CIO Davis discusses the 'web of things,' IT initiatives

"We didn't get the flying cars. We didn't get the anti-gravity suits or anything like that. But I think we got something that's actually pretty cool."

That's how chief information officer Jim Davis launched a Wednesday afternoon briefing on the future of information technology. The talk, held in the Memorial Union, was part of the Professional and Scientific Council's open forum series.

Following are some of Davis' observations about where IT is going, in general and here on campus.

The web of things

The "pretty cool" reference above was Davis' nod to a concept that has become known in recent years as the "Internet of things" or "the web of things." The core idea, Davis said, is that we have all kinds of different devices connected to the Internet -- implantable defibrillator devices, cars, washing machines, coffee pots.

"Interesting things are going on with the web of things," Davis said. "These devices are always on. They're always connected to one another in this information grid."

The good result is all these connections provide many services. The bad is the security issue, Davis said, citing a news story about a hacked refrigerator sending spam.

Universities find strength in numbers

Collaboration among higher education communities is transforming IT services, Davis said.

"Universities used to do pretty much everything ourselves," he said. "We either bought a system or we built it ourselves. It was a tremendous expense, a tremendous venture to try to do those things one at a time.

"In just the last few years, the higher education community figured out that if we banded together on these projects, we had a tremendous amount of leverage. Not only could we multiply each other's efforts to achieve some pretty amazing results, but we could actually impact what vendors were doing. We could get features that were needed for higher education applications."

Tangible results of such higher ed collaborations at Iowa State are:

  • CyBox, a storage system that meets FERPA security requirements
  • BOREAS, a high-capacity, go-anywhere fiberoptic network put together by Iowa State and the universities of Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin
  • Kuali business systems, developed by a consortium of 70-plus universities

"Rewriting business systems from scratch is not something that we'd want to do," Davis said. "But working together with other universities makes all the sense in the world."

IT's "to-do" list for FY15

Following are some key areas of focus for campus IT:

  • Improve the capacity and reliability of infrastructure. There are 80,000-100,000 devices on the ISU network daily.
  • Expand the wireless network. The plan is to go from 1,200 access points to 3,500 access points and, over time, move wireless from the "N" technology to soon-to-be-available "AC" technology. It's a $4.1 million investment and the group that administers student technology fee funds has agreed to provide $2 million -- if the rest of the funding is provided through the university budget process. "We're hopeful about that and we've started on some of the engineering for the new system," Davis said.
  • Continue to refine and build Kuali systems. The Kuali student project, which involves such things as curriculum management, registration and and academic planning, will be a longterm project and is in the planning stage now.
  • Work on efficiencies. One example is continued expansion of the central virtual server farm so that individual departments can rent (rather than buy) servers. Another is work on business processes to eliminate paper.
  • Improve classroom technology. Recommendations are due soon from a comprehensive learning needs assessment study done last fall.
  • Provide more research computing storage. "Our goal is to be very relevant to research faculty," Davis said. "The cost to achieve the scale needed today requires that we work together to leverage resources."
  • Explore Office 365. A number of universities are moving to Microsoft Exchange in the cloud. A pilot program is under way at Iowa State.
  • Improve information security. "We've got a new data classification policy rolling out. And we'll be taking steps to help the campus feel a bit more secure about sensitive university information," Davis said.