ITAC Meeting Minutes
Thursday March 26, 2015

I. Announcements

Minutes from October 23, 2014 were approved.

Ed Gomes announcement regarding the IT services portal that was previously discussed.  The site is currently live at  Feedback from the community was used to develop the site content and would like to continue receiving feedback.  There is an editorial group defined to help maintain the content.  This is not intended to replace the services portion of the existing OIT website.  It is designed to be a gateway and reference to all the groups that provide IT services across the university, not OIT-centric.

II. Agenda Items

4:05 - 4:15 – OIT Monthly Awareness Campaign – Kevin Davis, Jeannine Sato (5 presentation, 5 discussion)

What it is: OIT has created a monthly awareness campaign in an effort to inform Duke students, faculty and staff of IT services and tips for productive and security technology while traveling. To continue the effort for this initiative, OIT will be promoting the best practices for mobile phone service when traveling, including emphasis on importance of planning before your trip.

Why it’s relevant:  Phone service internationally can be very expensive for travelers, particularly if not planned ahead of the trip, making this an important subject before summer travel gets underway. 

Distribution lists help disseminate this information in some areas, but there are others that have no obvious, defined channel to get this information to all members of the community (perhaps need to do annual or biannual insert in mailboxes).  Any feedback is welcomed. 

The one-month campaign timeframe might be too short to get the message across.  Perhaps need to revisit or repeat campaign. 

Central website or for information relevant to people planning on traveling abroad.

April tips are around cell phones and their use internationally.  Recommendation to activate the Duke global plan before leaving to avoid racking up thousands of dollars in extra charges and potentially having service shut off by the carrier altogether.  The same is true for faculty and staff that do not have Duke paid cell phones and are using their personal phones.  There is an OIT intern who is helping to document communications information related to each of the 25-30 countries that faculty work in (e.g. frequencies, any local restrictions, available carriers, etc.).  This will be put on a Wiki that can be updated by faculty and staff to suggest changes if they have a different experience while in country.

Questions and Comments:

Should the monthly campaign information be linked on the new IT site that Ed discussed?  That will be discussed.

Caution about setting up another dedicated webpage solely to Global IT since this might make finding information even more difficult.

4:15 - 4:40 – Virtual Machine Use for Intro Engineering – Mike Gustafson (15 presentation, 10 discussion)

What it is: Pratt's first-year Computational Methods in Engineering course has historically used physical computing cluster lab space for computation.  For the first time this spring, the course has begun an experiment to use Virtual Machines (VMs) instead of physical lab computers.  The experience to date will be reviewed, along with benefits and challenges encountered to date.
Why it’s relevant: VMs are emerging as a cost effective and flexible option for delivering software environments to individuals at scale.  The experience and lessons from this project will have applicability to other faculty considering moving their teaching platform from OIT's computing labs to OIT’s VM environment.

What problems we’re trying to fix:

  • Ability to work from anywhere.  Not enough computers available for all students to use at one time.
  • Allowing professors and TAs to be able to remote into the student’s machine to review and grade work without the need for uploading and downloading files.
  • When encountering a problem, students often unsure whether they are doing something is wrong or if the system is not working properly.
  • Physical machines in TEER lab are exposed to the internet and therefore are frequent targets for security threats.
  • TEER lab machine outages due to students powering off the machines or accidentally killing the power.
  • Students would often remain logged in to the machines and would not always receive software updates that were applied.
  • Students would have to guess which machine in TEER might be available and have a low enough load for them to do their work.

Questions and Comments: 

Question about MobaXterm:  New xterm software.  It’s easier to use for Windows users than Putty, standardized experience across both Windows and Mac users, and xWin also had a lot of licensing issues making it hard to use.  Saved about 20 hours of teaching time.

Physical TEER machines are no longer allowing remote logins.  Users must authenticate to a centralized login server to get to them.  There are re-directs from the old servers to the new ones in case they try to connect to the old servers by accident. 

Storing of user preferences for applications so that they will persist from one session to another.


4:40 - 5:10 – Application Virtualization Directions for Courses & Projects – Mark McCahill (10 presentation, 10 discussion)

What it is: Virtualized applications such as the RStudio Docker containers, used by introductory statistics, and personal virtual machines that are used for advanced courses/projects have become a popular approach to provide students with personal computing environments. These environments compliment the short-term access provided by Virtual Computing Labs and physical labs. 

Why it’s relevant: We will discuss current plans for making more applications available via Docker containers and solicit feedback as to which applications should be considered for virtualization in the future. 

Virtual Computer Lab has been around for about 7 years now.  Main use is for temporary projects that can be reassigned often.  VM Manage is newer and meant for semester-long projects.  The next step in progression has been the containerization of apps inside of a VM. 

