Leveling the Field in the Cloud

Charles Border

Associate Professor
B. Thomas Golisano College of Computing and Information Sciences
Seminar in Cloud Computing, Research Methods, Principles of System Administration, and Thesis
Various; Graduate and Undergradute

The Cloud is expanding the reach and ability of users around the world, and Charles Border is an enthusiastic advocate of the cloud in education and beyond. He is preparing his students to create cloud systems that allow users all over the world to take advantage of many different types of applications and data sets without specialized equipment or software.

First by co-designing his own cloud, then by collaborating with RIT’s Information Technology Services, and finally by utilizing a public cloud with his students, Charles is preparing his students to work creatively to serve users in new ways.

Teaching and Learning Goals

Charles started using cloud computing in his classes in 2005, when he worked with a student to develop a prototype private cloud. Charles states, “The original ideas came from a grad student whose project was to find all the different ways that this thing could not be done. We figured that the last one standing was the way that it could be done.” The strategy worked because his early version won a VMware award for Innovation in 2007.

This first cloud system let students work on virtual machines on their own PCs. To increase the systems capabilities, Charles worked with the ITS team at RIT to create a private cloud, the Remote Laboratory Emulation System (RLES) with a goal of enabling his students to work outside of the lab and still access the computer systems they had in the lab.

The next step was moving classes to the Amazon Web Services (AWS) cloud. This expanded the reach of his classes to international students on RIT’s campuses in Dubai and the Dominican Republic, as well as other locations. In addition, it lets students work with industry-standard systems—the same ones that they will use in the field.

Moving from the RIT/ITS system to a public cloud meant giving up some degree of control, but Charles says, “sometimes what you have to do is let loose and trust in the future… So we did that and it’s worked out very, very well.”

Teaching Strategies and Tools

Using cloud-based computing enables Charles’ students not only to work anywhere, but to do so with the systems that they will use professionally after graduation, two aspects of the cloud that students appreciate.

Charles shares:

“But the thing that I really like the best about it in my interactions with students is the creativity that it brings to the equation. Too often our industry is thought of as being very formulaic and very cast in stone, but cloud computing is a great opportunity for students to exercise their creative muscles and to be innovative and do creative things that they never could do in the past.”

Students learn the fundamental technologies and then the enabling technology that together make the cloud something more than a group of computers that they can access remotely. According to Charles, “Having access to a public cloud gives you abilities that you just don’t have any other way, and this is particularly important when you think about our distance programs."

This change is important enough that Charles and his colleagues took the advantage of calendar conversion to refocus the program on cloud-based systems to educate “system administrators who are not just the regular run-of-the-mill system administrators, but have a deep relationship with cloud computing and an understanding of the technology that makes it all so useful.”

Experiences and Results

About 100 students work in the private or the public cloud each quarter. The demand from the students to work in the cloud is very high—they want to be involved in it. The next challenge for his students will be how they will work with people in other domains to use the cloud to make great amounts of information available to people all over the world.

Charles views cloud computing as a tool that is already having a major impact on the world:

“One of the most interesting things about the cloud these days is that it’s a great equalizer between the developed world and the developing world. In the past, the main applications… on the internet that’s made it attractive have been assembled and developed in the developed world because we’re the only people who have had had access to adequate data centers to house these applications. But the cloud opens that up completely and gives people in the developing world access to world-class data centers that they’ve never had before.… And that’s where we have to be involved with our international campuses to give them access to this technology, to help them understand the impact that it can have on their lives and their cultures as we go forward into the new internet age.”

He also points to the way that cloud computing allows professionals in other disciplines and domains new ways to work with information—for example, the human genome and U.S. Census data is available through the Amazon Cloud.