Thursday, October 30, 2008

EDUCAUSE 2008 wrap-up

EDUCAUSE is a fun conference, even it it is polished up with kind of branded, corporate veneer and in a grotesque place like Orlando's Convention Center. There is an overflowing exhibitor hall and scads of corporate sponsored dinners and cocktail hours. I was lucky enough to partake in a few of these this time around.

I actually met a lot of counterparts from small college libraries, and this was enjoyable and perhaps a surprise at a national conference for higher ed IT. We didn’t necessarily talk about anything too serious but it was nice to make connections and compare notes on a few things. I did learn that Macalester, in addition to leading the way on Google Apps is also an early adopter of WorldCat Local.

It was unnerving to hear that in light of the financial crisis many liberal arts colleges are making serious budget cuts and putting budget freezes in place, something we haven’t heard much about at my institution.

What did I learn from the formal program?

  • I hit a presentation about data curation projects at some big universities: Indiana University, UC San Diego, Purdue. They involved collaborations between the library and technical computing centers. One of the major challenges was getting someone at the table as research projects that involve data were being proposed, funded and implemented.
  • One of my favorite presentations explored mashup type video projects in undergraduate education at Dartmouth and Penn and made a strong case that these develop a new important kind of literacy. Assignments like this are making their way across the curriculum in poli-sci, composition, language classes.
  • In a discussion session on IT/library collaboration, I learned that our library is behind the curve in experimenting with various merged service desk configurations. Most liberal arts colleges in attendence had done some fruitful experiments with merging IT and library support functions and mixing professional and non-professional staff at support desks.
  • A panel on space planning offered some interesting suggestions on user-centered planning, including impromptu interviews with students working in various spots on campus. It also showcased an ultra-flexible space at Georgia Tech. The guy from Georgia Tech recommended the Convia system for flexible wiring, data cabling, and lighting.
  • Chad Kainz of the University of Chicago gave an update on project Bamboo a rather amorphous humanities cyberinfrastructure planning effort sponsored by Mellon. I won’t try to explain what it is, but it sounds pretty cool.
  • The next day, Kainz also moderated a discussion session on "Faculty: Scholars or Software Developers": the question was how to support faculty that could now go out in the cloud and get or build what they need. The discussion descended into some mundane support issues, but I was able to pipe up about our use of Flickr in accessCeramics as an example of going beyond traditional enterprise-supported systems for a faculty sponsored project. Some people seemed to think it sounded a little risky to use Flickr in such a way.
  • I caught a lunchtime discussion by campus web professionals. Almost everyone is using Google Analytics. Many people put in a plug for Sharepoint, Microsoft's enterprise Wiki/collaboration/content management system. There was some discussion about centralized vs. decentralized control of web design and branding. Most institution-wide designers like some kind of control of the campus brand and there was talk of ways of enforcing this. I'm sympathetic to both the centralized and decentralized schools of thought.
I saw a few other sessions that were kind of lukewarm, so I won't post on them. Overall, though, it was a worthwhile conference.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

NITLE cloud computing event report

Checking in from sunny Orlando Florida. I caught a ride from the Convention center zone to Rollins College in Winter Park Florida for the NITLE cloud computing event today. Overall, Rollins has a charming campus. The on- campus food wasn't bad either.

We heard a couple Google Apps migration stories from some CTOs. In one case, Wesleyan U, the school was only planning on switching students over, whereas at Macalester they had switched the whole enterprise, students and staff. Interestingly, in the Macalester case, the switch was done in a matter of days as the old email system failed. It seems that a crisis situation really served as an important catalyst and brought the community together. Now Macalester is ahead of the curve as it takes advantage of the whole Google Apps suite.

Jerry Sanders of Macalester said that with Google Apps, IT's role had become more "consultative" and "less reactive." It was now more about discussing the possibilities with these new web 2.0 applications than troubleshooting problems. He likened this shift and the renewed sense of unknown possibilities to the introduction of personal computers and the advent of the web.

We heard from the D-Space federation, who has some plans to enable D-Space to run on cloud-based storage. I continue to think that D-Space is not the right model for digital repositories in these times. It was designed before the Web 2.0 and Cloud Computing era and remains positioned as an isolated silo of data for supporting a single institution.

