ITAC Meeting Minutes
April 15, 2010, 4:00-5:30
RENCI Center

  • Announcements
  • Perspectives on IT in the Sanford School (Neil Prentice, Ken Rogerson)
  • RENCI Update (Stan Ahalt)


Terry Oas called the meeting to order at 4:04pm.

Terry asked whether there were any concerns over the draft minutes circulated from the past two meetings.  Rafael noted that some clarification regarding Blue/White network is needed to the minutes from the April 1 meeting, which he had been unable to attend.  Rafael noted that additional investment is needed to scale up this network with the move to voice over IP, including investment in servers and additional hardware.  Rafael added that this would be a significant investment for all of Duke Medicine and that while there had been conversations in the health system on such a capital expenditure, a specific source for the dollars had not yet been found. 

Terry said the committee would resend the corrected minutes and ask for approval next round. 

John Board introduced Amy Brooks as the new Assistant Vice President of Shared Services & Infrastructure, joining Duke from the University of Michigan.  John said OIT was happy to have Amy join in the role Klara Jelinkova formerly held in charge of systems and other areas of responsibility. John added that the committee would ask Amy for some of her early impressions of Duke at a near future meeting.

Terry led a round of introductions of the committee members for Amy’s benefit.

Kevin announced that the annual ITAC photograph would be taken today, capturing the current membership of the body.

Perspectives on IT in the Sanford School (Neil Prentice, Ken Rogerson)

Terry noted that we try to bring in at least one school per year to talk about IT implementations and any technology issues.  Since the Sanford School of Public Policy is now Duke’s newest school, he added, the committee invited Sanford to discuss their information technology activities.

Neil Prentice, the IT director for Sanford, reiterated that Sanford is the newest school at Duke, separated from Arts and Sciences in 2009.  He joked that there is no guidebook on how to become a school at Duke, and that the new administration had spent significant time in its first year asking questions and learning how to get things done.

As challenges, Neil cited both the diversity of the school’s IT needs and a desire not to reinvent the wheel in creating new services where existing university resources could suffice.  To that end, Neil noted that Sanford continues to follow its Arts and Sciences heritage in many technology decisions, even outsourcing to Trinity Technology Services much of its server administration.  In-house, Sanford IT handles desktop support, file services, and classroom support, along with augmented support for multimedia and video, faculty database support, and a local web developer who works with faculty to develop sites for their centers and give a common approach to website development.

Neil said that Sanford has about 21 separate centers, including groups that study international development and very large executive education programs requiring large laptop programs for these summer activities.  Neil also noted large-scale video efforts to digitize tapes from the 1980s on poverty in the South and to bring the recordings into historical context, and supporting significant data analysis with large data sets. 

More broadly, Neil noted Sanford was asking plenty of questions of Arts and Sciences, OIT, Development, and the Graduate School on how they’re doing activities such as graduate admissions.  Neil said that Stanford had had to recreate a graduate admissions processes for some of their masters programs, while PhD programs saw their admissions activities processed through the Graduate School, which Terry noted was a standard requirement across Duke. Neil added that there had been some interest in getting Sanford to use ImageNow for admissions but there was some hesitance over starting with that solution immediately.

Neil then introduced Ken Rogerson, the director of undergraduate studies at Sanford and a part of the DeWitt Wallace Center.  Ken also heads up the journalism certificate program on the campus, and has a multimedia journalism class that drives some school multimedia needs; Neil added that Ken was one of the faculty in Sanford making early use of electronic bluebook technologies.

Ken noted he’d been an early adopter of technology for a long time, in terms of adoption of technology use within Duke at least, not in the Silicon Valley sense. Ken said he had been one of the first iPod users in the Duke experiments with the technology, for instance.  He asked for iPods with recorders for his news writing class, hoping to retire tape recorders for any future interviews.  Ken said that experience was transformative for conducting interviews for assignments or class exercises, and that it changed the way the class worked.  Over time, the class itself, which had been framed around newspaper writing, transitioned towards online writing, mirroring what’s happening in the industry.  He added that as part of this change, his students needed a few more skills that Ken didn’t know how to teach.  He noted that he used technology to facilitate that education, giving students access to technology and letting them learn how to use it by dint of completing a project with it.

As a result, Ken said, his students got Flip handheld video cameras as of last year, and had to learn how to submit a video submission for the course. This year, he wanted to do something more coherent than setting them loose to their own devices; as a result, he included a simple Windows/Mac training class on how to do video editing using raw footage, with a Sanford audio-visual support staff member coming in to teach that section of the class. Ken added that the only issue now is that the files are too large to upload to Blackboard, which Ken said he understands to be a policy issue and not a technology matter per se. 

