CLAC (Consortium of Liberal Arts Colleges) Annual Conference

I was at one of the best annual conferences – CLAC Annual Conference. This year it was held in Swarthmore College with a reception and a dinner being hosted by Haverford and Bryn Mawr College respectively. They belong to the Tri-College consortium, so it was natural that we were hosted in all three beautiful campuses. I love this conference for the networking opportunities it provides. We are very similar institutions in terms of the number of students, faculty and staff, the services we provide and the issues we face. But still there are considerable variations in what we do and how we are organized, so it is always interesting to exchange notes and learn from each other.

You can read my tweets from the conference here. (more…)

The World Wide Web of Answers – the Good and the Bad

I am still an active software developer! I love doing it and I can’t imagine a world or a job where I don’t have the freedom to practice that.  Of course, because of the nature of my job, I have to do it after hours and weekends etc, which I don’t mind because I just love doing it. The title of this blog is related to that and not anything wider than that. There have been so many cautionary articles written on how one should not trust everything on the web and I am not going there. I just want to talk about finding answers on the web as a developer.

I just marvel at how far we have come in the last 30 or so years. In my first job at Wesleyan University, I had to learn assembly language programming for the VAX/VMS system. I had a lot of experience  in higher level languages such as Fortran, PL/I. My PhD thesis was on computationally heavy systems that required a lot of distance calculations between atoms. Our group decided to speed that step up by coding that part in Assembly Language, but that was for an IBM 370. I also taught courses at Hunter College on this subject, so I was familiar with the concepts, but VAX/VMS is a very different system.

And in those days, if you get stuck, it was not easy to get answers! There were a LOT of bound manuals that you could look through, but it took forever to find the right answers. You can also call support, but they were of little help. In order for them to understand and help, they needed to spend a lot of time to look through your code etc. and they just couldn’t afford the time. In several instances, we would just give up and start over in a different direction.


Workday Student – an Important Milestone

Transition from one ERP to another is rare (at least until recently). When it happens, there is a sense of excitement, but a quick realization that it is an arduous task. Such transitions require careful planning as well as the cooperation of many members of the institution. And almost always, even the well laid out plans don’t always work, so, not letting the roadblocks that come in the way affect the morale of the team, but finding workarounds and the willingness to accept some compromises is essential. We experienced all of these during the past three years and I am very happy to say that we have achieved a major milestone and will begin the process of opening up Workday student in a couple of weeks.

It will be a phased approach whereby the students will begin using different features at different times. During the first phase, all students will have the ability to review their personal information and make modifications themselves. We have also moved the checklist for the incoming first years from a custom application to Workday.


My experience with Mobileye


My wife and I recently traveled in Israel and Jordan and during last couple of days, we rented a car to drive around Northern Israel. The vehicle had this little gadget stuck on the left side of front windshield. I had no idea what it was and as always, I told myself “we will figure it out”. It turned out to be the Mobileye!

I was pleasantly surprised by the various things it did, which I will describe first. Then, when we met up with my wife’s colleagues, I learned a little bit more about it. All of this was fascinating for me, so I thought I would share it with you all.


More Clever Phishing – Will it ever stop?

I have been too busy to write blog posts… I will be writing a couple of quick ones during my trip West…

We are being inundated by cleverer phishing attempts. Though our attempts to educate our users are helping, the new phishing attempts are essentially bypassing the safeguards that we have put forth and rely on social engineering.

Imagine getting a very short email from the President of the College or the Provost. Mind you, the hacker is careful to choose who to send it to. If it is coming from the President, the person has researched who are likely to be communicating with her – senior leaders, support staff etc., all of which is publicly available.  (more…)

Importance of Technology Investments – Amherst Network Issues

Amherst College, a premiere residential liberal arts college, lost network connectivity for almost a week. The college supported almost all of the technology services locally, which meant that pretty much everything was inaccessible for that period – Email, Learning Management System, Web site, administrative systems etc. And the faculty could not connect to the web from classrooms and students needed to use their cell phones to connect to the outside world. As one of them tweeted, students who could not afford to have unlimited data plans were limited from doing even this. You can read about the details here.

The IT staff did a remarkable job given the circumstances and had the community support all through, based on what I have heard. And I am so thankful for them coming out and sharing their experiences openly with their colleagues. This is so important for the rest of us to learn from, not just the technology piece, but how to best manage such a crisis.

What really happened? It is a complicated story on a lot of fronts, but the core issue that caused this outage is due to lack of investments in network hardware. Because they are still running on hardware that is pretty old, their network is configured as a “flat” network (Layer 2). Most modern networks are Layer 3 networks where we can segment networks based on a variety of criteria, such as a separate segments based on particular buildings, or connections from classrooms etc.

Amherst suffered what is called a Mac Flap Storm. Each network device has a unique address, called the MAC address and the networks operate under this uniqueness assumption to forward the network data to the appropriate device. Any compromise to that can “flood” the network and it is especially worst in Layer 2 networks. It will basically cripple the entire network. This can happen either because network wires create a short circuit or a misconfiguration either of which can advertise the same Mac address on two or more ports. This is most probably what happened in Amherst case. The worst thing about the MAC flap storm is there is no easy way to detect them!