David Young, CEO of Joyent, gave his view of the cloud. Joyent provides infrastructure for some huge applications on the web. He disagrees with Carr's view that the cloud will be dominated by a few small companies and sees it as a more heterogenous beast. It was kind of fun to listen to an industry insider throw around jargon like "cloud stack" and "cloud primitives." A couple quotes:
cloud computing=aggressively distributed
a cloud should abstract away all consideration except the application and its operation
Young seemed a little concerned that some cloud providers where creating a situation where they would lock users into their platform...perhaps Amazon is trying to do this with its EC2 virtual machines. He said that Joyent's philosophy was "openness is lock in," akin to Southwest Airlines' flexibility in reservations. Using open application stacks like RoR keeps users the more data users put on your servers, the less likely they are to move (the dirty secret of cloud providers).

Finally, we heard form Lee Dirks of Microsoft's Education division. He said that MS sees academics as "extreme information workers." Microsoft has developed a few open source applications based on their Sharepoint platform that are designed to facilitate research, including software that can do conference planning and facilitate peer review. I was a little skeptical of some of these scholarly collaboration platforms--how far beyond more generic collaboration software do they take it? I'd have to have a closer look.

The day ended with some heated dialogue about information privacy and security concerns when using SaS providers. Many of the CTOs felt like it would be a big hurdle to get their campus legal counsel to agree to putting their data on external servers, but pretty much all agreed that this was the direction things are going.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Economist article on cloud computing

The wife and baby are in Wisconsin this week visiting relatives while I head to EDUCAUSE in Orlando. There might be more blogging as a result.

The Economist has a piece this week on cloud computing. It's a pretty good overview of the concept for those who haven't been following it closely. Overall, however, I think it overemphasizes what I would call the raw, technical aspect of the phenomenon and under-emphasizes network-effects angle.

The idea of highly flexible computing power is a pretty cool one, and the piece cites an Amazon Web Services case study demonstrating just that. Using AWS, a Washington Post Engineer built a digital library of a massive collection of potentially newsworthy government documents about Hillary Clinton in nine hours. What a contrast to the timelines we're used to in libraries!

The most powerful aspect of the cloud computing phenomenon, in my opinion is the aggregation of data and the network effects that rise as systems get larger. The key feature of a cloud application is that it's data is part of a greater organic whole, and that it's able to do things that an isolated application can't. This is where the distinction between Web 2.0 and Cloud Computing gets fuzzy. The piece starts to touch on this concept when it brings up Tim O'Reilly
A raft of start-ups is also trying to build a business by observing its users, in effect turning them into human sensors. One is Wesabe (in which Mr O’Reilly has invested). At first sight it looks much like any personal-finance site that allows users to see their bank account and credit-card information in one place. But behind the scenes the service is also sifting through its members’ anonymised data to find patterns and to offer recommendations for future transactions based, for instance, on how much a particular customer regularly spends in a supermarket. Wireless devices, too, will increasingly become sensors that feed into the cloud and adapt to new information.
We now use Mint to track our home finances...for some reason we didn't like Wesabe. It knows how to categorize purchases on our credit card statement because it picks up on the ways other users categorize purchases with similar labels. Much nicer and easier than using Quicken used to be.

The piece brings up a concept of "industry operating systems" that will arise to allow businesses to become more modular and flexible, while relying more heavily on the services of others.
Both trends could mean that in future huge clouds—which might be called “industry operating systems”—will provide basic services for a particular sector, for instance finance or logistics. On top of these systems will sit many specialised and interconnected firms, just like applications on a computing platform.
This is interesting to contemplate. You could almost argue that Flickr fits this model. It provides the basic operating system and then so many other firms jump in and provide specialized services image service: prints, calendars, cards, etc. In this case the industry is totally virtual.

I liked this quote:
Twenty years ago, he argues, 80% of the knowledge that workers required to do their jobs resided within their company. Now it is only 20% because the world is changing ever faster.
There's a parallel here with libraries. We've seen a similar flip in terms of information residing in-house vs. outside. We're preparing students for the business world where information is also in the cloud.

I've been reading the Economist for 20 years now but I've come to realize that they are a bit technologically stodgy. Their online stories have no hyperlinks within them.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

thoughts ahead of NITLE Cloud Computing Event

I'm attending the NITLE "Changes in Provisioning and Supporting Enterprise Technology Tools" event at Rollins College next week. The leader of the even t asked us to send our comments and questions ahead of time, which I have neglected to do up to now.