Ken said he wishes he knew more about technology, but that he has been willing to jump in to learn with his students.

He said that while he studies and teaches information ethics and policy and Internet politics, his specialty isn’t in the bits and bytes, but in the legal issues and policy frameworks around technology.  He noted that reflects his approach to his study and teaching, that people need to use technology and that he encourages his students to do work that leads them to discover how to use resources that he doesn’t know himself.

Ken added that he’s not certain why faculty have not rapidly adopted electronic bluebooks, citing a core class in Public Policy whose final exam uses a closed book bluebook exam.  Ken noted it was a literally painful process to take and grade these, between hand-cramping for students and the lower quality of the rushed penmanship and arguments creating a strain on teaching assistant staff who are required to grade them.  Ken noted that he learned last year of the availability of e-bluebook, a secure online narrative test-taking system, allowing students to take closed-book essay exams while limiting their computer to use only that application without access to any other websites before uploading the exam to a server.  Ken said he had initially printed out the exams for TAs but that they are now evaluated and graded online as well.  Ken said that the students’ answers are longer but are also more complete and that he as the instructor is happier with the resulting process.  On the other hand, Ken noted it is more difficult to utilize materials like graphs and formulas in responses.

Ken added that there are professors on campus who refuse to let laptops in the classroom, but that he has chosen to embrace them.  Ken said it is a reality that students today multi-task, be it on Facebook, Gmail or other sites.  Ken said he has chosen to adapt his lectures to ask questions they would need to look up on their computer, and that he has noticed that many take notes via laptop rather than by hand.  He added that his only rule is that if a student offends the person next to him or her with their laptop then the laptop must be put away, something he said had only happened once.

Robert Wolpert asked if Ken had an example of a time he needed technical help to accomplish something in his teaching, and how that assistance worked out.  Ken referred back to the example of video editing, noting that he did not know how to teach his students to learn that skill.  Robert asked how Ken learned where resources to help where.  Neil added that Sanford as someone on staff who is a specialist in this area and who was available to help.  Ken noted he initially contacted Duke’s Center for Instructional Technology, adding they had always been helpful; after several iterations of looking for the right support, a Sanford resource stepped in to help.  Earlier on, Ken noted that creating web pages had been difficult, before there were freely available tools for web creation.

Ken added that he was not fully familiar with the Webfiles tool, something he said he had heard about as a technology and had been told he should use, but which he did not know exactly what it consisted of.  Some students seemed very familiar with the concept, but others weren’t.  Ken added that he had had the same reaction to mentions of Portfolio, a tool by assessment staff to do online surveys. 

Julian Lombardi asked what would be a good way to raise awareness about those kinds of services.  Ken noted he was sure faculty receive emails about them but joked his brain was in overload; he said he had seen the names of these tools before but didn’t understand how it applied to him, adding that he initially thought Webfiles was just for students.  Once he learned it was a broader tool, he then realized first that he didn’t know how to get started, and then when he attempted to first use it, he realized he didn’t have permissions to do so and had to call the Service Desk.  Terry asked who had told him about Webfiles initially. Ken noted it was a student who mentioned it.

Alvy asked if Ken had any issues where students don’t have laptops to use in class.  Ken clarified that he allows but does not require their use.  He added that the Link and Sanford both have laptop loaner programs and that he had suggested their use when a student had a laptop that crashed before an exam.  Practically all students have laptops, Ken noted.  Neil added that in a worst-case scenario where a laptop breaks during an exam, a student can pull out paper and start writing.  Alvy asked if any students were uncomfortable with their computer being “locked down” by e-bluebook software.  Ken noted he allowed it as a choice but did not mandate it, leaving students free to traditional pen-and-paper if desired.

Mark Elstein asked if e-bluebook systems could be run in a virtual machine slice allowing students to exit and bypass the software.  Ken said he was sure there might be some way around the technology, but noted he wanders around the room during a final exam.  He also noted that the Office of Student Conduct provides text that Ken adds as a check-box at the top of each exam requiring students to certify the work is their own and they have not cheated.  So far there have not been cases of cheating, Ken noted.  Neil adds that the e-bluebook system does seem to lock systems down well and securely, though he has not tried virtualization workarounds.  Ken added it had been in use at the Law School for five to six years and that they had been pleased.  Wayne Miller from Law said that there were plenty of these software packages available and that the priciest of them get patched to cover every vector they can think of.  Wayne concurred that Law relies on the honor code beyond technical protection alone and has had no problems with cheating through the e-bluebook system, and that a number of schools run it.

