Ontario universities tap into Tools as a Service

A new pilot project from the IBM Canada Center for Advanced Studies in Toronto (CAS Toronto) and the Ontario Centres of Excellence (OCE) is providing Ontario research institutions cloud-based access to IBM software development tools.

The Tools as a Service (TaaS) project consists of two commercially-available IBM products – WebSphere Integration Developer and Rational Software Architect over the Internet – delivered on the Centre of Excellence for Research in Adaptive Systems (CERAS) cloud computing infrastructure.

CERAS is a research partnership between CAS Toronto, OCE and eight universities to advance development of next-gen software services and applications. TaaS was developed by the IBM Center for Advanced Studies’ Technology Incubation Lab (CAS TIL) to validate CERAS research results and showcase a potentially commercialized offering, explained Joanna Ng, program director of CAS Toronto.

CAS Toronto and CAS TIL are both hosted at the IBM Toronto Software Lab.

TaaS is a win-win proposition for IBM and the universities involved, said John Sloan, senior research analyst at Info-Tech Research Group. Students and faculty get access to these tools far more cheaply because they don’t have to build out workstations and servers to host them, while IBM sees a class of developing computer science and software architects using their platform, Sloan explained.

The IBM products included in TaaS are already familiar to computer science departments, according to York University computer science professor Dr. Marin Litoiu. Accessing them through the cloud, however, provides several benefits.

“IBM gives these tools for free to universities, provided you download and install them. It’s a very time consuming process and most of the time, it fails,” said Litoiu. “When you move to cloud computing, first of all, you don’t need to install them.”

“The second thing is that these tools need a lot of computing resources, storage resources, which you usually don’t have in a university environment. You have to find specific labs where you install them, because otherwise they don’t work,” Litoiu continued. You don’t need special labs for cloud computing, he pointed out.

“Third, IBM provides them to be used on campus only, so you have to install them in a lab and students have to go in the lab to use them,” Litoiu said. The most important aspect of cloud-based tools – from the student point of view – is the ability to access them anytime and anywhere, which means students can use them from home, he said.

TaaS is also a valuable collaboration tool for researchers, Litoiu pointed out. “It allows people to develop applications together because they use the same type of tools and work on the same type of data. It is easier to share a common project between many universities,” he said.

Security isn’t a concern – in terms of privacy and ownership of data – because CERAS owns the cloud, Litoiu said. IBM defines the CERAS cloud computing infrastructure as “an expandable collection of IBM BladCenter servers physically located on the campuses of some of the participating universities and virtualized by a virtual machine monitor.”

“Actually, the security is much better because all the data is in one place, in a secure place. Before, anyone could install it anywhere and usually it’s riskier to lose your data when you have it on your laptop than when you have it on your server,” said Litoiu.

With cloud-based processing, you don’t necessarily have to purchase hardware, you don’t have to maintain that processing internally and if you are outsourcing the processing, you will save in areas like consumables and electricity, Sloan pointed out.

But whether it’s hosted on a cloud or not, the applications or tools themselves should be evaluated first.

According to Sloan, the “cloud” is a buzz phrase used to spin services. “Whether it’s getting just the raw computing from an external source, getting access to programming tools or whether it’s full application, we had all of those before the cloud,” he said. “The cloud is just a new means of hosting this stuff.”

Sloan recognizes three broad categories (among the glut of …as-a-Service acronyms) for cloud-based services: Software as a Service (SaaS), Platform as a Service (PaaS) and Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS).

SaaS is an application hosted somewhere else and you pay to access it and you don’t have to host it on your own infrastructure, while PaaS gives you access to development tools to create and run your own applications, Sloan explained. IaaS includes hardware services and is “probably the closest to actually buying cloud computing,” he said.

TaaS falls under the broad PaaS category, according to Sloan. “You don’t use it because it’s based on a cloud or because it’s inexpensive, you use it first and foremost if you’re choosing to do your development with WebSphere,” he said.

The first question enterprises should ask when considering PaaS is “Do we want to use this platform?” said Sloan.

“It’s the same for question for SaaS,” Sloan continued. “Does this application work for us? Is this a good application? Does it meet our business requirements? If it doesn’t, we’re not interested.”

If the answer is yes, the secondary questions come in. “Do we stand to save on the infrastructure side by having this application hosted externally and what are the risks in having the application hosted externally? That’s when you start to evaluate whether it’s valuable if it’s cloud-based,” he said.

Access to TaaS is currently limited to participating CERAS member institutions, which includes the University of Waterloo, York University, Queen’s University, University of Toronto, Carleton University, the Ontario Cancer Institute and developers from the IBM Canada software lab.

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