February 24, 2003

Purdue IT director left law school, helped start the Internet

- by Tina Gasperson -
Jim Bottum, vice president for IT at Purdue University in Indiana, used to be the executive director of the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA), and he was part of the beginning of the Internet. Really. The funny thing is, he was studying to be a lawyer when circumstances swept him into nerdy IT stuff - and there he has remained.Bottum got a bachelor's degree in political science from Florida State and spent some time in law school at the State University of New York in Buffalo. "The reason I didn't stay in law school was that I got a call from the National Science Foundation to participate in the Presidential Management Intern program," says Bottum. He's learned everything he knows about information technology from on the job experience.

While working with the NSF, Bottum helped start the high performance computing program and NSFnet, which evolved into today's Internet.

He says that with NSFnet, they were simply trying to disseminate information efficiently. "We were trying to figure out what kind of infrastructure do you build so that researchers around the country can get access to it," Bottum says. "Once we got the backbone in place, other things happened." Other things, meaning the eventually proliferation of commercial interests on the Web.

Bottum was then asked to take a one year sabbatical from his studies and work at the NCSA. "The director at the time didn't want to be a manager. He wanted to focus more on creativity. I ended up partnering with him and we turned it into an eighty million dollars a year operation.

"We built telnet to make the internet more useful for researchers, and then of course MOSAIC also came out of the NSCA," he says.

Bottum says he is not a programmer, but he doesn't want to be called a business manager either. He says that over the years he has had many programmers working for him to implement his ideas. "Programmers do software," he says, "but the NCSA didn't go from four million to eighty million a year from people building software."

Now that Bottum is at Purdue, he's working on more big projects, most notably one called Envision. It's a technological visualization and perceptualization center that gives multiple disciplines within Purdue the ability to deal with large data sets.

"We went out and recruited faculty to do research into visualization tools and techniques, and they helped us engineer a center where researchers can get this kind of work done," says Bottum. "It's a resource to help people who have been blocked in the amount of discovery they've been able to make in their research."

Already the Envision center has had some returns. "We put together a team less than a year ago to focus on the 9/11 crash at the Pentagon," says Bottum. "We did a simulation of event, and people from all over the University participated.

"What we learned is that you can see what damage was done based on the physical structure of the plane, as opposed to damage done by the fuel explosion and fire. It gives you some insight as to what transpired during that crash."

Bottum, when asked about his philosophy regarding the sharing of information produced at institutions of higher-learning, expresses what seems to be doubt that the Open Source model is conducive to innovation.

"Look at the overall process," he says. "You don't want universities to become software support houses." Yet, he says, that is what happens when software created at universities is freely licensed. "If you develop something [and release it as open source], who's paying you to make it freely available?

"When somebody gets something for nothing, somebody gets nothing for something."
Ideally, according to Bottum, the fruits of university developers, both faculty and student, are transferred to commercial interests and made proprietary products, so that the developers are then free to create even more software instead of being committed to updating and revising old software.

Though Bottum didn't mention it to NewsForge, he and an old friend from the NCSA, former director and creator Larry Smarr, have founded a company called KnowledgePort Alliance (KPA), whose stated purpose is to "facilitate the transfer of pre-commercial, leading edge information technologies from academic institutions and government research laboratories to the commercial marketplace."

According to information at the website, the company works with "principal investigators within academia" and offers a "new method to efficiently license and sell their technologies into the commercial marketplace."

The company claims that it minimizes risks in transferring technologies from academia to the commercial sector, which allows researchers to "focus on their work, while KPA provides the business infrastructure, strategy and tactics necessary for success."

Bottum told NewsForge that he thinks Open Source is good, "but there's gotta be some kind of market model at some point to make things work."

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