IBM Grant Gives Students the Power of Creation
Trying to access mathematics professor John Ringland's university Web site using Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser software returns the following error message:
"You are using software from a company that does not conform to reasonable standards of civilized behavior. Please consider using a non-Microsoft browser (and operating system)."
Ringland is part of a small but growing group of UB faculty who would like to see UB take part in the open-source software (OSS) movement, which allows programmers around the world to download, modify and use computer software free of charge, as long as the software's source code - essentially blueprints written by programmers - remains available to the public. Linux operating systems, as well as file sharing software Limewire and the popular Apache Web server, sprang from the open-source software trend.
That group will now be given a chance to practice what they preach. IBM has partnered with UB's Center for Computational Research and a group of student enthusiasts to implement Linux in both molecule modeling supercomputers and students' desktops.
IBM has donated equipment and software for 5 to 6 computers to be used in a laboratory where student Linux enthusiasts can further develop a specialized Linux package for UB students and other applications, according to Charles "Corky" Brunskill, director of Science and Engineering Node Services and leader of the burgeoning UB Linux group.
Brunskill said the grant for the lab, which would likely be placed in the Ellicott residence hall complex, is part of IBM's initiative to build both its Linux operations and involvement in the education sector.
"It's in their best interest to get as many users as possible interested in Linux," said Brunskill.
He said the idea for the lab sprung from his awareness of the "amazingly dedicated minds," many of them residence hall residents who were creating their own projects and makeshift Linux support groups. Giving students the chance to create their own tailor-made operating system was a logical progression of events.
"I've seen that there are some really bright ideas [in the dorms] that have a lot of potential," said Brunskill. "If you invest your time and efforts into something, you have a pride of ownership . why not use something that we own?"
Along with the student lab, IBM is working with the CCR in creating a Linux-based computational grid to manage the various bioinformatics supercomputing resources around Western New York.
CCR Director Russ Miller said the majority of its most-used cluster systems, which group numerous commercial processors together, are managed by Linux software, as are the majority of these systems worldwide.
"The vast majority of our projected growth in supercomputer this year will be Linux-based," said Miller.
UB contracted with Microsoft in fall of 2001 to provide software for its students and faculty for approximately $492,000, around 20 percent of the retail cost for each software package, according to Rick Lesniak, director of academic services for Computing and Information Technology.
Ringland and others see the university's licensing agreement with Microsoft as a hindrance to the very nature of academia.
"My feeling is that at the moment, it's not gumming up the works, but that's where it's headed," Ringland said of the Microsoft campus agreement. He believes that along with the Microsoft deal, a slew of federal copyright legislation such as the Digital Millenium Copyright Act and Systems Standards and Certification Act represent an "enormous, tectonic change in the way information is delivered."
"It's a serious impairment to scholarship and transparency of information," said Ringland. "The only way to retain control is to use OSS."
Rob Curcio, a senior civil engineering major and one of the leading members of Brunskill's Linux team, feels Microsoft's restrictive licensing methods often lead many students to obtain its operating systems through less than legal means.
"The advantage of Linux is that everything is legal," said Curcio.
Lesniak said that although the campus deal has saved UB over $100,000 in software costs, Microsoft's "mercurial" method of continually revising licensing contracts is souring IT professionals at UB and nationwide.
CIT administrators thought they would be able to copy their own discs with Microsoft's software to save on costs, but later found that Microsoft had decided it would not allow it and instead copied media for almost 10 times the cost to UB, according to Lesniak.
"That's not fair, and that's really causing us to rethink our Microsoft deal," said Lesniak. He believes, however, that there is currently room for both Microsoft and OSS solutions at UB.
"Personally, I think it's good for us to have both the Microsoft license and a growing Linux team," he said.
Many believe that similar practices by Microsoft in the single-user domain could initiate a larger crossover to Linux. The most recent release of Microsoft's operating system, Windows XP, must be registered with the company's headquarters in Redmond, Wash. If the software is re-installed, moved or altered significantly, random checks against the computer's identification features brings the software into "reduced functionality mode," with the user unable to save or create new documents until the user registers with Microsoft again.
Microsoft representatives would not comment on campus licensing policies or XP's security features.
Curcio said one of the main goals of his Linux development group was to create an alternative to a Windows-based system for entering students. UBMicro now offers, through Dell Computer Corp., a Linux-compliant computer, and Curcio hopes that incoming freshmen will soon be able to obtain the "UBLinux" software and a CD with popular tools just as easily as a Microsoft package.
"We don't hate Microsoft people, but with Linux, it's an added tool we can use in our education," said Curcio. "We want students to have an alternative [operating system] in case they can't or don't want to pay for Microsoft in the future."
Brunskill believes UB's mission should be to provide students with a wide variety of options when it comes to operating systems.
"We expect our students, this being a university, to be able to go from platform to platform comfortably," said Brunskill. "To certain groups on campus, that's sacrilege, that we shouldn't have one easy system for everybody."
Even the most adamant OSS faithful admit that Linux may not be for every student, however. Ringland believes that many students may ask, "Why take the risk" of switching to an unknown system. Curcio equates using Linux and using Windows to "flying an airplane and driving a car."
"When it comes to ease of use, Linux is not even a player," said Lesniak.
Curcio believes there is a growing interest in Linux and OSS among students, and the IBM lab will only bolster their numbers.
Out of 650 students polled by CIT in 2001/2002, 4.2 percent said they used Linux or other open-source operating system. A single posting on an online forum for UB students regarding a Linux club at UB gathered Curcio the e-mail addresses of 60 UB students within two days.
"My attitude is that CIT should've done this a long time ago, create something student-run and give them more tools for their education," said Curcio.