Trail-Blazing the Cyberinfrastructure Road

© 2008 Patrick Dreher and Guy T. Almes

The text of this article is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/).

Trail-Blazing the Cyberinfrastructure Road

Patrick Dreher and Guy T. Almes

Patrick Dreher is Director, Advanced Computing Infrastructure and Systems, at the Renaissance Computing Institute. Guy T. Almes is Director, Academy for Advanced Telecommunications and Learning Technologies, at Texas A&M University. Dreher and Almes serve as Co-Chairs of the EDUCAUSE Net@EDU Campus Cyberinfrastructure (CCI) Working Group.

Comments on this article can be sent to the authors at dreher@renci.org and galmes@tamu.edu and/or can be posted to the web via the link at the bottom of this page.

In early 2006, the EDUCAUSE Net@EDU community formed the Campus Cyberinfrastructure Working Group (CCI). The mission of the CCI is to help higher education institutions develop campus-based CI strategies and plan their IT and networking and other resource deployments in this emerging and evolving technological landscape. These activities may include sponsoring conferences and workshops, producing white papers and documents on these topics, and interacting and closely cooperating with federal funding agencies and other sponsors to ensure that grants for research and educational activities target the key components and essential CI tools, methods, and technologies. CCI members contribute their expertise and time to these projects and studies to provide information and recommendations to their colleagues who would like to develop institutional CI resources and capabilities.

In August 2006, members of the CCI Working Group met in Snowmass, Colorado, for a workshop, sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF), to help define the scope of campus cyberinfrastructure. From that meeting emerged what the CCI has termed the “Five Pillars of Campus Cyberinfrastructure,” along with a long-term roadmap and strategy for the working group to build the information and programs needed to advise and galvanize the EDUCAUSE community on this vital, emerging topic (http://www.educause.edu/ir/library/powerpoint/CSD4625.pps).

Workshop attendees identified the following Five Pillars:

  • Campus Communities and Constituencies: Be an enabler for partnerships with researchers, not just an IT cost center and/or service provider.
  • Computing and Communications: Identify opportunities, synergies (grids), economies of scale for high-performance computing, research networks, and enhanced support facilities.
  • Information Management: Implement strategic planning to address the various aspects of data creation, storage, handling, retrieval, distribution interpretation, security, and research data policies, including partnerships and opportunities with libraries and repositories.
  • Virtual communities: Offer opportunities for scholars to partner with IT organizations to create the software environments that facilitate discovery among distributed communities.
  • Partnership Strategies: Craft proposals and relationships that enable partnerships among researchers, colleges and universities, and funding organizations to enhance the nation’s cyberinfrastructure (local, state, federal, international, private).

Since the Snowmass workshop in August 2006, the CCI has moved forward with plans to focus on the application of one or more of these pillars to timely and relevant cyberinfrastructure-related topics of interest to the EDUCAUSE community. As a starting point, the CCI created two focus groups:

  • Business Models for Data Centers. The purpose of this focus group is to explain to higher education administration leaders the importance of having a sustainable data center model for recovering costs and sharing data center resources. At present, many campuses have data centers that are inadequate for the rapidly increasing demands being placed on them. Lower costs for hardware, hotter electronics, and greater densities for rack-mounted servers, especially in "cluster" configurations, combined with the increase in computing demands, have led to a need for more data center spaces. Data centers that are capable of supporting current and predicted heat and power demands are expensive facilities to build and maintain. Justifying investments in this area may be difficult. This focus group is putting the finishing touches on “Campus Cyberinfrastructure and Data Centers,” a document providing recommendations on how CIOs can develop business models and proposals, in terms of cyberinfrastructure, for the development of the next generation of data centers and how to approach a data center project.
  • Defining Cyberinfrastructure for Campus Leaders. This focus group was charged with developing a set of summary points designed to help CIOs engage their colleagues on the intricacies of cyberinfrastructure and how it will make a difference in their work and the institution. The original idea was to create “a five-minute conversation” about cyberinfrastructure, with the thought that someone could grab a colleague’s attention during a short elevator ride. However, given the expansiveness of the CI topic, the group agreed that the final product was more appropriate for a discussion when stuck in an airport between connecting flights. The focus group wrote an EQ (EDUCAUSE Quarterly) article, based on their white paper, for the Spring 2008 issue (http://connect.educause.edu/Library/EDUCAUSE+Quarterly/CreatingaFiveMinuteConver/46601).

