Tuesday, May 29, 2012

If I Could Do It Again...

Lately, we have been doing some concept work at UGA EITS around Amazon Web Services (AWS) and what its cloud computing, storage, and other services could mean for us. I am very intrigued by the possibility of moving from a model where we throw large one-time dollars ($) at capital needs, buying capacity for some hypothetical peak use that happens sparingly. This approach also drives our software licensing costs through the roof, because those licenses are also specified for the maximum peak usage scenario. I wonder, with most UGA students now gone for the summer, how many servers in the data center are sitting idle?

As we have been thinking about the possibilities of leveraging AWS, I have been reflecting on my experience bringing up the IT infrastructure for a new college of engineering in Qatar (2003 – 2007). Today, the IT infrastructure in place at the Texas A&M University branch campus there mirrors what you might find at any university. There is a data center, many racks of servers, a SAN for storage and backup needs, and a large high performance computing center to support faculty research. Had cloud-based services like AWS been viable in 2003, how might things have been done differently?
  • Our network design and implementation plan would remain unchanged. Getting the Qatar Foundation and Qtel to give us two OC3 equivalents to the United States, connecting to Internet2, was a brilliant move by Pierce Cantrell and one that continues to pay dividends. 
  • For authentication and identity services, we would have extended current LDAP/Kerberos/Active Directory services from the main campus into an AWS EC2 instance and then down to a local physical server in Qatar (as opposed to bringing up our own AD forest). This would allow employees to authenticate with the credentials they already know and would have allowed us to get better economies of scale around identity management.
  • For employee email, we would have adopted Live@edu because it works better with Microsoft Outlook calendaring. For students, we would have put them into the student email system from the main campus (instead of bringing up a separate physical Microsoft Exchange instance supporting everyone).
  • No way to get around the need for a local file server (because of network dependency and latency issues), but one physical server acting as an AWS S3 Storage Gateway would make sure that all files are automatically backed up to the U.S. For PCs and servers (virtual and physical) an AWS based solution like JungleDisk would also ensure that backups automatically reside in the U.S (as opposed to a tape backup system in Qatar).
  • All application servers, database services, Web servers, and the like would be delivered through AWS EC2 and RDS instances (as opposed to bringing up dozens of physical servers). In regards to PCs, the traditional desktop model would reign – network dependency and latency issues would make virtual desktop computing too risky. 
  • In regards to high performance computing, faculty researchers with the need for parallel processing capabilities would have been handed credits for AWS EC2 instances and S3 storage (as opposed to building large computing clusters physically). For faculty whose research required large shared-memory computing, such as that for visualization, a large shared memory machine physically on the ground would be required (as was implemented in Qatar).
Nine years of technological evolution, together with an identical amount of experience and maturity on my part, would lead me to take a fundamentally different approach to building out the IT infrastructure for this campus. In the end I would expect that services would be more flexible, require less upfront capital investment, and benefit from more efficient and productive disaster recovery / business continuity mechanisms. But the real benefit is this - instead of spending so much time on physical IT we might have been able to focus just a little bit more on the people side of IT. That’s what makes the adoption of cloud-based services like AWS truly compelling.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Taking Things Away

This past weekend, I caught a Tweet by my good friend Nancy Hays (@EDUCAUSEEditor) mentioning Thomas Friedman’s latest missive “Do You Want the Good News First?” Friedman describes changing economic conditions as our world shifts from one based on one-to-many exchanges to a world where central authority has been eroded and decentralization rules on a massive scale. Friedman’s points are simple: first, that we need to recognize those shifts and embrace them; and second, we must continue to build a strong economic foundation by investing in education and research which, together with a prudent immigration policy, will allow us to take better advantage of these shifts.

So, just what are these shifts?
As CIO’s we are not immune from these forces. We have to focus a little less on the traditional responsibilities of resource allocation and policy enforcement (i.e. gatekeepers) and become stewards of innovation and conveners of important conversations on campus. We also have to stop doing things that matter less in order to invest in things that matter much more. Some of our collective opportunities include:
  • Email and storage services – if you are not out of these businesses yet you are late to the game. Microsoft and Google are ready for you.
  • BYOD is a real possibility – but proceed carefully in concert with your students and faculty. We’re not too far from the day when we can begin decommissioning most of the large computing labs that have been built over the past fifteen years.
  • Data centers – cloud computing is becoming more viable so start your research now. At some point in three, five, or seven years it will be time to decide that we no longer have to run large data centers when Amazon, Microsoft, and IBM can provide utility services that scale at an incremental cost.
As we take things away, it is critical that the underlying resources be shifted to those things that are real differentiators for higher education. Your campus network, its backbone, and its connectivity to the world has never mattered more as online collaboration between faculty and students drives revolutionary changes in learning. And having accurate and timely information, flowing from centrally supported administrative systems, has never been more important for academic and administrative decision-makers. Forward-thinking CIOs will be the ones who stop doing lots of things in order to shift scarce resources to these critical areas.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Yes, I believe Platform APIs Should be Protected by Copyright

I am not sure how many takers I have when it comes to the principles espoused in last week’s blog regarding intellectual property protection in a many-to-many world. To respond to some would-be criticisms of these ideas, let me be precise about my thinking.
  1. No, I don’t believe that every.toString() interface should be protected by copyright. I am being very specific when I use the phrase “platform APIs” and by that I mean the entire set of APIs that constitute a platform. It is the platform and its corresponding APIs that I believe deserve copyright protection.

