be done through caching when repeatedly using a machine. Given the massive amount of information available on the site, the ability to customize what is seen is essential.

The front page of the site features four main features that change daily, headlines, campus blog, and Duke on Demand widget. The gallery section can be used to present slideshows, video, and streaming content. Commenting will soon be available to users who choose to log in, though anonymous commenting will not be permitted.

Terry Oas asked how users of the existing sites will be directed to the new page once launched. Paul said they will be redirected from the old URLs to either the News or Working@Duke sections of the new site appropriately. Terry asked how soon we will be moving to this new service. Paul responded that it was being launched the following week. Mark Elstein asked if the Duke Today site will be integrated with the Buzz Calendar. Paul said that the calendar on Duke Today is pulling from the Events Calendar and a future student edition of the site could easily obtain information from the Buzz Calendar. Samantha asked how users could send feedback on the site. Paul noted there is a green button located on the right hand side of the page that can be used to send feedback via web form.


TelePresence Presentation & Demo
Samantha Earp, Ginny Cake

This demonstration of the TelePresence system was given with a majority of the ITAC participants moving to TelePresence Room 119 located in the Tel-Com building.

Ginny began by sharing that the room is a joint effort between the Nicholas School of the Environment and the Provost’s Office. The Tel-Com building was previously a location for telephone operators and has since been fully repurposed. Room 119 was created as a small-scale version of the Fuqua School of Business HCA Auditorium and offers all the same features in a smaller facility. The room has 29 primary seats and 20 additional seats for a total capacity of 49. Three screens allow for TelePresence communication with other three screen systems as well as the ability to communicate with other forms of video conferencing systems. Three smaller monitors and cameras at the back of the room facing the speaker allow them to face both physically present and remote participants simultaneously.  

The demonstration showed the system’s ability to host a meeting between three locations, TelePresence Room 119, TelePresence at the Duke University Marine Lab, and a standard webcam located in the RENCI conference room.

By detecting audio from individual microphones the system automatically displays the participant currently speaking. Tom Freeland pointed out that any two microphones activating in the same section of a room simultaneously would queue the cameras to pan out, avoiding confusion and capturing both speakers. After six seconds of not receiving audio, microphones turn themselves off automatically to avoid accidently being left active. Ginny noted that the room also meets ADA regulations with a ramp and a number of seats that can rise up and down.

Alvy Lebeck noted the popularity of marine lab courses to Durham campus students and vice versa, and asked what the process for scheduling will be. Susan Gerbeth-Jones responded that faculty have already begun requesting access to the rooms, and that a more formal process is being created.

Alvy asked if students at DUML wishing to take courses outside of NSOE could generate enough demand to dictate courses from other schools being taught in TelePresence rooms. Susan said there is a good possibility we will get to that point in the future but not immediately. Carlisle Willard said that his group will be handling scheduling of non-NSOE usage and that they are still refining that process.

Terry added that many students do not visit the marine lab due to required courses at the Durham campus, and that it would be great if there were a lecture hall on campus able plug into this type of equipment. Ginny said that these conversations have taken place, and the intent is to move in that direction. Whether the solution is TelePresence or high definition video conferencing, the more use cases the better. Susan said that some auditoriums on campus already feature this functionality through DukeCapture-Panopto and are doing similar things now. Terry responded that the issue in question is student interactivity, and whether or not they could raise their hand and ask a question in the middle of a lecture. Susan responded that this would not be possible using DukeCapture-Panopto, only recording and streaming. Samantha added that if faculty were located in a TelePresence room such as the one being demonstrated, students could use their own laptops and have that functionality. Terry responded that the size of current lecture classes would make it impossible to teach the class from an existing TelePresence room.

Tracy added that when communicating between two fully enabled TelePresence rooms, the ability to direct sound output is far better than compared to output from a single central location. She also noted that setting up TelePresence calls has become as easy as setting up conference calls.

Alvy asked the scale of which a TelePresence room can be built and whether there is such as thing as too large. Tom noted Fuqua’s HCA capacity of 130 as the largest currently in place. The HCA room is so large that it requires 103” screens. Tracy added that the larger the room gets, the more the feeling of being there is lost. At some point the number of cameras, microphones, and screens required becomes too large to function as desired and traditional video conferencing makes more sense.