John Board asked Ken where he stands on the curve of technology-embracing faculty, from being very aggressive to conservative in doing so.  Ken said he thought he was a little bit ahead of average, to which Neil concurred, noting that Sanford has a range of faculty, some of whom are highly involved with new technologies while others struggle with audio-visual equipment.  John asked whether Ken was a lone voice for technology in Sanford; Ken said he was not, and that other faculty made very different uses of technology.

Terry noted that Neil has mentioned computational analysis taking place within Sanford and asked what resources were provided. Neil noted the school was doing “midrange” work in the space; Sanford’s computational analysis did not require high performance computing resources, for instance, but typically relied on software like Stata and SPSS largely on local machines, although some faculty are using some multiprocessor Stata licenses through SSRI.  Neil added that some data usage agreements at Sanford do not allow any data to be on network, which is a constraint and which requires standalone machines for data analysis in some cases.  Terry asked how Sanford is providing storage resources for the large databases in question. Neil said the school used S4, an Arts and Sciences product to house data through SSRI.  In addition, a significant amount of licensed data is stored on hard drives in the school’s Resource Room and locked in a safe when not in use.  Terry asked how these data got backed up.  Neil said many of these data could not be backed up via the license terms, and instead get re-acquired from the vendor if needed.  Once a data set has been analyzed and de-identified it can be backed up, but by that time it is no longer required to be stored on secure hard disks, either.  Neil added that while storage needs were growing, the largest data users among his faculty still were in the several hundred gigabyte range.

Terry said there had been significant discussion of telepresence at ITAC and wondered how much use of it was in place in Sanford.  Neil noted that he was not encouraging faculty to use the technology, noting that he doesn’t see the demand for its use yet, though faculty are aware of the term and interested as a result.  He said that Sanford had an existing investment in videoconferencing technology already and that that seemed somewhat more appropriate for classroom use.  He added that the vast majority of videoconferencing connectivity into the classroom is happening through Skype right now, more than any “high-tech” solutions, and added that it provides more portability for faculty traveling overseas.  Terry said there are some high profile people coming into Sanford for symposia and conferences, and asked how much of that content gets recorded.  Neil said the school records almost every single event held in the school, assuming the presenter gives permission for that recording.  He noted that Sanford has a large presence on iTunesU and some material on Duke’s streaming services, making the school one of the largest users of the DukeStream service.

Following up on a mention of Duke’s e-learning committee by Susan Gerbeth-Jones, Terry referenced Ken’s comments on Blackboard as suggesting engagement with the subject. Ken noted that he had gone to the e-learning sessions on the new version of Blackboard and Sakai, though he was unable to attend the session on Moodle.  Terry asked how useful Ken found Blackboard to be.  Ken said he feels forced to use Bb, though he knows how it works now and is relatively comfortable with it, and he added that his students are used to it.  Still, Blackboard adds additional faculty work, Ken said, describing his overall reaction as a mixed one, in which he understands the tool and why it exists, but he feels he lacks time to use it.  Ken opined that Sakai seemed interesting, maintaining the UI of Blackboard and felt it contains the core functionality needed without excessive bells and whistles.  Ken added that he felt Blackboard 9 seemed to address most of the weaknesses he sees in the current version.

RENCI Update (Stan Ahalt)

Terry introduced Stan Ahalt, the new director of North Carolina’s RENCI organization. Stan noted he now thinks of himself as the semi-new director, with a term going on six months in his role.

Stan noted he had had a fairly extensive discussion with Julian about today’s topics, but asked first for the group’s candid impressions of RENCI. 

Wayne noted that the Law School didn’t feel that the organization was relevant to their work. Stan noted that might be true, though that could miss some opportunities.  John Board described RENCI as an interesting opportunity that has not crystallized into a lot of action, an organization with significant promising talent and resources but which had been limited in gelling into substance, at least at Duke. Stan noted there are a handful of really strong examples, though he said he found it distressing that there had not been more of those, and that he had been looking for ways to help make more of those come to fruition, and he hoped today’s conversation would be one point for originating such outcomes. 

