image title

From researcher to entrepreneur

Virtual lab accommodates growing interest in computer networking, cybersecurity.
September 19, 2016

ASU professor launches virtual lab platform for computing research and education

What started as a way for an Arizona State University professor to help enhance lab access for his students has launched into an entrepreneurial venture to improve hands-on computer science education and research capabilities worldwide.

When associate professor Dijiang Huang (pictured above) first joined the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering in 2005, a physical laboratory with 20 computers was a workable solution for hands-on computer networking and cybersecurity coursework for around 20 students. As enrollment rapidly increased over the next few years and cybersecurity interest grew among computer science and engineering students, a physical lab was no longer feasible. There was no way for an instructor to schedule lab time for more than 100 students in one class each working on five lab projects per semester, nor was there a way to keep a large enough lab equipped and maintained.

This got Huang thinking about creating a cloud-based virtual lab, where the physical computers and network connections could be emulated on a server to form any computer network configuration needed. Students would be able to explore real-world cybersecurity problems and solutions on networks that mirrored real-world implementations in a hands-on platform — the most effective way to train students for today’s job market — and it’d relieve a lot of logistical headaches of building a physical lab for computer science educators.

The effort began in 2010, and over the next several years, Huang attracted funding from the National Science Foundation and Department of Defense that allowed him to grow his virtual lab infrastructure from a small set of servers in his office to clusters of high-performance cloud servers at the ASU Data Center that run a versatile cloud-based virtual lab.

Huang’s success with his own students encouraged him to think about commercializing his platform to benefit a wider range of instructors and students, so he began working with Arizona Technology Enterprises to overhaul the lab’s software and infrastructure in preparation for commercialization. Out of these efforts came the startup Athena Network Solutions LLC and its product, ThoTh Lab.

Huang's ThoTh Lab is entirely browser-based. Instructors can create any configuration of computer network and monitor student progress and performance.

Huang’s ThoTh Lab is entirely browser-based. Instructors can create any configuration of computer network and monitor student progress and performance. Image courtesy of Dijiang Huang

While originally conceived as V-Lab, or Virtual Lab, Huang saw that it was hard to differentiate his product with such a generally descriptive name, and got the idea from a student to name it after the ancient Egyptian god of knowledge and wisdom, Thoth — you look to Thoth for knowledge, and ThoTh Lab is the platform for computer networking and cybersecurity knowledge.

ThoTh Lab is a browser-based virtual lab environment where instructors can create customized lab configurations in the cloud for personalized and collaborative learning, while saving the cost and time associated with setup and maintenance of physical labs. Students get hands-on experience with computing resources that closely resemble real-world systems, which translates to better problem-solving skill development that will make them competitive in today’s job market. ThoTh’s hands-on lab service tools allow instructors to more easily manage courses and track student progress and performance. (Watch a video about ThoTh Lab)

As part of the commercialization process, Huang leveraged the NSF Innovation Corps, a program that teaches NSF grantees to think of the business opportunities of their research through rigorous entrepreneurship training.

Through I-Corps, Huang and Chun-Jen Chung — cofounder, CTO and Huang’s former doctoral student — talked with more than 100 potential users, mostly instructors from other universities, and received positive feedback about how the platform could enhance the implementation of their curriculums.

The startup company had recently successfully secured $225,000 funding from NSF Small Business Innovation Research Program to incorporate personalized learning capacity into the hands-on learning environment.

Huang’s entrepreneurial efforts earned him an appointment in 2015 as a Fulton Entrepreneurial Professor. This Fulton Schools program recognizes outstanding faculty who translate their innovations to positive community impact through product commercialization and the formation of new companies based on their research. They are selected through an annual competitive proposal process for one- to two-year terms. Halfway through his appointment, Huang has achieved much and isn’t slowing down. He’s working on expanding the reach and scope of ThoTh Lab.

Since launching Athena Network Solutions LLC, the use of ThoTh Lab has expanded well beyond ASU’s campus, with users in California State University at Fullerton, Penn State Altoona and the University of Missouri-Kansas City in addition to universities in China, India and the United Arab Emirates.

Through ThoTh Lab's interface, students get experience with real-world systems and can receive real-time assistance from their instructors.

Through ThoTh Lab’s interface, students get experience with real-world systems and can receive real-time assistance from their instructors. This makes learning more effective for the student, and makes it easier for instructors to evaluate their students. Image courtesy of Dijiang Huang

The platform has the potential to be useful beyond lab coursework. Huang and professor Gail-Joon Ahn, the director of the Center for Cybersecurity and Digital Forensics, have used the platform as a training environment for their students participating in cybersecurity competitions, such as the National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition. Huang and Ahn create vulnerable systems for students to explore, try out cybersecurity tools and develop and deploy a countermeasure. Last year ASU’s team placed eighth in the Southwest region. They plan to continuously train ASU students and participate in subsequent CCDC competitions.

Huang’s own cybersecurity research on server networking, cloud, Internet of Things and data-center systems could benefit from a quick, customizable and versatile virtual lab platform, and he thinks other disciplines could benefit from ThoTh Lab as a Research as a Service platform.

“Environmental, transportation, anthropology and biomedical research all require high-performance computing, and ThoTh Lab’s cloud-based platform provides the computational support to test and demonstrate research results,” said Jay Etchings, ASU director of research computing. “With an RaaS platform, researchers could choose a lab template and get started right away or customize their own lab in minutes rather than days or weeks — this functionally reduces the time to valuable research.”

Next, by working with ASU high-performance computing, Huang would like to create a distributed cloud that will enhance the capabilities of the centralized ASU-based cloud. This would allow ASU to replicate the RaaS model for other universities.

