Cloud Computing, Big Data, and Open Access at EDUCAUSE 2009
Carol Minton Morris
Soon after the first major snowstorm of the season, 3,800 delegates to EDUCAUSE 2009 were greeted in Denver by warm temperatures and blue skies over the distant front range from November 3-6, 2009. With a national climate of shrinking IT budgets and increasing needs at institutions of higher education, many sessions and conversations centered around taking advantage of economies represented by new technologies such as cloud computing and distributed communication tools. Higher education IT professionals gathered at the Colorado Convention Center and simultaneously online to uncover "the best thinking in higher education."
Providing a virtual version of the conference was a first for EDUCAUSE, and some attendees reported that they found online sessions to have advantages over being there in person. For example, questions could be asked online without interrupting speakers, and the expense and uncertainties of travel were avoided for virtual attendees. The virtual conference also allowed on-site participants to "double dip" by catching up on the sessions they missed with free online recordings. Although in-person overall conference attendance was down in 2009, Diana Oblinger, President and CEO of EDUCAUSE, reported that 1,000 people from 44 states and 10 countries tuned in online for Lawrence Lessig's keynote address on November 5.
In 1998 a merger between CAUSE and Educom resulted in the current EDUCAUSE organization that addresses higher education IT issues and provides services and direction for campus IT leaders. EDUCAUSE 2009 focused on what was called "the intelligent use of information technology" with sessions about tools, services, techniques, technology, research, cost-saving tips and trends. Exhibit hall vendors echoed that focus by highlighting telecommunication, storage and access technologies in service to higher education.
Three sessions I attended were lively and well-attended with lots of audience interest in digging deeper to connect issues and technologies to their own problems at home campuses.
The Cloud From Both Sides
As university budgets everywhere are being trimmed across the board, conference-goers were on the look-out for overall ways to save money on IT expenditures. This interest was reflected in a "Point Counterpoint" session held in a small room packed to overflowing featuring Michael Dieckmann, Senior Associate VP and CIO, University of West Florida, and Melissa Woo, Director, Research Cyberinfrastructure, Network and Operations Services, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, who were there to shine a light on perceived cloud computing perils (Woo) and opportunities (Dieckmann). Based on the number of attendees in the room, this pro and con presentation was clearly of interest to many who shared concerns that for higher education in particular, it is imperative to understand the bottom line in IT services when it comes using cloud computing for mission-centric institutional activities.
Woo and Kieckmann showed comparisons between Gartner's Five Attributes of Cloud Computing and the NIST Definition of Cloud Computing "Essential Characteristics" and contrasted these to what they believed were key characteristics for the successful use of cloud computing by university IT departments. Their conclusions were that universities require IT (including infrastructure) as a network-delivered service that can be massively shared, is extremely flexible, and allows for a "pay as you go" economic model.
Dieckmann pointed out that to some extent cloud computing is the inevitable wave of the future for the IT industry. "We have put up with it before. Massive economies of scale will drive cloud computing because it is the most cost-effective way to provide services to our institutions." At what point in the evolution of the service, he wondered, do you have to ask what the reason is for doing these things in the cloud. He emphasized that, while adopting cloud technologies seems to be inevitable, we do not have to feel that we are being forced to swallow a poison pill, because there are many advantages to adopting them.
Woo countered by asking why university IT leaders are focused on when instead of why? "Why are we not asking our stakeholders about what they need?" she wondered. She used Gmail as an example of how large services sometimes go down and can create security risks, data loss, and data that have been "locked-up." She reminded the audience that scoping cloud computing and commercial clouds for university IT is the focus of the day's discussion.
Dieckman suggested that we are throwing responsibilities "over the wall" and encouraged listeners to step out of their IT silos and think about cloud computing in a larger campus context. "It should not be all about cost," he said.
He went on to qualify that assertion, however, by pointing out that economic sustainability and green computing are driving the debate on campuses. Gathering departmental servers into central data units has already occurred. Campus customers may not care whether whether a server is an on-campus server or a virtual server. He is of the opinion that as long as systems are managed by professional systems engineers, then perhaps this function should migrate to external services.
Diekmann and Woo concurred that if it cannot be trusted that data will be durable and persistent, then there should be an evaluation of the measure of harm to campuses that would result should the services fail. Also, once you have made the transfer to an external service, what do you do if the economics change? For the academy the "Crown jewel assets are our data." There are no interoperable cloud provider standards yet for security functions to protect those assets.
Woo believes that IT outsourcing is a problem, and that outsourcing to cloud providers exacerbates the problem. There is a perception that "we are better" than the commercial providers (campus IT). The idea that things are always better on the inside than they are on the outside is not always true.
Other issues around integrating in-house services with cloud services include identity management and branding in the cloud that may be threatened by across-the-board eLearning and eManagment tools. Woo believes that maintaining a coherent computing environment in the cloud is challenging right now.
Does institutional choice really matter? "Let's not fool ourselves client and consumer decisions about what they will use are already being made," said Diekmann. Where are your chancellors' and your presidents' email being stored and protected?
Clifford Lynch moderated "Initiatives from the National Science Foundation's DataNet Program: DataONE and the Data Conservancy" and began by explaining that the overall characteristics of the new Data Conservancy and Data One efforts funded by the NSF Office of Cyberinfrastructure (OCI) are to build capacity for large-scale data management, curation and preservation that seek a delicate balance between them. Referring to the Report of the National Science Foundation Blue-Ribbon Advisory Panel on Cyberinfrastructure he mentioned key aspects of cyberinfrastructure such as high performance computing and a new area, "data curation." The DataNet initiative is a major program to emerge from NSF's OCI under the data curation rubric. Two initial awards were the Data Conservancy and Data ONE. (Note: Bill Michener, DataOne Principal Investigator (PI) was unable to attend the session.)
