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Research Report: Campus bridging and leadership

The Ambassador Bridge from Michigan Central Station.
© Christopher Allen, 2009

How should the university campus interface with national cyberinfrastructure (CI)? What role should the university play? These are questions that matter, which is why iSGTW staff were pleased to see this second report on campus bridging. This report focuses on engagement with campus leadership. Read on for iSGTW’s summary of the report. You can also read our article about a similar report on how software and services relate to campus bridging.

The rapid expansion and application of computational hardware and storage capabilities across the spectrum of academic disciplines is a strong testament to the fact that numerical calculations, simulations, and electronic storage and analysis of data have become central components to most fields of scholarship and research in the 21st century. Today it is common to have large virtual organizations tackling research topics, and learning communities using social networks.

What is campus bridging?

The goal of campus bridging is to enable the seamlessly integrated use among: a scientist or engineer’s personal cyberinfrastructure; cyberinfrastructure on the scientist’s campus; cyberinfrastructure at other campuses; and cyberinfrastructure at the regional, national, and international levels; so that they all function as if they were proximate to the scientist. When working within the context of a Virtual Organization, the goal of campus bridging is to make the ‘virtual’ aspect of the organization irrelevant (or helpful) to the work of the VO.

–The NSF's Task Force on Campus Bridging

Yet to date, implementation of CI within and between institutions remains uneven and uncoordinated. For example, some institutions have not aggressively embraced new technologies. This uneven distribution of capabilities poses significant challenges for faculty and researchers as they strive to utilize, collaborate, and share a modern CI in support of their research and scholarly work.

To discuss these challenges and possible solutions, the Renaissance Computing Institute organized a workshop titled Campus Leadership Engagement in Building a Coherent Campus Cyberinfrastructure. The workshop was convened in Anaheim, California on 10-12 October 2010, preceding the annual EDUCAUSE conference.

The meeting explored how the 39 senior university administrators in attendance view CI challenges and opportunities on their campuses, as well as possible ways to bridge resources among various campuses and research institutions.


The following recommendations emerged from the workshop:

Recommendation 1: Campuses should support both individual and collaborative research activities at their individual institution. Towards this end, campuses should cooperate with other campuses and institutions towards the goal of providing their educators and researchers a seamless CI access and capability in support of collaborative research and education.

Recommendation 2: Campuses should develop and deploy a CI master plan with the goal of identifying and planning for the changing research infrastructure needs of faculty and researchers.

Recommendation 3: The NSF should, to encourage academic institutions to implement a CI master plan, fund a study and report on successful campus CI implementations in order to document and disseminate the best practices for strategies, governance, financial models, and CI deployment.

Recommendation 4: US colleges and universities should strive to include costs for research CI in negotiated facilities and administration rates. The resulting facilities and administration income from grant awards should be used strategically within the context of a campus CI master plan.

The remainder of this article summarizes the report that emerged from the workshop; it covers the current state of campus bridging, challenges and opportunities at the campus leader level for enablement of campus bridging in the university community, and the senior campus leadership advocacy role for promoting campus bridging.

The state of campus bridging

Our current research environment is influenced by the fact that limited, key opportunities to compete for large research grants hinge on successfully pursuing complex research questions, and these pursuits require very sophisticated CI. While opportunities (numbers of programs) for funding have increased, the increasing numbers of researchers pursuing these opportunities has increased at a far faster rate, resulting in vastly greater competition and distressingly low funding rates.

These trends lead to the idea of ubiquitous campus bridging and the interconnecting of departmental, campus, regional, national, and international CI resources. These CI resources include all computing, storage, and data resources that a research or education community creates and consumes to accomplish and publish their research and scholarship. The interactions between the resources and user communities are of utmost importance and have effectively replaced the old model where a campus is an island. This has profound implications for how we design, build, support, and use campus networks and other resources we traditionally have viewed with a campus-centric lens.

Challenges and opportunities for campus leaders

Cyberinfrastructure deployment and support creates interesting institutional challenges, but also offers significant opportunities. As the requirements of our communities evolve, the support fabric, both human and computational, must also adapt. Institutions must evolve in a challenging, resource-constrained environment, while simultaneously meeting the legal and operating requirements of day-to-day administrative computing [8]. Campuses are re-inventing themselves and incorporating large-scale research communities with exponential growth in computing and storage capability [9]. Efficient and robust CI design options must balance local cultural mores, institutional priority conflicts, and narrow definitions by which funding agencies consider what constitutes central support and direction.

Coherent computing and data infrastructure

There are a number of economic and sociological trends that have lead to the dispersal of computing equipment into independent, stand-alone facilities dedicated to a single purpose or researcher. While these trends are not trivial to overcome, there are compelling arguments to pursue the maximum scale aggregation that is practical for both computation and data environments. Those arguments scale beyond a campus, and economies of scale for state or multi-state resources are well documented.

