Tune in, turn on
Greg Jackson, vice president
and chief information officer, oversees the University’s information-technology
resources—computer hardware and software, e-mail, networks,
and phones. He came to Chicago from MIT in 1996 as associate provost
for information technology; before MIT he taught at Stanford and
spent 11 years at Harvard, teaching and as a technology consultant.
Illustration by Allan Burch
Chicago’s Networking Services and Information
Technologies, which Jackson runs, has a $70 million annual budget
and a 300-person staff. Between managing daily crises—viruses,
worms, and system-clogging movie downloads—Jackson focuses
on a larger goal: advancing academic life through technology.
What are the financial
priorities for the University’s electronic resources?
The boring—but important—priorities involve infrastructure:
making sure the network runs efficiently, modernizing administrative
systems, getting good deals from vendors. Most of our resources
go there, our goal being to make sure tomorrow is pretty much like
The interesting priorities more directly involve
the University’s core missions: teaching students and advancing
knowledge. Although most research technology is managed at the departmental
or lab level, instruction is a central priority: we invest in systems
to help faculty organize and deliver teaching materials over the
network and to increase the use of multimedia. We also create learning
spaces such as media classrooms and student computing clusters.
What are some of the academic
tasks students can now do online?
These days students do most of their academic-administrative tasks
online: finding classes, registering, getting materials, adds and
drops, looking at grades, getting transcripts. They’ve been
doing that for about four years now, although the systems keep getting
Recently we’ve seen more use of multimedia—both
through Chalk, where faculty make class materials and discussion
groups available to students, and in students’ own work, which
increasingly includes movies, live links, and other things my college
papers never had. We have high demand for multimedia equipment and
The Library also has expanded its electronic
resources dramatically—online journals, an online catalog
with live links, scanned images of rare materials, you name it.
What kinds of tasks can
students look forward to doing online in the future?
We’ll see lots more instant messaging, and not only to coordinate
meetings at Jimmy’s. We’ll see more dissertations that
contain films, animations, simulations, even 3-D projections, and
I imagine some of them won’t contain text. The key thing will
be to maintain our core learning focus; online discussions and arguments
are a wonderful supplement for classroom experience, but rarely
are they a full replacement.
How much activity does
the system see?
The main Web server averages about half a million hits a day. The
central mail servers—mail addressed to uchicago.edu—
receive half a million messages a day. There are about 20,000 devices—computers,
printers, routers, Web cameras—connected to the network, and
about 20,000 phones, for about 13,000 or 14,000 people at the University.
How does Chicago keep up
with increasing demand?
We keep adding to our network capacity, and that’s partly
electronic and it’s partly physically putting stuff in the
ground. When the quads were dug up this summer, for example, conduits
were put in that we don’t need now, but eventually we’ll
run fiber through them.
The real issue concerns increased off-campus
traffic, for which we have to buy expensive capacity. In the past
several years we’ve more than quadrupled the capacity of the
commodity Internet connections, meaning everything but research
connections. Those connections cost us about $400,000 a year, and
we keep needing more. Although some commodity traffic benefits the
University directly, a lot is people moving movies around, sharing
music, or gabbing with friends. It’s harder to argue that
we should be spending money for that, but there’s no easy
way to separate entertainment from work.
How many hacker attacks
does the network receive? How do you combat them?
It depends what you mean by hacker attack—certainly a couple
of hundred a week. Many are essentially automated. There will be
news of a weakness in an operating system, so someone will write
a program that finds a computer with the weakness and automatically
looks for other computers with that same weakness. It installs itself
on those computers and repeats the process. By the fifth infection
it’s all automatic. So the volume of attacks is largely because
there are all these vulnerable computers out there.
Major new attacks, on the other hand, come at
a rate of about two a month. There were six or seven over the summer,
for example. Blaster is one, Nachi is another, the I Love You virus
was further back. Nachi and Blaster cost us about $400,000, mostly
in paying staff to scratch and restore computers.
To combat attacks we first try to educate people
to keep up antivirus software, to not run unnecessary services,
to not let their kids install games they’ve never heard of.
Those things can open up vulnerabilities.
We also do an enormous amount of intrusion detection.
We have listening posts scattered over the network, watching for
abnormal activity. They’ll zero in on where such activity
is coming from, and we’ll take a close look at the offending
machine from the network. If the activity matches a known pattern
of compromise we’ll pull the machine off the network. We pull
about 100 machines off the network every week this way. If it’s
a really dangerous vulnerability we’ll pull machines off the
network before they get infected.
If someone’s machine is compromised again
and again, he or she will be called in for a conversation with a
dean or a boss.
Have people ever tried
to break into the system to, say, change a grade?
Very few. We see more concerted attacks on any system that’s
running certain kinds of databases, and there people are clearly
trying to steal identities. To combat such attacks, a new set of
rules will go into effect in January for machines with sensitive
Where on campus is there
Most public places have wireless access—all the Library public
spaces, Bartlett, Ida Noyes. The plan is to have all major public
spaces done by next year and then gradually do all the academic
buildings internally. Otherwise people will run their own devices,
and if they don’t set them up carefully anyone can use our
What is the University’s
policy for downloading music and movies?
Whether one likes the law or not, it’s illegal even to possess
an unlicensed copy of a copyrighted work. Most students who download
a piece of music rarely get found. It’s when people make their
collections available to others—as peer-to-peer services do—that
we have a problem because if they’re distributed over our
network, then under the law we’re liable, unless we instantly
make it stop whenever we get a complaint. So when we get a DMCA
complaint—Digital Millennium Copyright Act—we act on
it immediately, removing the offending computer from the network
and initiating disciplinary proceedings or guiding repairs as appropriate.