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Record Crowd Attends 2009 Merit Member Conference

ANN ARBOR – A record crowd of over 200 information technology professionals from organizations across Michigan came to Ann Arbor on June 11-12 to attend the 2009 Merit Member Conference, Merit Network’s annual two-day networking and technology conference.

This year’s event featured over 40 presentations and discussions spanning a wide range of topics in information technology, providing attendees with opportunities to discover new ways of implementing technology, learn about leading-edge research applications, and much more.

Keynote Address

Richard N. Katz, vice president for EDUCAUSE, delivered the keynote address, providing his thoughts on how technology is changing the landscape for higher education.

Katz described how networking is playing a greater role in higher education, with the movement towards cloud computing and the continued growth of online education. Technology has broken down barriers, he noted, enabling start-up organizations to compete with universities in online education and erasing geographic boundaries. Universities and community colleges are no longer limited to their campus locations to educate students, and the limitations of distance and geographic location in reaching students will diminish even further in the coming years, possibly even in K-12 education.

Katz also touched upon the impact of retiring baby boomers during his address. The competition for top academic and research talent is beginning to grow among universities, both in the United States and abroad. Attracting and retaining top talent will become an even greater necessity for higher education organizations as the Baby Boomer generation retires and the available talent pool shrinks.

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Featured Speakers Inspire Creativity and IT Strategy

During his lunchtime address on the conference’s first day, Dale Dougherty, editor and publisher of MAKE magazine, discussed the do-it-yourself mindset and how people gain knowledge and satisfaction through making things. People can be “makers of things and not simply consumers of things,” he said.

“There’s a real personal satisfaction with the things you make. It’s also how people see you,” Dougherty explained.

He described how advances in technology, like the Apple computer, are often achieved when people are inspired to make things for their own enjoyment, share them with others, and later use their work as the basis for companies. Makers can learn by hacking existing items and changing them to fit a different need or by building something entirely new.

“It won’t be long before people are hacking their cars, their houses, and other things,” he said.

During his presentation, Dougherty showed footage of Maker Faire, an annual event that takes place outside of San Francisco. The festival recently attracted 70,000 inquisitive and inventive individuals to view things others have made, share their knowledge, and inspire new ideas. One video clip included Jimmy Kimmel’s visit to Maker Faire and his funny observations about several one-of-a-kind creations, including a robot-driven chariot and a puppy monorail.

Planning and building an information technology (IT) strategy was the focus of a Friday-morning featured presentation by Brian Voss, vice chancellor for information technology and chief information officer for Louisiana State University (LSU). Voss explained that IT is not ancillary, but is a strategic asset that effects all parts of a university campus.

“Like the BASF quote,” Voss stated, “IT—we don’t make the university, we make the university better.”

An IT strategic plan should be community driven, and he encouraged IT executives to “hit the ground walking,” in order to find out what is going on around the campus and who can be drawn into the plan-creation process as an ally. A successful plan is also limited in scope and details, focusing on the desired outcomes and building justifications for information technology, he noted.

Voss thoroughly described the IT planning process and implementation strategy at LSU over the last four years. He noted how the IT area greatly benefited from a windfall of campus improvement funds following Hurricane Katrina and how the economic downturn of 2008-2009 has dramatically altered the focus of IT planning. The implementation of an IT strategy is not only impacted by the administration, faculty, and student population on a university campus, but by economic and political forces beyond a university’s control.

Discussing Broadband Stimulus Funding

Since its passage in early 2009, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) has stirred serious discussions around Michigan in regards to funding broadband development. An early morning session at the Merit Member Conference allowed individuals from higher education, K-12 education, libraries, and government to exchange ideas on possible benefits of stimulus funding.

Don Welch, president and CEO of Merit Network, opened the forum with an overview of the stimulus funding available and Merit’s stimulus proposal plans. Welch welcomed feedback and ideas from attendees, and the discussion covered concerns about open access at libraries and other broadband initiatives around the state.

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Merit Advanced Networking Symposium

For the third year, researchers within Michigan were invited to share details about their academic projects during the Merit Advanced Networking Symposium.

The challenges of designing energy efficient data centers were discussed by Thomas F. Wenisch, assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of Michigan’s College of Engineering. By 2011, 2.5 percent of the nation’s electricity will go to power data centers, more than what will be used to power color televisions in the United States, at a cost of $7.4 billion.

