ITAC Meeting Minutes
March 18, 2010, 4:00-5:30
Levine Science Research Center D344

  • Announcements
  • Virtual Computer Lab (VCL) Update/Demo (Samantha Earp, Laurie Harris, Liz Wendland)
  • Undergraduate IT Perspectives (ITAC DSG Representatives)


Terry Oas called the meeting to order at 4:02pm.  Noting no objections to the February 18th and March 4th meeting minutes, he opened the floor for announcements.

Kevin Davis announced a postponement of the ePrint update segment planned for today, as power outage in the North Building had called Carl McMillon on site.  No enterprise data centers were affected by this outage.

Samantha Earp reminded the group that three daylong sessions were coming up for learning management system (LMS) evaluation.  The March 19th session will explore Moodle, while Sakai and Blackboard will be highlighted on March 23rd and April 1st, respectively.  Terry encouraged faculty and students to participate in these sessions to provide feedback that would help the eLearning Roadmap Committee determine the best LMS direction for Duke.

Tracy Futhey announced the hire of Klara Jelinkova’s successor.  Amy Brooks, most recently executive director for Information Technology Services at the University of Michigan, will join us at Duke starting on April 12th.

Virtual Computer Lab (VCL) Update/Demo (Samantha Earp, Laurie Harris, Liz Wendland)

Software developer Liz Wendland began the segment by demonstrating an online virtual machine reservation tool currently hosted at The application allows a user to reserve access to a virtual machine in advance or immediately (with some popular VMs waiting for use based on historic demand); together, these two improvements are intended to address a common concern about availability of virtual computer labs (VCLs) during peak usage times.

Liz explained that this software was first implemented at NCSU and has been adapted by their team for use with systems at Duke.  She then demonstrated for the committee the process of connecting to an existing reservation, explaining the benefits of the VCL structure.  Aside from being more cost-effective than a physical lab, virtual computer labs allow students to run software from anywhere without having to install it on their computers.  This can be particularly beneficial in cases where student licensing of software is prohibitively expensive or simply unavailable.

Terry posed a question asked at a previous ITAC session regarding the start-up time of connecting to a VM for classroom use.  Liz explained that with recent improvements to the system, connection is now almost instantaneous with a reservation, and offered to demonstrate the process of connecting to a VM without reservation in advance later in the presentation.  As a user is assigned to a new VM each time, she explained, there would be a small amount of start-up activities to be processed on login, but this is also a factor in physical labs.

Samantha then asked Assistant Professor Sayan Mukherjee to share his experiences making use of virtual computer labs in his classes.  Sayan felt that the system worked very well for students working from home, but it could be a bit more challenging for classroom use.  Sayan’s experiences with some software was better than others, but as an instructor of Computational Biology, his students require very resource-intensive programs which he would hesitate to offer in class via the VCL.  John Board asked about the number of machines that could be supported by a single wireless network access point; Liz has seen successful VCL classes of 30 students but would need to verify that they were all wireless users.

Liz then demonstrated a quick connection to a “now” reservation, or connecting to a VM without an advance reservation.  Samantha mentioned that their group is ready to move from a proof of concept into a more operational mode, and an ITAC subcommittee will be looking into answering the questions of governance over this service.

The floor was then opened for questions.  Lynne O’Brien and DSG representative Ben Getson both inquired as to setup and response times during usage spikes, such as the night before a project for a large class is due. Liz explained that the VCL system will provision VMs intelligently, but one could expect some delays if a large volume of users wanted to use the same application (e.g., Matlab) at one time. DSG representative Michael Ansel observed that this is currently an issue even in physical labs, where multiple students can simultaneously be logged into the same Linux machine.

Group discussion followed regarding ideas for the governance policy subgroup and how these policies may be constructed to best protect students from data loss and offer options for professors to make customized images available to their students.  Noting capacity and sizing as the two most limiting factors in VCL development thus far, Tracy and John Pormann of the Scalable Computing Support Center offered the possibility of shared resources between the VCL and the High Performance Computing Cluster (HPCC) to best take advantage of VCL resources when not in heavy use, and provide supplemental resources at peak times.

