The Department of Mathematics and Computer Science is very pleased to announce the introduction of LUCSCloud, the Lewis University Computer Science Cloud, powered by Christian Brothers Services. LUCSCloud will provide students off-campus access to the same environments with which they would work in the laboratories on campus. Up to 50 students at a time can use LUCSCloud to interact with environments specific to their classes. This limit will grow over time and the full potential of the platform is explored.
Cloud computing is a huge trend in IT generally and in Computer Science in particular. Computer Scientists have designed a modern interpretation of the mainframe computing model of the 1960s. Back then, the most common means of computing was for a central, physically imposing machine to do all of the computation and storage. Clients, working from so-called dumb terminals, vied for the attention of this large machine in the middle, using a technique called timesharing. (I hear the pool is kept at a constant 85 degrees and is glorious.) So, all of the calculations were done centrally, and the clients were responsible only for accepting requests from the users and displaying for them the results.
Fast forward to today, and you find nearly the same model used for cloud computing. An enormous machine (or, more accurately, a cluster of machines working in parallel, dynamically assigned parts of the task by a controller) work on problems submitted to them at some remote location on the internet. Users log into the services provided by these computing behemoths and then take advantage of much larger computing capacity than they, individually, can muster. In the vernacular, we refer to the central computing giants as operating in the cloud, this nebulous amalgamation of computing resources that can be deployed and redeployed based on customers’ collective needs.
What’s old is new again!
Nearly everyone has used the cloud to some extent, mostly to store electronic documents. Anyone who has used a web-based email client such as gmail or Yahoo mail is a cloud consumer. More sophisticated users have made use of web-based storage and authoring tools, like Google Drive, Dropbox, and Skydrive. Others have sought to fuse an electronic brain to their own brain by using one of my favorite tools for remembering everything, Evernote. These are all excellent cloud services that allow us to work, remember, learn, communicate, and play whether on the move or parked on the couch.
We’ll use LUCSCloud in our Computer Science and our Master of Science in Information Security courses to enable students to recreate the environment they’d experience in our labs even when they’re off campus. Rather than have to install software on their own machines and then wrestle with the vagaries that inevitably accompany differences in hardware and software configurations, students will simply be able to log onto LUCSCloud. What they’ll be doing is logging into a computing facility provided by Christian Brothers Services, an insurance provider based in Romeoville that, like Lewis, is run by the DeLaSalle Christian Brothers. Once they log in, they will be able to choose the environment that is appropriate to the course in which they are enrolled, launch that environment, and begin interacting with it as if that environment were set up on their own machine. Basically, they’ll be opening a window to a machine that is actually running tens or even hundreds of miles away. Rather than an actual physical machine with a separate hard drive, power supply, and Hello-Kitty-decorated case, the machine running at Christian Brothers Services will be a virtual one, automatically allocated from CBS’s immense pool of computing power.
Faculty and students are already using LUCSCloud. Our Introduction to Unix students are using an Ubuntu Linux virtual machine to learn the basics of operating systems and scripting. Our graduate students in the Wireless Security course are using an installation of the popular security toolkit Backtrack to learn tools associated with wireless password cracking and discovery. As the semester continues, and as we become more familiar with what LUCSCloud can provide, we’ll begin integrating this resource into all of our courses.
This isn’t our only cloud resource. Last year, CloudOne, an Indianapolis-based cloud provider that works in the IBM Development industry, donated a cloud of virtual machines to us, which we have used to teach students how to design and implement networks that consist of both local and cloud-based computing resources. We also have designed and built a local cloud server, redeploying a beefy machine in our server room to provide virtualization and distributed resources in our labs. Each of these three pieces of our cloud infrastructure fill a specific set of needs and enable us to provide students the comprehensive understanding of cloud computing they need as computer scientists.
LUCSCloud also provides an excellent example of how two Lasallian institutions can work together to further the mission of the Christian Brothers. The DeLaSalle Christian Brothers is a Catholic religious congregation of men dedicated to educating youth from all backgrounds. To do that, Lasallian institutions must constantly seek out ways to provide opportunities for its “customers” (in Lewis’ case – students, in CBS’s case – insurance clients) to improve their lives. CBS has made heavy investments in computing power over the years because providing insurance is an intensely data-driven endeavor. However, it doesn’t always need to use all the computing power it has. It often has reserve capacity, because the computing load demanded of its infrastructure doesn’t run constantly at peak. So, like Amazon, it decided to take that spare capacity and offer it to customers to use to serve their own computing needs. The Department of Math and Computer Science is now one of those customers. We get to use CBS’s spare computing cycles to teach our students.
LUCSCloud provides a model for how shared-mission entities can work together to serve their constituencies. More importantly for us as educators, it is going to provide great opportunities for our Computer Science students to use and become experts in the this back-to-the-future style of computing. That’s a win all the way around.