A Post by Michael B. Spring

(A list of all posts by M.B. Spring)

Academic Life in the Green Zone (December 20, 2009)

When an organization is concerned about the security of its digital assets, it creates a firewall to protect them. It is a rather poor analogy to a building or car firewall, but it will do. In theory the private network , devices, and data are safe inside the firewall. Again, also as a simplification, the firewall is generally considered as a system that prevents outsiders from coming in but allows insiders to venture out. (Some organizations also restrict outgoing traffic, e.g. to pornographic sites.) When some assets of the protected organization need to have exposure to the outside world, such as a website we want people to see, we place that asset in a “DMZ” or demilitarized zone. We feed it from the protected zone and take great care to protect it and still greater care to make sure that any damage that might be done to it is contained and easily repairable. This is a rather simplistic, but complete picture of many organizations today. Our firewall surrounds us and protects us from the “hostile environment” that the internet has become for many organizations. The exposed part of our digital presence is placed in a heavily guarded demilitarized zone. We live in a heavily guarded Green Zone. (On days when or protectors seem both overly aggressive and lacking in common sense, I am more likely to think of the Green Zone as the Militarized Zone.)

There is a sense of déjà vu in this situation, and the parallels are not quite perfect. Prior to 1980, computing devices were expensive and shared. Specialized staff maintained them in secure zones. When I attended NYU in the late sixties, “regular” computer science students were not even allowed on the floor of the Courant Institute that housed the mainframe. Acolytes carried our trays of cards up to the second floor where Deacons put them in the job queue. The results of our efforts were returned as a computer printout the next day. What could be done with the time shared computers of the 1960s and 1970s was a matter of negotiation with the gods of the computer center. They chose the hardware, operating system, software, etc. They allocated precious disk space and job priorities. The resources allocated to you were allocated after consideration of the needs of the organization as a whole. Violate the code of conduct and you could be shut down. In the 80’s with the advent of PC’s, inexpensive mini computers, and specialized workstations, the world began to change. In academia, the development of networks and networks of networks – the internet began to change the very fabric of computing. First, each of us controlled and determined appropriate use for our own machines. Second, devices historically dedicated to computation began to be used for communication. With the introduction of the protocols for simple distributed information sharing – http or as we refer to the resulting structure, the World Wide Web emerged to challenge our entire vision of information processing. The computational fabric was moving from the world of data to the world of information – and would eventually begin to make inroads into the world of knowledge. The creation, dissemination, and use of information began to change. A new universe was here to replace the Gutenberg galaxy. But something else was changing as well, with the popularization the internet, email, and the web, business realized that a part of its business was also related to information. With digital music and photographs, high speed connections to the home and businesses seeing a new marketing channel, it was not long before the information highway was also seen as a financial marketplace. When the money started to flow, criminals moved in. And we found the need to create safe walled communities – green zones. With that overly long, but hopefully reasonably accurate description of 50 years of computing, we can turn to asking how academic life is impacted in the green zone.

Academic life involves three kinds of activities, instruction, research, and service. I reflect here on the first two, although the third is undoubtedly impacted as well. I happen to teach things like “web standards and technology”, “e-business”, “e-business security”, “web services and distributed computing”. My research is focused on social networking systems and web-delivered medical interventions.

In teaching, I need to help students to develop skills related building distributed systems that link organizations across the internet. For example:

Research can also suffer in the green zone. The issues are a little different and a few examples will serve to illuminate the scope of the problem.

Having drawn a picture of some of the drawbacks of academic life in a green zone, let me make clear that I like life in a green zone. It makes many of the things I want to do easier. It provides me with 24x7 monitors for my systems, assures better power and internet connections, and gives me reliable automatic backup. Further, when we encounter most of the problems mentioned above, it is possible by getting to senior technical people to correct the problem. For example, when I raised the issue of automated email notifications, I was told that I could have my server “white listed”, i.e. by providing the address of the machine that would be sending notifications in advance, the controlling personnel would make sure the mail was still accepted.

The issue, and the point of this blog entry, is that just as we had to develop a better form of communication between users and the “high priests” of centralized systems in the 70’s so today we need to provide better communications between the denizens of the academic community and the technical staff patrolling and protecting the green zone. The academic life is about exploring and developing the new world and sometimes this exploration can be stymied when those protecting us don’t understand what we are trying to do.