Wenisch outlined PowerNap, a new approach being researched at the University of Michigan, where servers go to sleep for fractions of a second when not in use. This technique can reduce power consumption by 76 percent. He also described the practice of using several smaller servers to replace a large server to reduce power usage.

Another session focused on the use of technology by postsecondary education, presented by Eric Dey, Mary Antonaros, and Molly Ott from the University of Michigan’s School of Education. The research team talked about the MScribe project, which recorded a classroom session for either web streaming or podcasting, using infrared cameras to follow the movements of a lecturer as he or she taught in front of a whiteboard. Videos recorded as part of the MScribe project were later made available to the students who attended the participating lectures.

The results of the study showed that students who attended MScribe courses were more active participants in their classes, not concentrating on taking notes as the instructor talked. Since students were free to go back and take notes from the video recorded during class, notetaking during the class period was not required.

For the final session of the Merit Advanced Networking Symposium, Shawn McKee, research scientist at the University of Michigan, discussed his experiences as part of the ATLAS high-energy physics experiment and other projects.

The ATLAS project is one of the largest research projects in the world, and researchers are tracking the results of proton collisions during experiments at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Geneva, Switzerland. The LHC project produces about a billion proton collision events per second and five to 10 petabytes of data each year.

The 2000 physicists around the world who are part of the ATLAS project use research and education networks, including Merit Network and Internet2, to transmit and access large amounts of scientific data. Other network uses include remote collaboration, videoconferencing, and remote instrument control.

McKee also discussed his work on sophisticated network research projects, such as the UltraLight Project and the TeraPath Project, and the use of perfSONAR on Internet2 to quickly diagnose network problems.

Covering a Wide Spectrum of Technology Applications

Each year, the Merit Member Conference includes informational presentations, case studies, and demonstrations on security, advanced applications, instructional technologies, and networking techniques. Sessions are led by industry experts and individuals from the Merit Network community, who share their experiences and knowledge with colleagues.

Some of the presentations included:

  • Eli Neiburger, associate director for IT and production at Ann Arbor District Library, showed how videogames can be used to attract more patrons and fulfill a modern media appetite.
  • Dan deBeaubien, director of information technology services and security at Michigan Technological University, described the costs and benefits of establishing a large storage cloud.
  • Implementing an Avamar backup system for a multi-server, multi-platform environment was discussed by Benjamin Jellema and Brian Lagoe from Eastern Michigan University.
  • Jamey Fitzpatrick and Greg Marks of Michigan Virtual University (MVU) provided an overview of MVU and demonstrated how an online course is developed.
  • Dr. Charles Antonelli, assistant research scientist at University of Michigan, gave an overview of mobile device security threats and demonstrated different methods to improve laptop protection.
  • The methods of notifying a campus community about an emergency were outlined by Bob Eluskie, director of enterprise infrastructure for Grand Rapids Community College.
  • Bill Ott, information systems manager for Grand Rapids Public Library, demonstrated Evergreen, an open-source integrated library system, and talked about the benefits of open-source software.
  • Marianne Smith, Christian Todorov, and Ann Doyle from Internet2 discussed how the advanced national research and education network can be used for cutting-edge applications, research, and collaboration.
  • The implementation of a unified messaging solution was discussed by Eric Grandstaff, Chet Jessica, and Glenn Cerny from North Central Michigan College and Bryan Berry from AllComm, Inc.
  • Karl B. Zager and Sri Chalasani from Plante & Moran offered advice on protecting data and how to respond to a network breach.

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This year’s event also included presentations about new technologies by representatives from sponsoring organizations and discussions about Merit Network services.

During the final session, Don Welch, president and CEO of Merit Network, acknowledged the contribution of individuals who have assisted networking in Michigan and made significant contributions to the Merit Network community:

  • William H. Gnodtke, chairman of the Mackinac Bridge Authority, was honored for his organization’s assistance in helping Merit link Michigan’s two peninsulas via fiber-optic cabling across the Mackinac Bridge.
  • Shawn McKee (University of Michigan) and Douglas Nye (MidMichigan Medical Center) were presented the Award for Innovation in Networking and Information Technology.
  • David Zenz (Hillsdale College) was given Merit Network’s Award for Community Building.
  • Pete Hoffswell (Davenport University), Brian Paige (Oakland University), and Michael Richardson (Regional Educational Media Center 1) were presented the Meritorious Service Award for their contributions to the Merit community.

Planning for the 2010 Merit Member Conference will begin this fall, and next year’s event will take place in June.