Diving into the stream

UM, IBM and Partnership collaborate on first-ever university course

You won’t find a Wikipedia entry for IBM’s InfoSphere Streams computing platform. Nor will you find mention of Big Blue’s “big-data” technology in Wired or Tech Crunch — yet. But this autumn, The University of Montana will offer the world’s first undergraduate university class focused on the groundbreaking system for processing and analyzing large quantities of data in real time.

The class, which will immerse students in technology that is otherwise only available to professional developers, represents the latest step toward making Missoula a hotbed of programmers and companies focused on big data, said Alex Philp a Ph.D. specialist in geospatial computing technologies and the founder and chief technology officer of TerraEchos, a Missoula company that won the 2012 IBM Beacon Award for Outstanding Information Management Innovation.

“Missoula can be a world leader in complex information analytics,” Philp said. “This is truly the next step in the evolution of computing and this class will help cement us at the cutting edge.”

That sentiment echoed all the way to Washington, D.C., where Montana Senator Max Baucus lauded the class.

“New educational opportunities like this are key to Montana jobs for the future,” Baucus said. “Montana students have a world-class work ethic and this unique opportunity will help them launch our economy to a new level. This is an exciting opportunity for our state to carve out a name as an area on the cutting edge of the technological world.”

Philp outlined the emerging need for big-data specialists with an eye-popping factoid: Every nine seconds, humans generate as much computer data as would fill the entire Library of Congress. We do so with digital video surveillance cameras, Instagram photos, weather sensors, manufacturing controllers, text messages, blog posts — the list goes on.

These days, one can’t drive to the mall and back without producing digital data somewhere along the way. What’s more, the next time you drive to the mall you will likely produce even more data, as sensors and input devices continue to proliferate at an unprecedented rate.

Software engineers have begun to realize that we need an entirely new paradigm of dealing with all that data.

“Historically in the field of computer science, we did a good job of developing computers to produce data, then databases to organize data, storage to keep it, the Internet to share it,” Philp said. “Now we’re in the age of trying to figure out how to analyze ever more data of all types, varieties, kinds, and at an ever faster rate of speed.”

InfoSphere Streams addresses that challenge at — or, at least, near — its source, allowing data to be analyzed and sorted as it comes into a system, speeding the route to actionable insight. By doing so the system drastically reduces the amount of storage needed, since most raw data can be discarded or reduced to its most useful elements before ever arriving on a storage disk.

The application of the IBM technology can be seen in the work of one of Philp’s companies, TerraEchos. The Missoula-based company sells a compute appliance called Kairos, built around the InfoSphere Streams platform, which takes video, audio and other types of high-bandwidth data and analyzes it as it is captured, looking for anomalies that might indicate a security breach or vital intelligence.

While Kairos is marketed worldwide to the intelligence and security communities, the stream-computing model has relevance in any field where large quantities and types of data meet time-sensitive needs, Philp said.

“Health care, stock trading, wildfire management — there’s a huge list of industries where this kind of approach is now what everyone is talking about,” he said.

Trouble is, few college students know anything about it. A couple of years ago, after being urged by Missoula Mayor John Engen to take a leadership role in local economic development, Philp decided to change that.

In late 2010, GCS Research, a geospatial software company that Philp founded in 2002, set up a scholarship for computer science students at The University of Montana so more students can focus on department studies and also learn about InfoSphere Streams technology.

Since then, Philp has lectured on the topic several times to students and faculty in UM’s computer science, math and business departments. Last summer, he convinced IBM to send engineers to teach a week-long immersion class to 10 UM students and faculty.

“That went really well in terms of building a relationship between IBM and the university,” Philp said.

This year, Philp decided to press forward with a semester-long course. The InfoSphere Streams course will be cross-listed for computer science, mathematics and business majors, underscoring an interdisciplinary approach to real-world problem solving associated with real-time analytical processing.

Behind the scenes, the class reflects a blossoming collaboration between The University of Montana, IBM, the Missoula Economic Partnership, Senator Max Baucus and Philp’s companies, as well as other organizations and individuals that helped bring it to fruition.

UM will provide course credit and instruction. IBM not only is providing the technology, but also granted UM access to the company’s cloud resources. The school is the first of just 50 universities worldwide with access to that advanced infrastructure.

Eric Tangedahl, the director of IT at the UM School of Business and teacher of the fall 2012 semester course, called the class a “total paradigm shift in the way that students think about computer analytics.”

When UM needed funding to pay Tangedahl, the Missoula Economic Partnership committed to raise $5,000 to underwrite the class.

“It was a quick decision for Missoula Economic Partnership to take a role in ensuring that this class was brought to students at UM,” said James Grunke, president and CEO of the Partnership. “By educating students in one of the most important emerging areas of computing, we set the stage for new, advanced technology companies to form or choose Missoula as their home.”

“Anybody in business knows the importance of relational databases,” Tangedahl said. “This is about looking instead at real-time analytics: How do we understand and use data at the point when it is actually being produced? That is a question with applications across industries.”

It is also a question with applications locally, Philp noted.

“Students will be exposed to some very good, cutting-edge content and curriculum, and ultimately learn a skill that’s highly employable in today’s environment,” he said. “For any number of reasons I prefer to hire locally; and I need graduates who understand this stuff.

“The earlier I and others in my field can get students educated about the basics of this technology, the better.”


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