Lynch believes that the overarching characteristic of DataNet projects is to build capacity for large-scale data management, curation and preservation. These large-scale collaborations will run for five years and are intended to work across a range of scientific and humanities disciplines. Lynch introduced Sayeed Choudhury, Data Conservancy PI and associate Dean of the Johns Hopkins Libraries, as a leader in digital library initiatives, data curation and eScience. "One of the things that is just wonderful about Sayeed's leadership is that we have seen a whole series of NSF initiatives that had little to do with research libraries. DataNet is different in that it has that connection. Research libraries must take this leadership role," Lynch remarked.
The Data Conservancy
Sayeed Choudhury began by explaining, "Data curation is still a relatively new term. It is not an end, but a means to collect, organize, validate, and preserve data to address grand research challenges that face society. Our goal is to support new forms of inquiry and learning to meet societal challenges."
NSF expects the Data Conservancy to deliver an operational system where scientists can go to do their work. The infrastructure should not be a rigid road map, but rather should be based on principles of navigation. Choudury emphasizes that an appreciation of the size of the solution space is a key part of the design process.
The Data Conservancy strategy focuses on connection of systems into infrastructure through a program of user-centered design and research. They plan to build on existing exemplar projects such as the Sloan Digital Sky Survey where "citizen scientists" have a role in design and discovery.
Choudhury envisions libraries as part of a distributed network that includes data as collections, librarians as data scientists and data centers as the new library stacks.
L. Lessig, Open Access Superhero
Reasonable people might agree that we should all be paid fairly for our intellectual property, while at the same time also advocate for open access to new ideas and groundbreaking research as society struggles to address environmental, health, political and social issues. Can these two seemingly opposite and worthy goals be brought together?
Higher education IT devotees of these opposite viewpoints filed into the cavernous Kodak Theater in the Colorado Convention Center hoping for answers from EDUCAUSE keynote speaker Lawrence Lessig. How could they advance their institutions' reach by coming up with hybrid technical and social publishing solutions while watching the bottom line, and creating communities of trust around the exchange and fair use of information?
Lawrence Lessig is perhaps the closest thing Open Access (OA) has to a "superhero", minus the cape, for librarians, IT geeks, and anyone who has ever been denied access to a precise bit of web information that they really, really needed. Fans of his thinking and actions in support of open access to knowledge, (many of his books and articles are licensed under Creative Commons) understand something about his views on the lagging education industry in addressing OA issues. College and university professionals are beginning to think of themselves as less aligned with institutions and more willing to act as free agents in an open marketplace of ideas. The lines between where, how, when and who should profit from research and new thinking have been blurred because, as Lessig says, "The medium through which we get access to our culture has changed. Not because any copyright law has changed." Technology has changed the context in which we understand the paradigm underlying our laws.
Ecology of Creativity
Lessig also discussed "business models" or as he thinks of them, ecologies of creativity. The use of copyright to secure profit means that you will get less creativity out of individuals if you lock up ideas in intellectual property disputes. "Not all creators have the same business model," he said. What about creators who are under the radar and "non-professional" those who create simply because they are passionate about their work? He asked, "What is the business model or the ecology of creativity in science and education?"
He believes that we share a common heritage in science based on a tradition of community property for the greater good. Incentives for scientists are different and not not based on quid-pro-quo.
Education is similar to science, with a business model based on free distribution of textbooks and scholarly articles. What makes sense for education might be a hybrid of models in the context of educational creativity informed by the capacity of digital technologies.
In conclusion Lessig encouraged the audience to, "Feel entitled to say no. Get mad. Resist." To emphasize his seriousness he offered a "Certificate of Entitlement" issued at EDUCAUSE 2009 and signed by him. He reiterated, "You, not lawyers, need to take responsibility for protecting these important domains of culture."
Ecology of Open Access
Lessig believes that replicating the good of scholarship peer review is what OA is about.
Books are an example of a creative ecology that most people have access to through libraries and used bookstores. Films are different. The component parts sound, still images, re-used clips all have rights streams that need to be properly licensed in order for any film to be changed, redistributed in a new format or re-used in whole or in part. Future generations will not have access to our film heritage unless digital re-formatting is done to preserve the work. Current digital technologies have short lifespans. "We need to act to avoid this thicket of complication that does not serve us," he emphasized.
Lessig does not think that changing the law is possible, but rather believes that society must move beyond changing the law. Creative Commons a system of simple methods for marking content with rights reserved that work for the creator, or no rights reserved is the way forward. Creative Commons offers six licenses that are readable by humans, lawyers, and machines.
As an example of the romantic vision of open access he played a song entitled "My Life Changed", explaining that the music was the product of collaboration among several musicians who found and altered the piece under Creative Commons licenses. Creators mashed up guitar and violin tracks separately while respecting each other's rights and authorship. Lessig calls this, "The infrastructure of interoperable free culture."
He ended with the provocative idea that our free culture-creating children, most of whom are digital natives who are accustomed to plucking, mashing-up and reformatting content wherever they find it, could be labeled the "new terrorists" if we criminalize their access to digital information. Lessig asked, "Will we make them live their digital lives against the law?"
The EDUCAUSE 2010 conference will take place October 12 15 in Anaheim, California.
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