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Driving IT Innovation and Network Innovation

From early mobility projects to high-bandwidth research networks, IT--and Tracy Futhey--move the campus forward at Duke.

As CIO and vice president for Information Technology at Duke University (NC), Tracy Futhey oversees technology projects that have far-reaching impact on instruction, research, and the way people live and work on campus. While recently she is most often cited for her work with Duke’s iPod project (, dubbed the iPod First Year Initiative, Futhey’s professional interests have spanned a range of innovative technologies, especially networked and mobile technologies. At Carnegie Mellon University (PA) in the ’90s, her projects included work on Wireless Andrew, an early campuswide wireless deployment, and on Handheld Andrew, which foreshadowed some of today’s emerging network and location-based services. Today, in addition to her role at Duke, she is board chair for National LambdaRail (, the national optical research network. Her overall goal to “create dynamic research and learning environments” is met by innovation and enthusiasm both at Duke and at peer institutions across the country.

How have networked environments at colleges and universities changed over the years, and what are some of the biggest opportunities that have opened up? The biggest opportunity relates to broad access to these networks and the experimentation that has become possible as the networks have moved from being specialized—only available to a few— to true commodity networks. I was involved in the Wireless Andrew project at Carnegie Mellon University [nearly 10 years ago]. At that time, the idea of 802.11 wireless and what one would now consider to be broadband wireless access, was something that people in the mainstream simply didn’t recognize as having the potential that it eventually turned out to have. Then, it was really a tough sell to get people outside of the research community, and outside of some of the student community at CMU, to realize that being able to walk around with your laptop and be connected by the network was extremely powerful. Many had been using computers in a network desktop environment and thought that was perfectly adequate.

So the networked environment itself encourages experiment? The networked environment is an enabling capability that pushes people to try new things. There are new things that one might be compelled to do because of that mobility. I think of location-based services and context-aware applications—an entire applications area only emerging as a result of the mobility that’s being created by networked environments and the pervasiveness of networking. The more you’ve got broad access and experimentation through this commodity network—be it 802.11 wireless, or cellular and wide-area networking—and the fact that so many people are being connected so easily and inexpensively, without much effort, leads to a lot of individual situations where we can try new applications. These new uses are being tried by individuals who are not necessarily developers, but may be people who have a different perspective and a great idea worth trying. So, many of the changes I see relate not only to expanding access, but also to expanding the base of people who are trying to do different things because they are now enabled through the networked environment.

Who drives the experimentation? Students as customers, innovators in the IT department, or…? I would characterize that as having three major drivers, if one is to be successful in running a strong and forward-looking IT organization. One of those drivers would come from the students. And, increasingly, the students are coming in with more and more experience in using technology, and huge expectations about what technology can do and about access in virtually every aspect of their lives. The uses they’re looking for when they start out are primarily convenience uses: They are used to buying books from Amazon, and paying bills online. So we have to think, how do we make the campus operate efficiently and effectively in an online environment? And students’ willingness to adopt new technologies is a critical aspect of that first driver.

You mentioned the IT organization and its innovation in pushing ahead. That is the second leg of an important support structure. But a third one you hadn’t mentioned, that is absolutely critical, is the push and drive that needs to be coming from the faculty. And that relates to the use and support of technology both in the classroom and in the research environment. It’s the one that in many ways has driven us at Duke: Last year, with our iPod First Year Experience, and in the coming year, with the Duke Digital Initiative; our program to continue the iPod use and expand into other technologies.

Is there a fourth driver that you characterize as strategic? It’s associated with the second driver, although not exclusively. Duke has, as part of its academic strategic plan, a goal and a commitment to utilize technology throughout all aspects of campus life and the campus environment—be that in the classroom, in the research setting, or in the co-curricular aspects of student life. I view that as an institutional driver, one that I have to be constantly mindful of; one that I have to encourage and enable through the IT environment, providing support for both the faculty and the students. But whether you count three or four legs, they are all certainly necessary.

How is the iPod project expanding into the Duke Digital Initiative? Over the past year, the iPod project has made clear to many of our faculty and in many of our courses, the value of digital audio in a whole host of domains. And those who have started to use the iPods have said, in a large number of cases, that this has been an important enough experiment that they absolutely need and want to continue it. And we’ve had interest from other courses that haven’t yet tried it.

At the same time, part of what our evaluations identified last year is that, as great as the iPod experiment was for digital audio access, we had people who wanted to do things that aren’t confined to digital audio: digital video, tablet computing, collaborative areas. So we are continuing and expanding the project, adding the focus in those new areas. We are also shifting the project from class-based to coursebased, so that any student iation?n any year of his or her undergraduate program here at Duke, who is in a course using the iPods, would receive an iPod for that relevant coursework.

Please tell us about national and regional networking initiatives, specifically NLR and Internet2: What are the latest innovations, and what will keep momentum moving toward building services for all institutions? We’re making wonderful progress on the national, regional, and campus level, to start to take advantage of the newly available optical networking capabilities. We’re moving from the promise and the dream to the reality of having very high-speed access from end to end—one campus to another, one researcher to another— that was historically only practical to expect within campus lab environments. The projects that are going on now at the national level include NLR and Internet2. I2 has a project called HOPI, hybrid optical packet infrastructure, that is using NLR infrastructure. That and other projects at the national level are going to be introducing a whole new set of capabilities for faculty researchers. The regional build-out of optical networking has really been impressive over the last couple of years.

For me, one of the key elements in participating and moving those initiatives forward is providing faculty on our campuses with the best access to research capabilities and the fewest barriers to collaboration as possible. It is often the case that collaboration within a particular discipline occurs across campus boundaries rather than within a single department. So, through the high-speed optical capabilities that we’re trying to introduce, we can make sure that a faculty member at Duke, for example, can communicate and network with research faculty at the University of California- San Diego site, the other supercomputing centers, or you name it. I’m able to make sure that faculty have such capabilities on this campus, and to collaborate with their colleagues at other campuses, without regard for the fact that Durham, NC, where Duke is located, has historically not been viewed as the networking center of the world.

What can be done with grid computing, to improve research computing environments for our campuses? Grid and cluster computing are having an impact, not only within the research lab; they are also providing important opportunities for faculty to collaborate across disciplines. If we do it right, we’ll create opportunities for computing organizations to have a rejuvenated research computing support environment for faculty.

Cluster computing, for example, takes significant effort and system management to support; in some cases, faculty don’t want to do that themselves. So, as a central computing organization, figuring out how we can support our faculty, and creating flexible models to do that, creates an important opportunity for faculty and IT department interaction.

You’ve been involved in significant network innovations. What have you learned about the nature of innovation? The most critical thing is tied to relationships with faculty. In general in universities, in running our computing organizations, we don’t take as great advantage as we might of our faculty’s experience and experimentation. In terms of a strategy, I’m very big on the notion of working with faculty; meeting with faculty in your computer science and engineering departments, in your school of medicine, in art, in any domain, and understanding what capabilities they need or may be creating. That’s the key to innovation: viewing technology not simply as infrastructure, but as the gateway that can help provide faculty and students with advanced capabilities. It’s not one-size-fits-all. There’s got to be collaboration and connection with the academic units, and with the faculty in particular, to understand capabilities and needs, and design around them.

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