September 15, 2005

Clarkson University wins first TuxMasters invitational

Author: Jay Lyman

Clarkson University may not be the first institute of higher learning that comes up when you're discussing sports, science, or stature, but the Potsdam, New York-based university is at the top of its class for bringing Linux learning to real-world data centers. The 3,000-student university took top honors at the first-ever TuxMasters Invitational coding competition, which awarded Clarkson both first and second place in the intercollegiate contest.

The TuxMasters Invitational is sponsored by Unisys and the Open Source Development Labs' Data Center Linux Initiative to encourage learning that contributes to the advance of Linux and the open source community.

Clarkson grad students Todd DeShane and Patricia Jablonski took first place in the competition with a system to manage and search large, structured sets of persistently accessed data. "Not only did we each receive a PC, PlayStation Portable, and an iPod, but we were also given the opportunity to attend the LinuxWorld Conference," DeShane and Jablonski wrote in an email. "We are truly thankful to those at Unisys and OSDL for putting together this contest and for the wonderful prizes and the trip to LinuxWorld. As a result of winning this contest, we are even more looking forward to continuing work on this project and to seeing the software eventually used in the enterprise."

Classroom to server room

The students, whose TuxMasters win was announced at LinuxWorld last month, said they think their software can carry over to corporate datacenters because it addresses the fundamental problem of how to understand a large amount of data by using collaborative data mining.

"After defining the experimental problem and implementing a software solution, the next challenge is determining how to tailor the academic work to fit into the enterprise environment by molding it into a polished, professional software application," the students said. "This project accomplishes this by focusing on human-computer interaction, usability, presentation, and documentation, which is often inadequate in lower-quality open source projects."

The Clarkson students' faculty adviser, Professor Jeanna Matthews, told NewsForge the team built a system that supports "collaborative exploration of multiple databases ... by caching the results of basic data characterization queries (e.g. returning histograms of the values appearing in any field on any table)," Matthews said. "This allows people to quickly get a feel for the contents of the database without issuing long running queries. It also supports collaborative data mining by allowing users to see and build upon each other's queries.

"A system such as ours could be used anywhere people are trying to characterize the contents of large datasets, such as satellite data or human genome data or data on customer purchases," she said.

Matthews went on to highlight how open source software represents a bridge to so-called real world computing for students studying and experimenting in college.

"For students, working on an open source project brings an exciting, real-world dimension to computer science education," she said. "At many universities, students apply what they are learning only in toy applications in the classroom. With open source projects, students love knowing that the work they are doing is not just going to be turned in for a grade and forgotten about. It brings a professionalism and an urgency to their work."

Matthews added that as they contribute to open source projects, many Clarkson students are also exploring careers related to open source software at companies including Unisys, IBM, Red Hat, and XenSource.

Storied history with FOSS

Matthews also referred to Clarkson's "several other wins in large open source competitions in recent years," including the 2001 IBM Linux Challenge. Among the other open source achievements in the college's trophy case: the 2004 IBM Scholars Challenge and the 2005 IBM North American Grid Scholars Challenge.

Matthews, who has advised seven winning competitive entries involving a dozen Clarkson computing students since 2001, said the achievements both highlight Clarkson's strength in open source development and help motivate students to get involved in working on open source projects. The TuxMasters win also earned Clarkson a Unisys-built 8x Itanium 2 ES 7000 series server valued at $70,000 for future Linux development.

While she referred to Clarkson's ability to promote Linux learning and transfer it to real industry, Matthews said the school was unique in terms of its dedication to both open source and enterprise applicability.

"I consider us leaders in integrating open source software into computer science education," she said. "We encourage students to solve real problems and to transfer what they've learned outside the university. I don't see many schools setting up the supports needed to help students succeed at doing this."

Open source edge today, more to come

Derek Rodner, marketing chair of OSDL's Data Center Linux working group and Unisys Linux manager, said that although this first TuxMasters competition was scheduled against students' summer schedules and university curriculum, the contest was nevertheless a big success, and resulted in code for business and the open source community.

Rodner said competition organizers are expecting more colleges to participate in the second TuxMasters challenge, which will help accomplish the organizers' goal of bringing more code and applications into the open source community. Entry in the second TuxMasters competition is open until September 30.

"We've stated that anything developed in this competition -- winning or not -- all of that gets pushed back into the open source community," he said. "We hope all of this will bring something back. With the first competition, we had eight to 10 projects -- not a whole lot of code, but as we move forward, we expect a quadrupling of that."

Rodner said 16 universities were approached to participate in the first competition, and a dozen did, with nine projects making it to completion. Among them were a second project from Clarkson students, namely Mike McCabe, Justin Basinger, Ed Despard, and Jeremy Bongio, who focused on Xen virtualization.

While he echoed Matthews' concerns that college computer students are working "in a bubble" and said some of the projects "fell off in terms of enterprise quality," Rodner said the point of producing business-ready Linux and open source software was made to the TuxMasters competitors.

As for what won Clarkson the title and all of those tech goodies -- the second place finishers also got PSPs and iPods -- it was both the students' immediate work with the open source community, and their consideration of what will or will not fly in a corporate data center, according to Rodner.

"There are a number of qualifications. How they work with other open source projects and creativity are key," he said. "We asked for something enterprise-ready and they got a first-class lesson on what is enterprise-ready."

Rodner credited the winning Clarkson team for staying focused and getting ahead by going straight to the open source community.

"Clarkson was really ahead of the curve," he said. "They submitted early and went to the open source community. Others had not submitted and [Clarkson] was working to dot their Is and cross their Ts. That let them contribute to the open source community, as well."

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