Undergraduate IT Perspectives (Michael Ansel, Ben Getson, Mark Elstein)

DSG representative Ben Getson opened the segment by generalizing undergraduate opinion of IT services as being adequate in scope but not always in implementation.  Citing convenience and flexibility as the two criteria that students value most in IT services, he went on to highlight some differences between popular services and those which have not been as well-received.

Ben lauded recent IT initiatives such as improved cell phone coverage on campus and the new WebMail client.  Offering the new OIT service desk as another example of an effective and popular service for its overall convenience and accessibility, he felt that the OIT website fell short in comparison.  Walking through the site, Ben demonstrated how content most relevant to undergraduates, such as operating hours and site license downloads, was obfuscated in the navigation and no easier to find via the site’s search tool.  Acknowledging that undergraduates are not the only patrons of the website, Ben suggested that a better understanding of student needs would go a long way in making services like this site more undergraduate-friendly.

Touching on the subject of flexibility or ease of access, Ben discussed the convenience and versatility of both the DukeMobile application and Duke Digital Initiative, contrasted with a perceived stiffness of Buzz, Duke’s student calendar.  Although a great hub of information, Ben said Buzz lacks the primary service Duke students would like to see from the service, which is the ability to solicit friends or campus groups to participate in different events.  The lack of this functionality has resulted in a trend to use Facebook and other social networking tools to manage and promote events, a practice that further weakens Buzz’s influence.

John Board asked whether the presenters would advocate the duplication of Facebook functionality in order to make Buzz more useful.  Ben responded that Buzz does have distinct advantages over Facebook for finding events and information about them, but the lack of this functionality necessitates a change of medium before that information can be easily shared, reducing the typical user of Buzz from potential participants to those searching for information about a known event.  Michael added that Buzz also lacks an effective way to filter out long-running events that clutter the main page, making it less attractive to casual browsers looking for new events.

Ben then addressed the topic of how the university is communicating with undergraduates by showing an email sent to him through the Office of Student Activities and Facilities (OSAF) mailing list, which is sent to all undergraduates on a weekly basis.  The highlighted segment, an invitation for student participation in e-Learning discussions, was worded in a way that seemed to target faculty rather than students; as an advertisement for an academic discussion, Ben said, it seemed out of place in an email intended to promote social activities. Ben suggested more effective communication with undergraduates could be achieved by phrasing emails in a way that addresses students directly, and preferably via a more targeted email list (such as departmental lists) in order to suggest to students that the contents of the email may be of particular interest to them.  Michael mentioned that even if the content will be sent to all undergraduates, it’s a good idea to be conscientious of the context in which the email is sent.  As an example, he suggested that academic opportunities might be better received via the DSG mailing list rather than the OSAF list.

Terry asked if there’s a particular website used on a daily basis by a majority of students that could possibly be leveraged in communicating opportunities open to all students without overwhelming email lists.  While the consensus was that there is not a site used so uniformly, Molly Tamarkin suggested that perhaps sites like the OIT website could provide a dynamically-constructed tag cloud to reflect the sites most searched for depending on the sometimes rapidly changing needs of the students.  Ben agreed with the theory behind this suggestion, but had some doubts about whether the broad audience of the OIT website would produce results of particular use to any one group.  As Molly pointed out, though, one major takeaway from this discussion is that there won’t be one single vehicle to reach students.  Michael agreed that communication should cross several media to account for the different preferences between students with regard to consumption of news.   

In more general discussion, co-presenter Mark Elstein voiced a concern of loss of OIT-supported services such as landline telephone support and more granular billing options for cable television.  Tracy explained a number of changes were made over the last year to reduce costs to students for services that are not widely used on campus.  According to Tracy, only about 18% of dormitory rooms subscribed to cable television this year, which limits flexibility for more complex billing structure without burdening the few cable subscribers with the costs of that additional infrastructure.  Mark asked if this meant that cable television would be phased out, and Tracy explained that the future of cable television in residence halls is highly reliant on demand for the service moving forward, but that eliminating cable altogether is not the only possible solution to managing costs.  Other possible solutions, such as considering cable television a standard room feature, would likely involve administrative input outside of OIT as well.  In summary, recent adjustments to the cable billing structure have been implemented to keep the service affordable, and further adjustments will be evaluated as demand continues to change.

In closing, Ben thanked the committee for their time, and Terry announced that Peter Lange will present his perspectives on IT services at the next ITAC meeting.