This event is devoted to discussing the implications of the "Big Switch" for information services at liberal arts colleges. What are some of the big issues in my mind regarding this transition?
  • I see strong parallels between the challenges faced by libraries and IT departments in the move towards cloud computing. The web has allowed the aggregation of more and more content via licensed electronic resources. Along the same lines, IT departments now have increasing opportunities to purchase software as a service from companies like Google.
  • It is questionable how much value the library and the IT department can add to these external services and content. In order to be viable, we need to demonstrate our expertise in the selection of these services and in their integration within our local environments.
  • We also need to educate our communities. We need to work on raising expectations about what's possible with the extremely deep and powerful resources emerging on the network.
  • IT operations and libraries face increasing competition from "free" consumer oriented services in the cloud that compete with institutionally provided ones: Google Docs vs MS Office, Google Scholar vs library research database, Google Books vs. library catalog, NetVibes/Voicethread/Google Groups, ____Web 2.0 app vs. of Blackboard, Flickr vs. of ContentDM, Google Research vs. DSpace, etc.
  • With the web as the medium, it becomes that much easier to take the IT department (or the library for that matter) out of the loop when provisioning software or academic content. The HR department, the development office, or an academic department can select content or services over the Internet that meets their needs. User communities for cloud software and services can easily transcend institutional boundaries and make what used to be isolated choices seem less so. Nick Carr recently discusses how cloud computing is exerting a centripetal force throughout the web as a whole, with a trend toward centralization. In the context of an organization, it's exerting a centrifugal force: it is now much easier for a department or professor to deploy a multi-user application (eg VoiceThread, a NITLE favorite) without the participation of the IT department.
  • In some ways, small colleges should be able to benefit from these developments, as they decrease our competitive disadvantage due to our size. With more and more resources on the network, we should be able to provide "research level" computing and library resources. In the fast changing environment, should also be nimble enough to capitalize on opportunities quickly.
  • Open source projects like Moodle have worked well in the last decade, but in some respects they will have trouble competing against network level applications that feature a single, continually updated installation and benefit from the network effects of a centralized user base. Open source projects need to be reinvented to take advantage of the cloud computing model.
I have a feeling that some of the event will be devoted to discussing the practical application of some of these "cloud" applications like Google Apps for education.

As an example from the field, I would offer our library's transition to WorldCat Navigator for the Summit consortium and soon WorldCat Local for our local catalog. It's a move that moves our library catalog functionality from our local ILS server to a network level application. As I've discussed in previous post, it's as much about sharing data as it is about sharing an application.

Friday, October 10, 2008

system migration therapy

I just came across this advice in an email from Kyle Banerjee regarding the upcoming Summit Migration to WorldCat Navigator:
The stages of migration

Having been through a few major systems migrations, I think that you'll find this process easier if you're aware of certain stages people naturally go through.

The first stage consists of unfavorable comparisons of the new system to the old system. INN-Reach is good at what it does. People know its strengths and know how to get the most of it. Especially in the beginning, staff will naturally think about Nav the way they do about INN-Reach. Since Nav doesn't do some things the same and its strengths will be different, staff will quickly discover weaknesses while not being able to capitalize on the strengths. Some staff may use the system in a way that magnifies these differences. This stage is typically accompanied by nostalgic sentiments towards the old system, negative feelings for the new system, and a high level of stress.

In the second stage, people start getting used to the system. They learn how to do what they need, discover a few neat tricks, and develop workarounds for the weaknesses discovered in the first stage. During this time, people settle into a groove and things operate smoothly. Feelings towards the new and old system become more balanced as people perceive them as the different beasts that they are.

In the third stage, people figure out what the new system does best and reconfigure their workflows to maximize the system's strengths while minimizing the impact of its weaknesses. By this time, people see the migration as a positive event, and many can hardly believe the things they used to do.

Most of you have undoubtedly been through at least one migration and probably recognize the stages listed above. My point is that if you feel stressed at the beginning, it's important to recognize this is a natural part of the process. Things won't just get better -- soon enough they'll be better than they've ever been.
I wonder if Kyle offers therapy sessions for working through these stages? Seriously, though, I think he speaks the truth.