Archive for October, 2013

Re-configuring computer education

October 23, 2013

 

IT has been the largest generator of jobs in the organised sector in India over the past five years with about 3,50,000 jobs getting added every year.

  • The maturity of the Indian IT services sector,
  • The emergence of IT product companies from India,
  • The dramatic rise of smartphones / tablets and the huge Apps ecosystem that is driving these “post PC devices”,
  • Cloud computing entering mainstream, and,
  • The dramatic rise of “big data” and “Analytics”

are changing the talent needs of this growing industry.

Naturally, colleges, particularly the premier Institutes are looking at ways and means of responding to such changing needs.

A word of caution is in order. Any curriculum has foundational elements that address the long term needs of a professional who goes through 4-6 years of college education (Bachelors or Masters Degree) that is expected to provide the basis for the professionals 40+ year career. The curriculum must be relevant so that the college graduates can find themselves a meaningful employment in industry that employs them (barring a small number who take up academic / government / military jibs). Foundation and relevance are like the cake and the icing on the cake; both are important, but the proportion should not be forgotten. Countries like India have a history where low quality, fly-by-night operators mushroom everywhere, promising relevance (often at the cost of quality); and, Universities steeped in bureaucracy, turn a blind eye to relevance of the curriculum. Luckily, premier Institutes always had the right balance, though sometimes the industry fails to take notice of such response.

Every aspect of computing is getting affected in the past five years. For example,

  • Microprocessors are increasingly multi-core with application specific core (graphics, computing, networking) optimised to do the specific function; developers tomorrow must be able to leverage this “architectural” development.
  • From days of “memory crunch” we are into “memory abundant” days of computing; with FLASH memory entering mainstream, the primary and secondary memory separation is blurring. In turn, specialised applications like “data look up” can benefit from “main memory” computing, as opposed to retrieving data from any number of high-speed disk spindles.
  • Databases are no longer limited to “structured” data (where OLTP systems excelled), but moving to “No SQL data” that too of enormous size, often called “Big data” problem.
  • With Internet penetration increasing even in counties like India, wireless technologies like 3G, LTE and SDN becoming a reality, one finds abundance of bandwidth too (at least in countries like Korea).
  • With “Big Data” available instantaneously thru high-speed Net, “real time” Analytics is becoming a reality, at least in a handful of industry segments (Telecom, Retail and Banking).

Naturally, education of tomorrow’s IT professional has to factor in such changing developments.

How do Institutes of Higher Education address such changing demands?

Definitely, not by encouraging fly-by-night “training” outfits, but,

  • Carefully re-visiting the foundation courses (architecture, programming, compilers, operating system, databases and networking),
  • Integrating “cloud”, big data, Analytics, Apps development, Post PC devices, and,
  • Starting new elective courses that go into the details of Analytics, Cloud and Big Data.

In a sense, the foundation is tweaked so that the students see a continuum of ideas that have evolved; for example, cloud computing as a natural extension of distributed computing, location-independent hardware / software resources, compute elasticity, “eventual consistency” that is sufficient for many “Big data” problems as opposed to “every time consistency” needed by OLTP (banking, online trading, insurance). In the process, curriculum gets richer, relevant and interesting; with so much of online resources and free environments to experiment along with the advice of “open source” volunteers, learning can be far more fun and rewarding. Companies like HP and Infosys have domain experts who have developed courses in some of the emergent areas; Institutions do benefit from them. The maturity of cloud infrastructure permits the creation of “laboratories on the cloud” to test out many of the emerging ideas.

In short, the strategies uses to address the changing talent needs include,

  • Tweaking the curriculum
  • Benefiting from industry expertise
  • Utilizing “open source” materials
  • Leverage “cloud” to provide “on demand” laboratory resources

Professor Sowmyanarayanan Sadagopan is the Director of IIIT-Bangalore. These are his personal views. He can be reached at ss@iiitb.ac.in

(Appeared in “The Hindu Business Line of October 23, 2013)

Google Chromebook – has the affordable laptop for the common man arrived?

October 1, 2013

The Personal Computer revolution started in August 1981 when IBM launched its original IBM PC. Over the 32 years PC has grown a lot; more than 350 million PC’s are sold year after year. The performance of the PC has grown thousand-fold; millions of applications have been written for this dominant platform. At least for the first and second world countries, Bill Gates vision of PC in every desktop has come true.

 

PC has morphed in shape and form too. Originally a desktop, it changed in form to a laptop and notebook (some time back Netbook too) form factor that made the PC mobile inside an office / home. With Internet connectivity through phone line (earlier landline and currently mobile phone), PC has become truly mobile.

