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Volume 96, Issue 2

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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.

IMAGE:  Greg Jackson
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 today.

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 better.

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 help.

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— 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 data.

Where on campus is there wireless access?
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 network.

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.


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