Alvy noted there seemed to be confusion over RENCI’s identity in terms of enablement of outreach to other institutions versus being a sole entity into and of itself that happens to have outreach points.  Stan said it sounds like the question is whether RENCI is an organization that is a sole originator of research and activities, or whether it is one that relies on collaboration.  Alvy said that when he thinks of an organization like RTI, it’s independent and brings in its own funding in, as opposed to an institution like RENCI that is more tightly tied in to other universities and institutions in the state.  Stan responded that it is interesting to use RTI as an example, noting that his board had endorsed his position that RENCI should not follow the same path as RTI.  He continued that he was not sure that any of the institutions investing in RENCI would be enthusiastic of standing up an RTI-like organization in which revenue generation is inwardly focused; Stan said that RENCI’s impact is measured by the amount of funds brought in for RENCI’s collaborators. If you look at some centers and institutes like Duke, NC State, and UNC Chapel Hill, some of the locations are measured as successful if they bring in more dollars than state funding.  Stan said that he is arguing RENCI should have financial balance, but there should be other measures, including funding, research activities, scholarly publications and other metrics pertaining to its collaborators’ activities.

As a specific example, Stan said he was recently approached by a colleague from Chapel Hill who has an excellent chance of bringing in a very large NSF grant.  He’d like to divert some of the grant to RENCI to utilize both the business office and the cyber-infrastructure resources he needs for services like virtual organizations.  Stan described this as a case where a small amount of RENCI engagement can have an “amplifying effect” on the outcome; without RENCI’s activities it would be difficult to execute the grant and possibly to win it in the first place.

Robert noted he was the co-principal investigator on a grant paying some RENCI staff to do visualization in high energy physics, but that long-term he was skeptical about the state’s willingness to fund at a high enough level to keep RENCI special, and that this made him wary about the long-term risk of tying local risk to RENCI’s risk.  Stan said he would like to see concerns like these expressed to Jim Siedow, who can then express them in turn to Holden Thorp at Chapel Hill.  Stan said that it is his understanding that, in the state’s higher education budget, a specific state line item to higher education is only appropriated for a specific task for one year, after which it gets commingled with other funding generally for the respective campus, in this case Chapel Hill. 

Stan said that his chancellor understands the importance of RENCI and wants it organized for maximum impact. Hearing voices like Robert’s noting that they’re anxious about engagement and longevity is important in building that understanding and achieving the necessary research impact.   Stan said he had thought long and hard about taking this job due to the cuts, and due to the past history of efforts like the supercomputing center in North Carolina, noting that the state’s track record was not good in this area.  Stan added that he believes RENCI will continue no matter what in carrying out its activities in some way, but worried that cuts could reduce the ability of supporting other people’s activities.  A number of other US institutions have made significant investments in cyber-infrastructure, he continued, noting this was central to RENCI’s mission. Stan went on to note that a number of [North Carolina] universities are laying out very explicit plans to collaborate with RENCI as the only possible way for them to be competitive for very large or competitive grants or grants with data management or HPC needs, noting that these schools need that cadre of staff supporting high end projects to a different degree than you would suppose the typical sole PI would have. 

Whether or not North Carolina and Chapel Hill maintains the funding, Stan continued, the need for RENCI is vital as a partner to help state institutions bring in more money. He added that that linkage has not been proven, but that internally to RENCI the “money touched” as measured by the value of projects that RENCI helps with is about $87 million, a figure Stan noted should grow in the long term.  He said that while it would be a difficult stretch to say that all of that $87 million would go away without RENCI, he would suggest it could shrink to $40 million or so. Stan added that he spends a great deal of time with Energy, Defense, NIH, NSF and others and that he thinks cyber-infrastructure is critical to these agencies.

Stan continued by describing several messages he said were central to his approach to RENCI.  He noted that RENCI could only thrive if it has deep, meaningful collaborations with campuses, especially those within the Research Triangle area.  He said that he was insisting RENCI become a “trusted partner,” one where campuses would know the organization will deliver on its promises, and act towards a collective partnership versus the goals of individual institutions, groups or the like.  He added that he wants RENCI to be an honest broker, not just looking after its own greater good.  Stan apologized for issues that have happened in the past, and stated his interest in minimizing or fixing them as fast as possible.  Finally, Stan said that he believes RENCI is here to stay, that the case for such is being made honestly and thoughtfully, and that he wants to see Duke stand by it.

