The Future of Computing

Internet 2 and PennNet-21 put Penn in the technology vanguard.

By Judith Rodin

THE Ides of March is a day typically associated with foreboding predictions, but that was far from the case this year at Penn. On that day, I joined a group of University faculty, students and staff to discuss an exciting new initiative: Penn’s role in developing the next generation Internet. Our important work in this area — coupled with an aggressive internal assessment of our technology infrastructure called PennNet-21 — will help position the University to take full advantage of the enormous advances taking place in the realm of information technology.
   Of all the challenges facing Penn today, our need to thoughtfully integrate and utilize information technology is among the most pressing. Indeed, the creative deployment of new technologies is one of the prime strategic goals in the Agenda for Excellence. Recognizing that technology is revolutionizing the ways in which knowledge is acquired, created and disseminated, Penn will implement, through acquisition or development, state-of-the-art information systems that will improve the flow of electronic communication and advance Penn’s academic, administrative and capital planning processes. Let me tell you more about what Penn is doing in this important area.
   The Internet, one of the most important and transformative developments of the 20th century, is largely a product of academe. And academe will take a leadership role in developing the Internet of the 21st century. The vehicle for this extraordinary journey is Internet 2, a collaborative effort comprised of select American universities working with industry and government.
   The mission of this initiative is an ambitious one: to develop, deploy and operate advanced, network-based applications and network services to further U.S. leadership in research and higher education and accelerate the availability of new services and applications on the Internet.
   The importance of an enhanced Internet to higher education is clear. Internet 2 is working to enable applications, such as telemedicine, digital libraries and virtual laboratories, that are not possible with the technology underlying today’s Internet. These and other applications would have great impact on the humanities and sciences alike; they will benefit any research that requires interactive collaboration and instruction, real-time access to remote scientific instruments, shared virtual reality or multi-media services.
   While our work on the Internet 2 project has national and international implications, the University’s PennNet-21 Project is focused on Penn’s own technological infrastructure and future computing needs. As more Penn users rely on networked applications in the areas of teaching, learning, research and university administration, the demands for service availability and reliability as well as for diversity of services have increased astronomically. The responsibility for meeting those demands rests with Penn’s Division of Information Systems and Computing (ISC). Led by Vice Provost James O’Donnell, ISC has begun PennNet-21, a project that is forging a vision for Penn’s 21st-century computing.
   A recent PennNet-21 white paper lays out a detailed scenario for Penn’s workplace of the future. It is fascinating reading, as the following brief excerpt shows:

   Robert arrives for work at his office in the Van Pelt Library about 30 minutes before his scheduled video conference call, and sets Rover, his handheld computing device, next to his desktop computer. The handheld and desktop quickly authenticate to each other and then automatically start to synchronize their data over a wireless connection.
   “Any messages, Scanner?” Robert asks his desktop.
   “Three,” his desktop computer replies, “two from callers on your critical-caller list, one that seems to be a sales call.” Robert tells Scanner to route the two critical-caller messages to Rover, where he can access them wherever he might go, and to leave the sales call. He’ll pick that up later as time permits. “I reserved some video time for this morning,” Robert continues. “Bring up a screen directory, please.”
   Schedule information for his reserved 4-way video conference, and three scheduled video multicasts he had indicated might be of interest, display on the screen in a window just above the rolling ticker display of university announcements. He confirms the video conference call and clicks ‘reject’ on two of the multicasts and ‘accept’ on one. Scanner completes the network reservation requests necessary for both the video conference and the video content he requested.

   This vision of a future workplace at Penn is not far distant. Making it — or something close to it — a reality will mean allocating numerous resources. But first and foremost, that vision will require a talented and dedicated team of imaginative and technologically skilled men and women. Penn is fortunate to already have such a team at ISC.
   The University of Pennsylvania has long been a leader in developing and applying information technology to further its mission. Clearly, the intense pace of the information revolution requires us to be constantly vigilant and strategic about how we use technology. As Internet 2 and PennNet-21 demonstrate, we are. And because of that, we will continue to leverage the power of information technology in our classrooms, our laboratories and our offices as the old century ends and the new one begins.

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