It’s Not Simply Infrastructure: Tracy Futhey Talks about Networking and Innovation

An Interview with Duke University’s VP for IT and CIO Tracy Futhey

Excerpted from an upcoming Q&A interview in Campus Technology magazine

Q: We’d like to ask you about national and regional networking initiatives, specifically NLR and Internet2: What’s been happening at those levels, and what will keep the momentum of these efforts moving toward building services for all institutions?
A: We’re making wonderful progress on the national level, on the regional level, and at the 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 National LambdaRail and Internet2. I2 has a project called HOPI, hybrid optical packet infrastructure, that’s 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 San Diego Supercomputing Center, or at other supercomputing centers or universities—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.

Q: What specifically 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. And if we do it right, we’ll create opportunities for computing organizations to have a rejuvenated research computing support environment for our faculty. Cluster computing, for example, takes significant effort and system management to support, and in some cases, faculty may not want to do that themselves. So as a central computing organization, figuring out how we can support our faculty, and being flexible in the models of how we try to do that, creates an important opportunity for faculty and IT department interaction.

Q: You’ve been involved in significant network innovations. What have you learned about the nature of innovation?
The most critical thing to me 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 maybe what capabilities they themselves may be creating. That’s the key to innovation: viewing technology not as simply 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.

Tracy Futhey will discuss “Technology Initiatives to Move the Campus Forward” in a keynote at Syllabus2005, July 24-28 in Los Angeles.

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