 

Laptop computers became specially attractive for small business / rural India / common man for three reasons;

 

  • First, desktop took to much space (not many rural homes had a desk in the first place);
  • Second, desktop PC needed continuous supply of reasonable quality electricity, that is simply not available in most parts of rural India; in addition, desktop PC consumed much larger amounts of electricity 100+ watts of power for PC compared to 20+ watts of power for a laptop.
  • Third, PC usage at home and office would necessitate double investment for hardware, and more importantly software for small businesses; in turn, even with marginal higher cost of laptop compared to a desktop PC of similar configuration, laptop was a clear winner.

 

That explains the reason why laptop sales have been increasing in India over the past several years. Yet, laptops were not easily affordable for the common man; Windows OS cost alone pushed the cost of laptop by a couple of thousands of rupees; laptop display of reasonable quality cost lots of money too.

 

Over the last decade laptop manufacturers have focused on reducing the weight and improving battery life. Unfortunately, the weight reduction has not been dramatic; nor has the battery life improvement; weights in the range of a couple of pounds and battery life of 8+ hours alone will be a game changer.

 

During the year 2007 there was a promise that Netbooks attempted. They were slightly less powerful Laptops, but they could not achieve substantial weight reduction; and, they had only 3-4 hours of battery life; Asus and Acer pioneered such Netbooks; unfortunately, interest in Netbooks receded by year 2010.

 

Starting in 2010, Ultra-books (promoted by Intel) started to show up and they started maturing by 2012. They could bring down the weight and increase the battery life considerably; unfortunately, they are still pricey (in the $ 1,000 range) unlike Laptops and Netbooks in the $ 300-600 range.

Apple MacBook Air used SSD dramatically to reduce the weight (1.5 kg) and increase battery like to 10+ hours; unfortunately, the price point $ 1,000+ makes it unavailable for the common man.

Chromebook from Google represent a new “avatar” for laptop computers. They run completely on Chrome browser that takes the role of could based operating system. With GMail for messaging, Google Docs for personal productivity (word processing and spread-sheet), GDrive as a File store, YouTube for entertainment, Google Calendar and Contacts for Personal Information Management, Google Hangout for Video Conferencing and Google Chat for Instant communications, all running on Chrome browser, Google Chromebook represent yet another viable alternative to traditional PC.

 

Launched in USA in 2011, the first generation was unavailable in India. Google launched in October 2013, a new generation of Chromebook including Acer C 720. Costing just Rs 20,000, Acer C720 represents a new hope for small businesses, individual professionals, students, faculty and senior citizens looking for an affordable Laptop.

 

The combination of Laptop form factor, reduced weight, Instant On, 10+ hours of battery life, excellent screen, full keyboard, cloud-based applications at no extra cost and an attractive price appears to be the “killer combination” that appears to favour Acer C 70 Chromebook as the “winner” for users looking for affordable and useful laptop. Of course, time alone can tell the real success story.

 

 

 

Powered by Intel processors optimized for power consumption, Acer Chromebook C 720 has 4 GB of RAM and 16 GB of SSD (solid State Device) storage that ensures “instant on”; its 11.6” display with 1366×768 resolution ensures you get excellent display for web-browsing, e-books reading, watching slideshows of photographs or full length movies and videos. Weighing 2.42 pounds with just 0.7” thick, it is convenient to hold too. With HDMI port, DS card, USB 3.0 port and 3.5 mm headphone jack multimedia is well supported by Acer C 720 Chromebook. Connecting to the Internet using Wi-Fi (that is widely available, thanks to BSNL Internet pack that addresses the “bottom of the pyramid” users), Chromebook is a full featured Laptop with a good screen, a large Keyboard and Touchpad (for “mouse” functionality), good multimedia support (audio speakers, video rendering) and USB port for additional storage, connectivity. Thanks to Google tools most users can do get most of their work done that includes personal productivity – word processing, spread-sheet, presentation using Google Docs, personal information management using Google Calendar and Contacts, communication (email using Gmail, Chat / Instant messaging and Video conferencing) using Google Hangout, Social networking using Google+, entertainment using YouTube and a whole range of Apps that run on Chrome browser. Google offers 100GB of Storage on Google cloud. Google Play store too is available on Chromebook. Google provides “offline access” for many of the tools including Google Docs and GMail.

 

In my trial over a week I found using Acer C720 Chromebook absolute breeze. It connected to my router the minute it was switched on and with my Google Account I could be productive in minutes. Mail access and browsing was fast; even YouTube videos rendered fast including some online News channels. My Google Calendar, Contacts were loaded instantly; so are my Google+ that one could get on to Google Hangout instantly. My documents, spread-sheets and pictures were all there on my GDrive. More importantly, after a week of usage in just a few seconds I could “powerwash” so that I was sure that there is no trace of my data left behind on the “demo machine” supplied by Acer India!