As the CCI convened more meetings, its members realized that the broader, non-R1 community, including many institutions that were just beginning the planning and implementation of cyberinfrastructure on their campuses, could use assistance in getting started. Based on feedback from the EDUCAUSE community, the CCI members crafted three new focus groups:

  • Framing Cyberinfrastructure. The purpose of this group is to create a set of guidelines to help campus officials: (1) assess their involvement in cyberinfrastructure based on local considerations (or academic agendas); (2) identify integration points with national cyberinfrastructure; and (3) plan the development of their campus cyberinfrastructure. To do this, the group is creating a document that contains questions for assessing campus readiness for cyberinfrastructure, a list of possible CI touchpoints, data on CI components installed at other institutions, and a guide for engaging campus leaders.
  • Information Management. The focus of this group is to collect information and draft a summary of data-driven CI activities pertaining to higher education institutions. The plan is to include an overview of national initiatives; economies of scale, access mechanisms, and funding models for campus storage; and policies, procedures, and best practices for provisioning, access and retrieval, interoperability, ID management, curation and preservation, and security.
  • Outreach to Federal Funding Agencies. A third new focus group was initially designated to explore outreach to federal funding agencies, with the expectation that initiating a conversation with government colleagues would help ensure that future funding programs would target the vital CI components that are needed for tomorrow’s students and researchers. This focus group was reabsorbed into the full CCI, and an alternate plan to address these issues was implemented.

From the outset, the CCI recognized that a number of federal agencies have made, or are making, substantial investments in key components of the national cyberinfrastructure and that CI investments are under way on various campuses. Leveraging these investments requires a coordinated effort at multiple levels. This conversation needs to include the resources of the campus researcher or principal investigator community, central campus IT, and external providers of CI services and resources beyond the geographic boundaries of the campus. Identifying possible options and implementations in order to build a coordinated cyberinfrastructure not only will benefit individual researchers and their institutions but also will position the United States to lead in interdisciplinary scientific discoveries, to accelerate innovation, and to drive economic development.

As part of these efforts, the CCI is partnering with the Coalition for Academic Scientific Computing (CASC) to cosponsor a two-day workshop on the following topic: “Developing a Coherent Cyberinfrastructure from Local Campus to National Facilities: Challenges and Strategies.” Both CASC and CCI believe there has been insufficient planning directed toward implementing a seamless cyberinfrastructure among individual principal investigators, central campus support organizations, and national facilities. This is an opportune time for all of us to come together, both to discuss these CI challenges and to draft a strategic document to address these issues.

The workshop will be held July 22–24 in Indianapolis. Participants will discuss the emerging national requirements for a pervasive, coherent, tiered cyberinfrastructure. The goal of the workshop will be to develop a draft working document for discussion among the full membership of both CASC and CCI. Specific draft suggestions and recommendations will

  • lay out the basic arguments for a pervasive national CI strategy,
  • include short-term and longer-term recommendations and actions that will enable CI implementation on campus,
  • promote funding agency, foundation, and institutional CI coordination, and
  • develop a draft set of building block suggestions and recommendations for enhancing funding agency, foundation, and institutional CI coordination and implementation.

As the critical nature of cyberinfrastructure becomes more pervasive within the higher education community, so too will the efforts of the CCI Working Group and EDUCAUSE intensify. Recognizing the need to have more members of the EDUCAUSE community involved with cyberinfrastructure, the CCI will evolve into a broader EDUCAUSE initiative after the EDUCAUSE annual meeting in Orlando in October 2008. Although the exact organizational structure of this new group is still to be determined, it will owe its genesis to the input and hard work of the members of the Net@EDU CCI Working Group. In the meantime, we will concentrate our energies on wrapping up the projects of the focus groups and, in the process, creating what we hope will serve as building blocks for future community-wide efforts.

For more information on the efforts of the Net@EDU CCI Working Group, see http://www.educause.edu/cci. For additional resources on cyberinfrastructure, see http://connect.educause.edu/term_view/Cyberinfrastructure.