Cloud Computing…Like a Rhinestone Cowboy

In 1975, the Pittsburg Steelers played the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl IX (the Steelers won).  Glenn Campbell’s Rhinestone Cowboy was the year’s #2 hit, and Jaws the top grossing film.  These are a few fun facts I found during a web search of “1975 pop culture.”  It took my search engine  .17 seconds to find over 600,000 results and another couple of minutes to sift through a few of them.

How did we get to a place where facts cataloged into digital form can be retrieved in less than 0.17 seconds?

Innovations such as fiber optics, the UNIX operating system, TCP/IP, the Mosaic browser and Moore’s Law have been key ingredients in the growth of the Internet. But the need to connect and collaborate has been a more fundamental driver, particularly in higher education which, in its quest to advance research, has a legacy of cross-university collaboration.

So it’s not surprising that many of the innovations contributing to the growth of the Internet have come from college and university labs. For example, collaboration between researchers at Stanford University and DARPA (an agency of the U.S. Department of Defense) resulted in the creation of TCP/IP, a common standard for network interoperability.  The adoption of this standard helped advance research by laying the foundation for higher education and government research networks to interconnect.  Work on TCP/IP began in the early 1970s and in 1975, the year of the Steelers and of Rhinestone Cowboy, a two-network TCP/IP communications test was performed between Stanford University and University College London. Eventually, these research networks interconnected with commercial networks using TCP/IP, which spawned the commercial Internet and the rest is history.

We Have Standards

Our colleges and universities continue to drive discovery. This past year, the National Science Foundation and National Institute of Health together granted over $30 billion in research funds to assist in advancing discoveries in science, engineering and other disciplines. In addition, research environments continue to improve, as do modern scientific instruments, which have become incredibly sensitive and are able to generate huge volumes of valuable data.

As a result, researchers are faced with a new problem: How to consume the vast amounts of data generated in today’s labs?  In response to this challenge, researchers are expanding the size of their teams to help analyze data. This poses yet another problem.

How do you securely establish access to research data, particularly to team members from another university or college? “Sponsor Accounts” is one solution, where temporary user IDs and passwords are established for remote team members. However, the administration and security of this approach have come into question in recent years, particularly by auditors.

The higher education community, through Internet 2, has addressed this problem by creating the InCommon federation and the Shibboleth single sign-on open source software. Members of InCommon federate with each other, using Shibboleth to facilitate the sharing of data.  Once in the federation, a member university provides information on the identity of its faculty member or student and his or her privileges to another university’s resource (whether it be an application or a database).  The resource consumes the identity information and grants the user access.  All of this is facilitated via a SAML based identity management model used by Shibboleth.

Back to the Future

In higher education, the need for compute power and storage has never been greater. Most colleges and universities have their own network of data centers that use server virtualization software and storage area networks to help control costs. However, the ever-expanding amount of research data is putting pressure on higher education IT staffs to find ways to compute and store this data in the midst of dwindling budgets.

Commercial cloud computing services offer an option as many of these solutions allow the customer to “spin up” a server on demand through a pay-as-you-go model. However, there is concern in the higher education community that vendor cloud solutions lack interoperability standards – the same situation that drove the research community to develop open networking standards in the 1970s.

Internet2 is advancing a project called ‘Internet 2 Open Cloud Experiment’ to address the lack of cloud computing standards.  This project is working to advance the adoption of identity management standards (InCommon and Shibboleth) and performance protocols (perfSONAR) into vendor cloud computing services.   This initiative may help drive commercial vendors to join InCommon and to incorporate Shibboleth as part of their cloud service offerings so that the higher education community can take advantage of commercial cloud computing without having to change their single sign-on environments. This could help academic researchers store and analyze more data, thereby helping to advance scientific discoveries.  Imagine the possibilities…. It’s like 1975 and TCP/IP all over again.

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