 

There are Windows-based Laptops in this price range but they make far too many compromises in the screen, weight, battery life, operating system, storage and applications. In addition, there a whole range of Tablets – “post PC” devices – including Apple iPad, Samsung Galaxy Tab and Google Nexus Tablets that are great “consuming devices” that do not serves the PC needs of the common man; Tablets with reasonable power, are far more expensive too.

 

 

Professor Sowmyanarayanan Sadagopan is the Director of IIIT-Bangalore. These are his personal views. He can be reached at s.sadagopan@gmail.com

 

 

 

 

Ten Tech Tools – A must-have for Higher Education

October 1, 2013

Every student and teacher in a University setting – be it science, engineering, medicine, business, law, architecture or music – must have mastery over some key tools that are “must have”. Here are the Top 10 tools (my pick!)

Higher education is all about Lectures, Laboratories and Library; together with the other three Life it makes up for the 4L’s of Learning. I have picked nine tools for the first three and one tool for Life!

  1. Learning Management System (LMS): LMS provides electronic support to the entire learning environment outside the classroom. This includes electronic delivery of slides and other lecture notes, reading materials and case studies; distribution and collection of home works, projects, assignments and examinations; feedback to students by way of corrected answer scripts and optionally online polls, surveys and feedback to teachers from students, typically, at the end of the term. Of the many LMS tools Moodle (Moodle.org) is the most widely used one across Institutes of higher learning in the world; it is free, open source, easy to customize, and, enjoys large base of developers / volunteers to help in customizing and bug-fixing. Blackboard (www.blackboard.com) is another widely used commercial LMS tool. LMS tools have been around for more than a decade.
  1. Massive Open Online Course (MOOC): MOOC represents a new trend in higher education. It is an effort to democratize higher education and take the best learning experience available in some of the best Institutions in the world (Stanford and MIT, for example), to any one in the world, using the power of the Internet. MOOC’s go beyond just the lecture materials and videos (MIT’s Open courseware or IIT’s NPTEL). MOOC provide lectures AND assessment. Coursera (www.coursera.org) started in 2012, is perhaps the best known among several MOOCs today. Pioneered by Professor Daphne Koller of Stanford University, Coursera has courses in Computer Science, Business, Engineering, Medicine and Social Sciences from 70 Universities including Stanford, Princeton and University of Michigan. Interestingly, Professor Daphne Koller is the first recipient of ACM Infosys Prize in 2007!
  1. Inspiring online talks: Teachers who inspire are small in number, but a very large number of students would naturally like to benefit from them. Making many inspiring talks available to everyone on this planet has been the motive behind many experiments including Khan Academy (www.Khanacademy.org), that makes more than 5,000 videos on many subjects accessible to school children. For University students, the best source of inspiring talks is undoubtedly the TED Talks (www.ted.com); these are 18-minute long, very high quality videos of inspiring talks from the world’s best known experts (Nobel Prize winners, outstanding professors from Ivy League Universities and other leading thinkers). As of today more than 1,500 TED talks are available for free viewing online and they have been watched more than one billion times!
  1. Studying together: Students everywhere, and more so in India, like to study together. It is one thing to communicate – talk on the phone, SMS, Chat, email and Facebook; but what is more important is to seriously collaborate and learn from each other. LMS helps to collaborate with the teacher; but a lot of learning happens when students collaborate with other students (seek clarifications, clear doubts, share common ideas, work on a project etc.,). With Internet being available everywhere (at least for University students) what can be better than to use the Net as a key collaborative platform. While there are general purpose tools (SharePoint from Microsoft or Acrobat from Adobe), OpenStudy (www.openstudy.com) is perhaps best suited for studying together with other students in Institutions outside of your own. You can ask questions, connect with other students across the globe and get help. Starting at Georgia Tech, OpenStudy has grown today and benefits 150,000 students in 180 countries! Interestingly, the co-founder of OpenStudy is Chennai-born Preetha Ram!
  1. Virtual Labs: In addition to lectures, lab experiments form a key component of learning. Much lab equipment is very expensive; they need technicians who can be expensive too. A number of attempts have been made in the past decade to make some of the Lab equipment available for students outside the laboratories (often only found in rich universities and research Labs). iLab from MIT (ilab.mit.edu) is the best known among such experiments currently underway at many Institutions, including some of the IIT’s and IIIT’s in India. Using sophisticated software to schedule and interface with a variety of equipment like spectrometer, signal analyzer, heat exchanger and robot, iLab makes costly sophisticated equipment available even to poor students in remote rural areas.
  1. Cloud storage: A key requirement of a learning environment in a university is to keep track of a variety of instructional materials (lecture notes, slides, exam copies, project presentation, Lab reports, field visit reports, photos, audio / video recordings of interviews etc.,). In today’s online world, you need a storage piece that is not tied to a specific piece of hardware (PC, Server, and Mainframe), software (Unix, Windows. Mac, iOS and Android), or even an organization (department, college, university). This is where cloud storage comes in handy. Though Google (Google Drive) and Microsoft (SkyDrive) offer their own versions of cloud storage, my favorite is Dropbox that is a free service that lets you store documents (reports, spreadsheets, databases, PDF files), photos, songs, audio / video recordings effortlessly across multiple devices. Create a “DropBox” folder on every device that you use and the files stored on this folder are available on every device; Dropbox magically “syncs” the content automatically when the devices are connected; in addition, you can access them from anywhere using a Web-browser.