In the Fall, RStudio was set up in Linux containers.  Capable of supporting 300 students on 3 VMs. 

What’s new?

  • Zero install console (allows users to access the machine via a web page, rather than using server remoting software).  HTML5 live communication between browser and server.  JavaScript has gotten much faster as have networks.
  • Pilot instances of Linux X-Windows environments running inside the Docker containers.  The terminal access is embedded into a website, so there is no software to install.  Tests with Mathematica, MatLab and Eclipse integrated development environment (IDE) with Python.
  • Right now Chrome appears to be the best browser in terms of performance. 


Students have the option of extending a VM reservation at the end of the semester if they would still like to use it.

Are there any other apps should we consider adding as a baseline? 

All the prior examples and demonstrations have been with Linux VMs in the back end, but the same can be accomplished with Windows servers as well and they are currently working on tweaking performance.

There is also work being done in enabling any non-Duke individual that has Shibboleth to log into these VMs with their credentials from their own institution.  This would be an example of where licensing could be an issue.

Questions and Comments: 

Are there any licensing issues that we should be aware of?  It’s run on Duke hardware so the only considerations would be any “concurrent licensing” limitations.  The ones we’re currently using are either site licensed or open source so this isn’t an issue. 

Can a web browser be used against a VM without Docker?  Yes, it can.

Would web browser access work against third party systems such as Amazon?  Yes this should work as well.  The scripts to create the containers is open source and Mark can provide that to anyone.  NoVNC is the library that is being used to accomplish this.

5:10 - 5:30 – Computing Lab Update – Evan Levine, Glenn Setliff Jr.  (10 presentation, 10 discussion)

What it is: OIT operates more than 17 computer labs, including two Multimedia Project Studios. Labs also have a rich array of software installed in them and students frequently use these facilities an alternative to purchasing software for their personal computer.  Most labs are open 24 hours a day while classes are in session and many are reservable by faculty and staff for Duke-related functions. During Fall and Spring semesters, computer labs may be reserved for a maximum of four hours per session. 

Why it’s relevant: Computer lab use for teaching has begun to decline, due in part to the popularity of individually-owned computers, and to the availability of VMs.  Recent VM environment that are fully contained within a browser offer even more flexibility.  We'll discuss trends and possible future directions as it relates to ongoing lab facilities.

Current trends:

  • 22 locations (9 general purpose, 6 reserved spaces, 4 kiosks, 2 multimedia project studios (MPS), and Innovation Studio)
  • 250 computers (201 iMacs, 45 Dell/Linux)
  • 66 EPrint locations (OIT supported)
  • LabStats analytics used to track lab log-ins.  General usage has decreased, but demand is not disappearing (it’s actually growing).
  • Classroom log-ins are increasing with university courses and OIT training programs.
  • VCL hours used has increased.  A large spike was seen when SAS was installed on the Windows 7 image.
  • Number of unique users has been increasing.
  • Tracking the applications that people use has become more difficult because the majority of what we access now is within a browser.  Losing the ability to tell what people are doing.  For privacy reasons, there is no interest in tracking what websites people are visiting.
  • Pieces of paper printed through EPrint has decreased.  We think this was largely a result of the sustainability campaigns. 2.2 million sheet decrease.

Future direction:

  • Standardize on dual-boot iMacs, including the TEER lab (Linux workstations aren’t as necessary as they once were, harder to maintain)
  • Operating System imaging and deployment software
  • Get away from using printers that require a computer as a release station and moving toward those with embedded device software using a card swipe
  • Decrease the number of workstations overall in favor of more specialized labs like the MPS and Innovation Studio.
  • Using and developing web applications to be more efficient (e.g. ePrint Web)

Institutional Research data showed that 98.6% of incoming Freshmen brought their own computer with them to school and the majority also had a mobile device.

Questions and Comments: 

Some resistance to faculty adding software to lab machines once the semester has started mostly due to concerns that it would break what was already there.  Not much lead-time to make sure that the software can be added and tested adequately before rolling it out.  This is a good place for the VM Docker containerization because there is less risk to bringing in something new.

In terms of sustainability and the printing efforts, perhaps something should be sent to the faculty to help show how they can help to requiring less printing for their classes.  There has been a “sustainability badge” that has had information on how to take steps in the classroom.  The initiatives have largely been focused on the students since they do the most of the printing, but we recognize that some of that printing is coming at the request of faculty. 

Has there been much pushback from students regarding the changes to the quotas?  When the decision was made it was a big topic of discussion, but once the change actually occurred it was widely accepted without many problems.