As background, he noted RENCI was founded 2004, as a joint venture of UNC-CH, Duke, and NC State.  Its goal is to put in place and support leading edge technologies and technological expertise, including HPC, networking, data management, visualization, virtual organizations tools, and software. He noted that RENCI was not putting a tremendous emphasis on HPC; the organization has the expertise but is seeing its portfolio shift in other directions, he noted.  Stan also noted that the demand for RENCI’s expertise incorporated support data management and storage problems, not just computational ones.  RENCI’s technical projects are driven by domain science, with past successes and current focus in environment/disaster research and health/biosciences.  RENCI’s facilities and expertise are scattered across North Carolina, he continued, with Triangle facilities at all three schools plus the Europa Center and with regional sites at UNC Charlotte, UNC Asheville, and ECU.

Stan discussed the organization’s focus on the science of cyberinfrastructure, in learning how to do these elements well and in actually studying these elements to see how they can work together better to gain competitive advantages.  Stan added that we cannot forever expect people to have domain expertise in their field plus technical expertise in things like HPC scripting.  Stan described a mission of becoming a world leader in cyberinfrastructure R&D, making RENCI a pre-eminent center of research in the field as demonstrated by papers, scholarly products and other efforts to advance the state of the science.

Stan went on to describe a range of partnerships and initiatives, including data-intensive centers at Duke and UNC, cluster computing resources, one petabyte data storage infrastructure based on iRODS (one of the first research opportunities for RENCI’s scholarship mission), visualization experiments, collaborative environments through the seven regional data hubs, and the Breakable Experimental Network in place using dark fiber between the three Triangle universities and RENCI. 

John asked whether RENCI could do scholarship in the field as a theoretician as opposed to supporting experiments in this area, or how much of what RENCI seeks to know can be found from looking at lessons from projects versus creating a center for innovation like the former supercomputing center. Stan noted he believes RENCI needs to deploy only modest examples of the technologies in question to support its mission, adding there has been a big investment in visualization but that it was unclear to what extent those investments had paid off in every case.  He used HPC as an example, suggesting RENCI’s real strength may be in helping institutions and researchers leverage resources like the Open Science Grid, TeraGrid, IBM-hosted services or other resources, and that ideally RENCI would have so much demand for services it would have to by necessity maintain only modest examples of technologies in-house and help connect partners through sharing and external provisioning of scaled resources.

Stan described RENCI’s return on investment as providing a cyberinfrastructure foundation that we can see supporting new research initiatives; as helping to bridge researchers across multiple campuses; in supporting industry-university collaboration; in providing persistent solutions to campus research teams beyond those possible just by an institution’s sole resources; and in supporting and nurturing possible commercial opportunities where possible out of university research innovation.  He added that much of this is borne out by his own experience as a researcher.

He added that RENCI no longer stands for Renaissance Computing Institute, it’s simply RENCI: Research, Engagement and Innovation for North Carolina.

Stan described other major initiatives, including a DataNet Federation Consortium, a very large NSF proposal that includes Duke and its OpenCobalt activities and other Triangle schools, along with six other national partner institutions, all looking at different communities of practice. RENCI is also working on a secure virtual workspace with identity-based authorization to access secure data sets such as patient data through a virtualized environment, allowing collaboration on manipulation and computation on data within a protected environment.  Stan noted there will be a great deal of testing and experimentation on such a tool and if it is viable it could take on open source or commercial dimensions.

Jim Siedow asked whether everything RENCI does is open source. Stan said that was the case for all of RENCI’s projects today, but that he wouldn’t be adverse to keeping some innovation open source internally while assigning it to a company wanting to come in and license it for commercial purchases.

Stan described two Duke-connected projects, the BEN network and the ORCA effort underway by Duke and RENCI staff, as both being key cornerstones of the operating system of the cyberinfrastructure and as being major assets to RENCI’s efforts.  He added that OpenCobalt and GENI’s Collaborative Interactive Infrastructure (GCii) are helping people understand the importance of persistent, context-sensitive environments. Stan also discussed the importance of the expertise mapping activity happening across RENCI institutions, enabling greater collaboration between and analysis of research assets; he noted this offered the UNC system a set of collaboration and analytical tools for higher education to see how their assets are deployed around the state and what gaps may exist.

He went on to give additional specific examples of research at Duke leveraging RENCI, along with those working on solving problems at the state level (e.g., a North Carolina floodplain mapping project, and proposed work with the National Weather Service.)  He further discussed the arrival of new regional engagement centers in downtown Asheville and at ECU, along with UNC Charlotte’s Urban Growth Model, a sophisticated computational tool to predict growth based on large numbers of variables including growth policies.