  2. In the case of platform APIs, I believe that the definition of infringement should be narrowly construed to apply only to those instances where a party’s reverse engineering of a platform is motivated by a desire to avoid negotiating with or obtaining a license from the creator / owner of the platform. In the case of Oracle vs. Google, I am persuaded that this was the case.
I’m not convinced by those who would suggest that extending copyright protection in this way would make the use of programming languages unworkable, particularly concepts like inheritance. Nonsense. Every time I install a set of developer tools, including open-source tools, I have to agree to a click-through license agreement. Thus, when programming I am already doing so through a license agreement with the intellectual property creator / owner. And for those intellectual property owners who would seek to use such protections to engage in abusive or monopolistic practices, I remain confident that free market forces would deter such behavior. Nothing destroys a platform’s viability more quickly than engaging in behavior that drives developers away. At a minimum, the situation would be no different than what we experience today when vendors seek to lock customers into their hardware or software platforms.

But what about the traditional distinctions between copyright, which is thought to protect creative expression, and patents, which is thought to protect unique functions or processes? A traditional view would suggest that APIs do not represent creative expression in the same sense as music or literature, and that patent law is more applicable to the functions and process represented by platform APIs. My response is this, that the traditional distinctions between copyright and patent protection are best suited to a world dominated by one-to-many relationships or one-to-many economic exchanges, where there are consistent and regular vertical and hierarchical structures that protect the rights of intellectual property creators (or at a minimum deter would be infringers). But in a world of many-to-many relationships, or a world characterized by many-to-many economic exchanges, the sometimes chaotic forces unleashed by widespread availability of cheap storage, digital distribution, and technical know-how requires a different approach (see this blog post). Dealing with these forces have left intellectual property creators to do things that make little sense and could actually stifle innovation (through patents on things such as one-click shopping). They need better avenues to protect their innovations.

At a minimum, I am deeply troubled by the prospect of individuals copying the APIs of an entire platform, and reverse engineering the implementation of those interfaces, when their primary motive is to avoid obtaining a license from the intellectual property creator / owner. We need a better way to protect the efforts of intellectual property owners while also creating an environment where those creators feel free to innovate. The long-term viability of a dynamic and growing economy depends on it.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Rethinking Intellectual Property Protection in a Many-to-Many World

When it comes to the partial verdict in the Oracle vs. Google trial, I am pleased with the jury decisions thus far. This dispute, over whether the reverse engineering of platform APIs amounts to copyright infringement, may prove critical as we seek to reconceive what intellectual property protection means in a world dominated by many-to-many exchanges. Here is where the case is as of today.

  • Oracle has enjoyed a partial verdict. On the first critical issue, whether Google infringed on Java's platform APIs, the jury rules in the affirmative – a resounding victory for Oracle.
  • On the second critical issue, whether the copying of platform APIs can be considered “fair use”, the jury deadlocked – which some feel is a win for Google.

In the past, when vertical one-to-many exchanges were typical, the very nature of efficiency and productivity yielded more centralized authority that was better able to leverage monopoly power in the protection of intellectual property (see this previous blog post for more context). In today’s world of many-to-many exchanges, facilitated through the speed and efficiency of the Internet, power is much more diffuse. When it comes to the protection of intellectual property, the availability of low-cost storage, software for dissembling and removing digital rights protection, and ease of know-how, has rendered traditional barriers to copyright theft less than effective.

In one sense, broadening the definition and applicability of copyright and patent protection is one solution and the partial decision in Oracle vs. Google reflects that approach. Should the judge ultimately find that platform APIs are subject to copyright protection, this decision would allow intellectual property creators to stand on firmer ground when seeking to establish control over the use and distribution of their innovations. In regards to the second key issue – whether the copying of APIs amounts to fair use of intellectual property, the court should stand down for now. Deciding this issue might inevitably tip the scale too far in the favor of either intellectual property creators or those who use or distribute their innovations. The judge in this case would be wise to put the case back in the hands of both parties for a negotiated settlement - under the threat of resolving the remaining issues in an unfavorable way for all parties. Doing so would leave the resolution of this dispute in the hands of free market participants who can best settle their claims through negotiation.

These are critical issues. One thing that has helped Western economies remain the traditional anchors of innovation has been a rich tradition of protecting the rights of intellectual property creators. Absent such protections, the innovative engine powering our economy could be at risk. While the world of many-to-many exchanges is fast eroding traditional notions of power and authority, we would be wise to not let this erosion undermine intellectual property protection. Our economic vibrancy depends on it. 

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

"Don't Dictate, Facilitate"

Last August, Andrew Barbour (see "An Issue of Credibility"), executive editor of Campus Technology asked me if I would be willing to write an op-ed on the changing nature of IT leadership in higher education. This is a real honor for me personally and professionally. It was shortly after the start of this year that I turned to the task of writing this piece, doing so while I was also putting together a planned keynote for February on the changing nature of higher education. The topics dovetail well: both IT and higher education are in a symbiotic relationship and are working through the ramifications of shift from a world based on one-to-many relationships to a world based on many-to-many relationships. The final piece, "Don't Dictate, Facilitate" hit the physical shelves and online world today. Here's a brief introduction.

As IT professionals, we are just starting to come to terms with what the internet has truly wrought. For the better part of 10 years, we viewed the internet age as a shift from a bricks-and-mortar world to an online, digital world. CIOs and their IT organizations expected to be at the forefront of the resulting transformation of higher education. We were wrong.

To a large degree, "Don't Dictate, Facilitate" creates context for understanding the principles on IT leadership and organizational change first laid out in "A Roadmap for IT Leadership and the Next Ten Years" and "Technical Skills No Longer Matter". I do strongly believe that we are just at the cusp of radical change for both IT organizations and higher education. What we have been through the past five years doesn't even begin to scratch the surface of what is to come. IT organizations, in my view, have a simple choice: adapt to the economic scarcity, decentralization, and decentered authority flowing from today's many-to-many world or wither on the vine. This, I believe, is the challenge for IT leaders today.