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On course for the cloud

By: Karlin Lillington, Irish Times
August 30, 2012

A postgraduate course at the National College of Ireland’s new Cloud Competency Centre is one of the few worldwide that focus on this growing area.

It's pretty clear that a new academic programme is filling a gap when it is oversubscribed on its very first intake of students, with strong interest from students abroad as well as within Ireland.

That’s the case with the National College of Ireland’s postgraduate course at its new Cloud Competency Centre, which will launch formally in September.

In the coming weeks, the first taught classes will begin in a purpose-built data centre on the top floor of the college’s IFSC campus in Dublin.

Heading it up is an engaging Mexican computer scientist and academic, Dr Horacio González-Vélez, who joined NCI following a lectureship in parallel computing at the Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, Scotland, and a research position in the University of Edinburgh.

González-Vélez is quick to acknowledge that at times it seems that almost every aspect of computing seems to be sold these days as “cloud computing”, one of the industry’s hot buzzwords. But what, exactly, is it?

“Cloud computing is like the unicorn – everyone talks about it, but no one has seen it,” he says with a grin.

A good general description of cloud computing is given by Wikipedia – “the use of computing resources (hardware and software) that are delivered as a service over a network (typically the internet).”

The “cloud” bit comes from the computing industry’s common use of a cloud symbol to represent a network, or the internet, on systems diagrams.

The point of having the competency centre and course work offered through it is to make the unicorn visible – to give the concept solidity, focus on standards, and produce graduates with a clear set of competencies and abilities, he says.

They’ve had interest from the computing industry as well as businesses looking for employees with cloud computing expertise, he notes. Employers say they cannot find people that have the right mix of skills to work in the fast-growing area.

Surprisingly, there are very few academic programmes worldwide that focus on this particular area, says González-Vélez – which probably accounts for the many applications they have had from as far away as India and Asia. The opportunity to develop and deliver such a programme in Ireland was highly appealing to him.

Though he spent several years in the computing industry in Silicon Valley, working for companies such as Silicon Graphics and Sun Microsystems, he has zig-zagged back and forth between academic work and industry.
He served as an associate professor at the Mexico City university where he took his undergraduate degree, Universidad Autonoma Metropolitana, and Sun sent him up to the University of California, Berkeley, to teach industrial skills as well.

Eventually he left industry to return to academics and complete a PhD at the University of Edinburgh, which he chose because it had an excellent programme in informatics.

He already knew the UK well, having done an MSc at the University of Essex – which at first glance might seem a curious and distant choice for a Mexican student, but González-Vélez says the university has a long-standing exchange programme for Mexican students.

Ireland is a new destination, but he says he is enjoying settling in and preparing for a very hectic September as the course begins.

The programme will fit within NCI’s School of Computing, initially launching with 25 graduates with honours degrees in computer science. They will spend 12 to 15 months completing the course, doing two semesters of coursework first, and then preparing a dissertation based on a project they undertake within industry over the summer.

“The CCC is that marriage between education, research, and industrial links, and will also link to our incubation centre. We did market research, and there was no programme focusing on that. A few have computing elements, but many more are business angled, or rebranded, existing programmes.”

The CCC programme is specifically grounded in computing skills, with an intention to engage directly with industry.

González-Vélez points out that the advisory board, in part drawn from companies such as Microsoft, IBM, Fujitsu and Google, also includes a number of eminent computer scientists of international profile.

These include Stanford University emeritus professor of computer science and author Jeffrey Ullman; University of California, Berkeley adjunct professor and cloud computing specialist Armando Fox; and Michael J Franklin, the Thomas M Siebel Professor of Computer Science at UC Berkeley.

González-Vélez says the Irish programme was able to attract such individuals because Ireland has a strong reputation in the area of cloud computing.

“Six out of 10 of the top cloud providers have centres here. It’s not just the weather . Ireland is one of the top places to do cloud computing. And we need to convey that message to students.”