Institutions are also beginning to recognize that we are moving to a write once and store forever model. One related challenge is managing the expanding risk that accompanies the exploding quantity of data. Perversely, this situation has not been entirely mitigated (and in many cases has been exacerbated) by trends in storage costs that have encouraged replication, as inexpensive consumer disks have permitted local storage of even greater quantities of data by individual researchers. Campuses may partially resolve this quandary through outsourced options or by constructing and managing centralized storage pools.

Digital curation and data services

The increasing rate of data creation is also stressing our ability to curate the resulting data resources. While the declining unit cost of storage has helped mitigate the direct capital investment associated with institutional storage appetites, it is clear that data creation has already scaled past our collective ability to manage metadata creation in an efficient manner. This is an entirely different facet of the research data challenge, and one that would benefit greatly from the domain expertise of campus libraries and leadership at a national level.

Data networking in research infrastructure

With the growth in data and collaborative research, network capacity has also become an important issue. It is an unfortunate reality of networking that the overall performance is governed by the least effective element along an end-to-end path. Thus, it is simply not possible to ignore institutional infrastructure when discussing overall CI capability.

At the campus level, most institutions do not present a uniform infrastructure to their communities; that is, a networking infrastructure with consistent, location-independent quality. The variability in the quality of local area networks, or “this-building” connectivity remains extreme, with researchers in adjacent buildings frequently experiencing vastly different capabilities. This handicaps the potential of faculty at arbitrary locations in the campus infrastructure, precluding them from leveraging remote resources supporting their research. Even worse, a significant number of campuses are disadvantaged because they lack high bandwidth backbones, high bandwidth external connectivity, or both.

While it is understood that there will always be select researchers with needs that exceed the average, it is vital that future campus infrastructure provide services that are largely decoupled from location. Failure to achieve this goal will greatly limit the emergence of CI-enabled research in previously CI-naïve disciplines, and prevent researchers in disciplines that are traditionally networking-intensive from remaining competitive.

Cyberinfrastructure support and expertise

The lack of readily available CI expertise represents a significant workforce development challenge. Consequently, we need to increasingly leverage the available expertise, both within a campus and bridged among campuses, and among CI projects.

A reasonable CI governance model will match the campus’ existing operational structures. One campus may have a distributed support environment based on revenue centers. Another might be considerably more centralized, and based on top-down funding.

Relationship of cyberinfrastructure and administrative computing

Another challenge is the exploding requirement for administrative computing services, which eat into the ability of campus technology support organizations to pay sufficient attention to the CI needs of the campus academic community.

It is also difficult to pair CI providers with the research community, largely due to political issues. For example, non-academic staff are often unable to participate in proposals, which results in the neglect of the “nuts and bolts” issues, and the creation of one-off research facilities. Proposals that don’t include members of the research community will often create a facility with no direct research community need.

Cyberinfrastructure governance models

From a governance point of view, bridging campus-to-national scale CI is a particularly hard problem. The reasons for these difficulties are based in the coupling of rapidly changing technology and rapidly changing scholarship requirements.

These disruptive changes do not lend themselves to a typical three-to-five year IT planning cycle, in either technology or financial dimensions. Senior institutional leadership must be able to react when a new research problem presents itself, and must also be able to adapt to new CI technology that can enable solutions to the problem.

The support fabric, that is, the corresponding governance and compliance processes and policies that also exist on each campus, must also adapt. We note that on most campuses, the governance and support models are far more rigid than is optimal in fluid environments. The senior administration must build flexible structures, processes, and support models that incent rapid adaptation to sudden and profound changes.

Financial structures in academic research

Financial structures and processes also affect campus and national CI. The systematic inclusion of CI costs (i.e. facilities and personnel) and the use of such funds for CI is important to making campus CI sustainable as research infrastructure over the long term. This should be done with care, but including CI costs as part of facilities and administration (F&A) calculations may be useful for universities and colleges not doing so now.

Advocacy and promotion

We must find ways to incent behaviors that create group success. This is not a natural act. If the future research directions require larger team (big science) projects to be effective, and if a given campus fails to enable its community’s participation, that campus will not succeed and the community will migrate to campuses that invest in effective resources. There is also inertia built into the academic community, and this must be overcome to change how a campus views collaborative group efforts and shared resources.

Senior campus leadership needs a set of principles outlining important CI topics they can effectively advocate. Federal agencies should have basic requirements and a vision where infrastructure needs to evolve over the next five years. This can provide a roadmap that a president or provost could use for policy, financial planning, and fundraising purposes. An additional set of guidelines might be helpful for provosts to use in the academic context.

National societies and organizations would also be part of the advocacy ecosystem. Campus leadership should engage advisory committees at the national level, and groups like the National Academy of Sciences, to advocate for the tools and facilities needed to advance our national science agenda as it relates to campus bridging.

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