 

  1. Scholarly search: As you go past the first couple of terms in any University, you soon realize the need for reading a lot of research papers on a daily basis; you also need to organize the papers you read /referenced and finally the papers you author. You need to organize bibliography too; there are specific ways in which specific journals expect the author to cite references, including web references, and formatting & re-formatting for submission across multiple journals can be a non-trivial task! Later, when you meet other colleagues in conferences or apply for jobs, you need a count of citations of your papers (a first-level indicator of the quality of the paper) as well as impact factor of the journals a first-level indicator of the quality of the journal) you publish or plan to publish. Though there are tools from IEEE and ACM to help you with some of these tasks, Google Scholar is perhaps the best tool for your scholarly search. As a source it indexes the full text of scholarly research (both free and paid sources) across many disciplines; unlike expensive options like Scopus (from Elsevier) or Web of Science (from Thomson),  that only rich universities can afford, Google Scholar is free. Interestingly, one of the two architects of Google Scholar is IIT-Kharagpur alumnus Anurag Acharya.
  1. Personal library of research articles: Todays students and faculty members in Universities have access to good Library that subscribes to hundreds of journals. As a growing researcher one starts building personal library of scholarly literature that includes “must read” papers. Till the year 2000 when many journals embraced the digital world, most Libraries of Universities (except those that were part of rich Universities) could not subscribe to scholarly research journals. Things have improved in the past decade, thanks to Consortium-based subscriptions like INDEST. Google Scholar type services provide good indexing and abstract services, but access to full text is still limited to Libraries. There are many attempts to create “personal library” of full-text papers including services from IEEE and ACM, but JSTOR (www.jstor.org) is my favorite particularly for those outside of Computer Science area. JSTOR – a not-for-profit organization – meets this demand; over the years, JSTOR has digitized and indexed a very large number of journal articles and makes the full text accessible to even Libraries with limited budget. Current issues of many paid journals too are available after a “moving wall” (a specified period after the journal is published)
  1. E-Book Reader: As the Gen Next moves to an all digital world, todays students and faculty members need access to scholarly search and personal library of research articles as well as full texts and technical reports (often embellished with multimedia, hyper-text references to Web-sites and even some Lab equipment (as in MIT iLab). In short, access to e-Book Reader is a must; the reading experience must be great, the collection must be rich, there must be a way to book mark, there must be a provision for resonantly large collection (dozens, if not hundreds of books) and the interface must be intuitive. While there are a large number of formats including open formats like ePub from IDPF (idpf.org), my favorite is Apple iBooks and Amazon Kindle. Apple iBooks is an application that is extremely good to read, annotate, share and search eBooks (from multiple publishing formats), though only available on Apple products (Mac, iPad, iPhone). Amazon Kindle is a hardware device as well as an application that can be used over multiple OS (Windows, Apple Mac and iOS); Amazon has launched an India-store as well. There are still several issues on the formats and the business models that are being fought in the courts, but as “a budding tomorrow’s professional”, you should start getting used to one or the other e-Book Reader.
  1. Data-based decision tools: Unlike the earlier nine tools, students and faculty members in Universities should start looking at ways of getting the facts right about many events, things and organizations around us. Search engines like Google and Bing give us pointers to data, but not often data itself; also the data is inaccurate, not from reliable source or dated; in fact the data is not good enough for any meaningful decision making. As tomorrow’s decision makers, it is important that University students cultivate a habit of data-based decisions. In this direction Wolfram Alpha, from the same people who gave us Mathematica is something that you all must watch. Wolfram Alpha calls itself “a computational knowledge engine”; it provides data about a town, an Institute, a country or about a phenomenon in a meaningful way using “curated” data and not mere pointers to websites that have information. Try “MIT”, “New Delhi”, “United Kingdom” and “Bangalore Weather” on Wolfram Alpha to get a feel for computation knowledge engine. It uses extensive computation and uses a very sophisticated knowledge engine. Such services will evolve over the years but it is high time you start getting used to such a service that goes beyond lecture, laboratory and library into a life skill!

All the best

Professor Sowmyanarayanan Sadagopan is the Director of IIIT-Bangalore. These are his personal views. He can be reached at s.sadagopan@gmail.com

(Appeared in EDU Magazine, October 2013)