The University of Texas at San Antonio announced the creation of the Open Cloud Institute on Thursday, taking the university one step closer to its aspiration to become a tech-driven Tier One research university. The “institute,” at this stage more of an initiative, will develop degree programs in cloud computing and big data. Leaders in academia, industry, local and state government were present to affirm UTSA’s growing commitment to computing research.
“By recruiting the nation’s most sought-after scholars, UTSA has developed tremendous expertise in cloud, cyber, computing and analytics. The Open Cloud Institute further builds on that strength,” said UTSA President Ricardo Romo. “With the support of our industry partners, UTSA students and researchers now have unparalleled opportunities to collaborate on projects that will lead to new innovations in this dynamic field.”
Those partners have invested $9 million to make the day possible. The Open Cloud Institute will launch with initial gifts and in-kind investments from the 80/20 Foundation and industry leaders such as Rackspace, AMD, Intel, Mellanox Technologies and Seagate. UTSA received additional support from the Open Compute Project, started by Facebook, and the NASA-Rackspace collaboration, the OpenStack Foundation.
The 80/20 Foundation has specifically allocated $4.8 million to support four endowed professorships, up to two faculty research positions, 10 graduate student endowments and research funding.
“We’ve all started something really important,” said Graham Weston, chairman and co-founder of Rackspace and the philanthropist behind the 80/20 Foundation.
Weston focused on the ways that cloud computing and open stack technology have changed our lives. He cited traditional companies that have used apps to grow their businesses, like Domino’s Pizza’s app for ordering pizza. He also mentioned entire cloud-based business models like Uber and Nest.
“The innovations in the private sector have just begun … but what’s happening in academia? I don’t think it’s even started,” said Weston.
UTSA will lead the charge largely because of its partnership with Rackspace. The university will have the benefit of some of the best innovation the private sector has to offer.
“There are four major cloud infrastructure companies in the world: Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and Rackspace,” Weston said.
Bringing this sort of technological firepower to an institution will revolutionize its research capacity. Weston mentioned the month-long waiting list to use the University of Texas at Austin’s supercomputer at the Texas Advanced Computing Center. Until now, this sort of heavy data capacity was cost prohibitive for most institutions.
“The way to make supercomputing available to us all is by bringing the cost down … that’s what needs to happen in academic research,” Weston said.
Open cloud computing and its supporting technologies open the door to that revolution, he said. The cloud makes it possible to move with heavy data like the human genome, which measures in terabytes. It’s inefficient and risky to move such data on and off a storage model designed for megabytes. Weston wants to bring the open cloud to the researcher so that they don’t have to waste time and risk corruption of valuable data, no matter how heavy.
“That’s what’s going to cure Alzheimer’s on this campus. That’s what’s going to map the brain on this campus. Through cloud computing,” said Weston.
As researchers use services provided by the Open Cloud Institute, it will further propel the institute’s own research into how to cultivate academic-oriented services.
Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff was on hand to speak to the civic significance of the project as well. He implied that fostering technology, start-ups, and 21st century business models are essential to the progress and vitality of modern cities and economies.
“We wouldn’t be on the map if Rackspace had not developed right here in San Antonio,” said Wolff.
He praised Weston, Rackspace and the 80/20 Foundation under the leadership of Executive Director Lorenzo Gomez. These visionaries, according to Wolff, are carrying San Antonio forward, in part because of the product and projects they create, but also because of the creators they attract.
“Communities that are going to progress are (the) communities that attract smart people and retain smart people,” said Wolff.
Wolff is a long time proponent of development in the urban core. He has taken an especially strong stance on transportation initiatives like VIA’s modern streetcar project and the more auspicious, if still contested, future of rideshare companies Uber and Lyft in San Antonio.
“Why would you run off Uber? Why would you run off Lyft?” Wolff said, incredulously.
Wolff feels that the county has readily embraced technologies that change the everyday lives of local citizens. He has high hopes for Bexar County’s Bibliotech, the country’s first public digital library, in closing the technology and literacy gaps, and alleviating the compounding disadvantages for those who find themselves on the wrong side of those gaps.
He sees the Open Cloud Institute as another major milestone for UTSA and the country.
“We’ll remember this day,” said Wolff.
Glenn Heger, the Texas comptroller of public accounts, was last to speak. He took the conversation to the state level – how cloud computing affects state government and how the industry affects the state’s economy.
It was thanks to companies like Rackspace that Hegar remained optimistic in the face of falling oil prices in 2014.
“Some wanted to say ‘Texas is just an oil and gas state,’ ” said Hegar.
After the announcement, he noted that it was with undisguised glee that outsiders watched the falling price of oil, hoping to see a humbling of the Texas economy. Those people, said Hegar, underestimated the diversity of the state’s economy.
“Texas is much more,” said Hegar, “Texas is cutting edge, leading technology.”
The numbers have shown this to be true. While he concedes that the Permian Basin and Eagle Ford shale areas are feeling the squeeze from oil prices now half of their earlier high of $100-plus a barrel, as a whole, the state is in good shape.
“For 58 months in a row, Texas has increased sales tax collections,” said Hegar.
He also praised the specific efforts of UTSA’s cybersecurity programs and the future of the Open Cloud Institute. He noted that as the office that collects everyone’s tax information, his team has an obligation to provide accessible and secure information services to the population.
“It’s more vital than ever before that we have our institutions, like UTSA, leading the way,” said Hegar.
With such enthusiasm and financial support from public and private partners, UTSA’s quest for Tier One status becomes more possible with each passing milestone.
*Featured/top image: (From left) Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts Glenn Hegar, Rackspace and 80/20 Foundation founder Graham Weston, UTSA Provost John Frederick, and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff listen as UTSA Presdient Ricardo Romo launches the Open Cloud Institute. Courtesy image.