Superbowl (Football) Memories

Congratulations to the Patriots on an incredible feat! It was one of the most boring and uninspiring games, but in the end, what matters is the score.

For me, this is Superbowl XL. The first superbowl I saw was in January of 1979, barely 5 months after I arrived in this country. As a young man thousands of miles away from home, deeply homesick, I needed distractions and sports provided that.  Just like the millions of young Indian men, I was a devoted fan of cricket at that time (and continue to be). Only issue was that cricket was not as abundant as it is today. And it was played all around the world in odd timezones. We used to be glued to short wave radios for commentary and read the newspapers for additional details and photographs. I come to the US where cricket was only known as an insect at that time and not as a sport!

I used to go every day to Indian Embassy, some 6 blocks away from Hunter College with the hope that they had “The Hindu” newspaper. This is a regional newspaper that covered Tamil Naddu, where I am from, and I enjoyed their Sports coverage. The Embassy typically had newspapers from approximately a week prior and The Hindu was not their priority because it is a regional newspaper. Imagine getting scores a week later and sometime missing a key day! It was depressing.

So, i gave in to learning about American sports. My apartment mate tried to teach me football by having me watch both College Football and Pro football on the tiny 13 inch black & white TV.  It is enough to say that he was much better at teaching me theoretical chemistry than football. I became friends with another Indian family in the neighborhood and that is where I learned the intricacies of the game.


My recent travel to India

A temple in South India built between 1003 and 1010 AD,_Thanjavur%5B/caption%5D

My wife and I traveled to India recently, a trip that I always look forward to. We spent time visiting friends and family, but we also had planned a trip to visit five Shive temples in the south referred to as “Pancha Boota Stalams“. They are manifestations of the five prime elements of nature: land, water, air, sky, and fire. In addition, we visited Manipal University in Karnataka. Though they are now Manipal Academy of Higher Education or MAHE, I prefer to refer to them this way for a couple of reasons. This is how we knew the institution when I was going to College in the 70’s. Secondly, MAHE reminds me something that sends chills up my spine 🙂

As I have mentioned before, we always sign on for the $10 a day International Pass from AT&T, which is very convenient because you are using your phone exactly like the way you do in the US. However, because our stay was a little long, we opted to get local SIM card (which is not trivial for foreigners, but because we are overseas citizens of India, we can do so somewhat easily) with the help of a relative. This got us off to a very smooth start in terms of communication.


Another year just went by!

It is true that when you are enjoying what you do, the time goes by fast! We are engaged in several major initiatives in Library and Technology Services and several of us are also involved in many other campus initiatives and projects.

Some of our colleagues have played a very important part in assisting with the Science Center Renovation as well as in supporting the reaccreditation activities.  This includes participation in multiple meetings regarding technology in the renovated spaces, be it faculty and staff offices or classrooms as well as provide data and narratives to those who are leading the reaccreditation preparations.

Not everyone is on the same page about wires in new spaces. Frankly, in our minds, we should take advantage of renovation to run conduits and run fiber even if there no immediate use because, in the end, that will be cheaper than scrambling to do this later. We have no idea what the needs of the scientists are in terms of computing and data access and network plays a very important part in all of this. For certain class of problems, wireless doesn’t simply cut it! However, budget and cost considerations are constant point of discussion during such a major project and our staff are doing a great job given how difficult things can be.

Several of the staff also played a major role in assisting with the move of the Science Library collections. They are distributed to other campus locations and remote sites. So far so good because almost 7 months later, we have not heard many complaints.


Best of Breed – Whats the problem?

I read the piece in New Yorker titled “Why Doctors Hate Their Computers?” and enjoyed it very much. It is by Atul Gawande who is a surgeon and an author. It describes the issues we all face every day – technology is changing fast and we want our respective communities to adopt them, but it is a monumental challenge. I am of course simplifying it, but thats the crux of it. There is one thing in the article that stuck with me – “Mutation and Selection”.

Basically the author compares how the medical profession operated under a very different paradigm early on, where, every physician basically operated independently that suited their particular modes of operation. This is mutation part. Electronic medical record (EMR) systems tried to bring standardization, better sharing of information amongst the physicians and most importantly, gave access to information to the patients readily. This is the selection part. Obviously this is not a trivial adjustment for those who operated independently and the fact the EMR systems, which are in their infancy, are not optimal. At least not yet.

Higher Ed institutions face exactly the same issues. The whole issue of centralization of systems is the “selection” part and the proliferation of multiple systems (Best of Breed) is the mutation part. What is the right balance between the two is so complex and dependent on the institution. But, the article describes how a neurosurgeon and his team is trying to “mutate” the “selection” system (EMR) so that their needs can be accommodated. This is what we would call customization in the old ERP systems, which turned out to be a terrible idea for a variety of reasons. However, in the more modern systems, such as Workday or Salesforce, accommodations to mutations are much simpler to manage through “configurations” and “business processes”. This would be a “controlled mutation” of sorts.

But, whats the problem with supporting best of breed?


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