ASU is a foundational member in the Tri-University partnership with Sun Corridor for 100-40-10 Gigabit-per-second connections to Arizona’s research and education institutions. Huang also collaborates with Internet2, a next-generation 100 Gigabit network that provides high-speed data transfers among U.S. universities, and Science DMZ from the Department of Energy’s Energy Sciences Network, a secure network optimized for high-performance scientific applications.

Together with these partners, Huang is looking to push a solution that uses these existing network initiatives for local, regional and national research.

Top photo: Fulton Entrepreneurial Professor Dijiang Huang created a cloud-computing-based virtual lab to help the growing student population of Arizona State University's Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering get better access to a hands-on lab that mirrors real-world computer networking systems. Photo by Pete Zrioka/ASU

Monique Clement

Lead communications specialist , Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


image title

Building chemistry among a new cast

September 19, 2016

At the first read-through of 'Feathers and Teeth,' laughter reigns; meet the cast here, from 17-year-old rookie to seasoned senior

Editor's note: This is the second installment of a semester-long series following the production of "Feathers and Teeth" from casting call to wrap party.

The play’s subject matter touches on sensitive themes such as grief, love and the supernatural, but on the first read-through with the new cast members, they just couldn’t stop laughing.

It’s not that they’re heartless or insensitive, but this is a table reading — and for a horror-comedy, at that. At a read-through, actors gather around a table to read a script aloud, giving the director an idea of what the final production will sound like.

And so far, the director liked what he heard.

“I selected this particular cast because of the way they worked together, the way they took direction together in the callbacks,” said Ricky Araiza, the director of “Feathers and Teeth,”“Feathers and Teeth” is a retro comedy-thriller. The plot follows Chris, a 13-year-old who suspects foul play when her father hooks up with an attractive home-care nurse two months after the death of her mother, Ellie. Set in a Rust Belt factory town in 1978, the play combines the supernatural with classic rock, family dysfunction and gremlin-like creatures that roam the house’s crawl space. an upcoming play that will debut in Tempe on Oct. 28.

“Acting is all about chemistry and combinations.”

Araiza is a third-year master of fine arts student in Arizona State University’s School of Film, Dance and TheatreASU’s School of Film, Dance and Theatre is a unit of the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts.. The play will serve as the equivalent of Araiza’s master’s thesis. He has about six weeks left to prepare the production, which was written by Charise Castro Smith in 2013.

After screening close to 75 actors amid an audition process that rivaled the most cringe-worthy early-season episodes of “American Idol,” Araiza has selected his final cast.

He chose them because of their potential for group chemistry — a family, rather than just a group. The cast members, who will be working together every weekday until the performance, range from a 17-year-old rookie to a seasoned theater senior.

Maria Harris (Chris)

A 17-year-old freshman theater major who auditioned for the experience and ended up getting the part. She’ll play the lead character, Chris, a sullen but sardonic teenager who is grieving the recent loss of her mother. Chris suspects her mother’s hospice nurse, who is dating her father, of foul play.

On what attracted her to the play: “It read like a dark comedy, and I’ve always loved that type of humor. It was funny and horrible but has a heart behind it.”

On her rookie status: “I’m still so excited because this is my first play, and I have the butterflies to prove it.”

Evan Carson (Arthur)

A 22-year-old theater senior who gave a stiff reading in his audition, but as it turns out, it was an act. That’s exactly what his character, Arthur, is — a higher-up at the town's factory, but not the highest-up. Two months after his wife’s death, he is seeing the hospice nurse who took care of her and will do anything to keep the family, including daughter Chris, together.

On what attracted him to the play: “It’s like appearing in this sitcom home of ‘The Brady Bunch,’ and then it elevates into these really dark and intimate moments.”

What he wants to learn about his character in the coming weeks: “I need to find out what it is about Carol that he loves. What’s his relationship with her and the power dynamic between how much he loves Carol to how much he loves his daughter, Chris.”

Tess Galbiati (Carol)

A 20-year-old senior in the School of Film, Dance and Theatre who charmed everyone in her audition when she pulled out a ukulele and strummed a tongue-in-cheek version of “All of Me.” Described as “Carol Brady on speedballs,” Galbiati has the play’s scene-stealing part.

On what attracted her to the play: “I am still struggling with the interpretation of my character, Carol, but what I love is her black and white flipping between being Ms. Absolute Sweetheart and turning into this demonic presence.”

What she got from the table read: “A lot more perspective but a lot more questions. There’s this constant questioning of how honest Carol is being, and even reading through her part, I’m still not sure.”

Fargo Tbakhi (Hugo)

A 19-year-old theater major who will have to be the most convincing actor: He’ll play Hugo, an 11-year-old transplant from Germany who befriends Chris. The script will require him to play the part with a thick accent. He is so convincing, however, that you can’t help but wonder if he’ll sport lederhosen onstage.

On what attracted him to the play: “When I initially read it, my thought was that it was so insane and cool. Even though it has horror and comedy trappings, it has a tragic story.”

How he hopes audiences will react: “I hope that they will be terrified and also heartbroken. They’re often closely related.”

Cast member Kyra Jackson was not present at the Sept. 15 table read, but will provide the voice of Ellie in the productions of “Feathers and Teeth.” Top photo: (clockwise from lower left) Director Ricky Araiza, stage manager Ben Vining, Maria Harris (Chris), Evan Carson (Arthur), Tess Galbiati (Carol) and Fargo Tbakhi (Hugo) go through lines at the first read-through of "Feathers and Teeth" at the Nelson Fine Arts Center on the evening of Sept. 15. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Read more: The series' first installment, "Anything goes at 'Feathers and Teeth' casting call."

Reporter , ASU News