Discovery Files

Hands-on training for tomorrow's Internet engineers

NYU researchers give students around the world real-world networking experiences through NSF-supported GENI wireless resources

Education is a fast moving target--especially when you're trying to educate students about computing and information technology.

Professors want to teach their students about the latest advances and give them experiences with the newest technologies, but it's not easy to develop a robust curriculum to support new, specialized technologies or concepts overnight.

Technology itself can provide assistance in this regard. From virtual experiments to massive open online courses, or MOOCs, technology has the capacity to enhance traditional learning experiences, expanding the limits of the classroom and bringing ideas to new audiences.

Whereas most undergraduate computer science and engineering students learn networking from textbooks and lectures, for more than 2,100 students from the NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the University of Thessaly, in Greece, and a dozen other universities, studying networking means running tests on ultra-high-speed networks spanning the globe--and learning that real networks don't always obey the models they learn about in class.

The students take advantage of a unique program, sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF), which allows them to perform experiments on GENI, the Global Environment for Network Innovations--a virtual laboratory for networking and distributed systems typically reserved for scientists.

GENI is spread across more than 180 sites in the U.S. and around the world. Since it was launched in 2007, roughly 3,500 researchers have run more than 100,000 experiments on GENI, in part to design and test ways to make the future Internet faster, more secure and more customizable.

But from the start, GENI was envisioned as an educational tool as well, and has helped prepare the next generation of researchers and network engineers to design and operate the Internet architecture of the future.

As part of this effort, Thanasis Korakis and Fraida Fund from the NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering developed a set of experiments on a range of topics, from IP [Internet Protocol] mobility to adaptive video streaming, that students perform using remote access to GENI's cellular wireless infrastructure.

Each experiment is designed to show a side of computer networks that wouldn't usually be covered in textbooks and classroom lectures and assignments aim to highlight the differences between the simplified models taught to students and the behavior of real networks.

For instance, in a lab exercise on Transmission Control Protocols (TCP), students measure the congestion dynamics on the network using four different control algorithms, highlighting how much congestion control has changed in the last 40 years.

Students respond to this kind of hands-on, experimental computer science work and consistently cite collecting their own data and running experiments to answer questions relevant to their lives as their favorite parts of the lab experience, according to the researchers.

"The lab exercises better taught us about the topics we were learning about in class and were running using the wireless GENI infrastructure," said Samuel Partington an Electrical Engineering student at NYU. Partington was hired to participate in a summer research program after taking Fund's undergraduate Communication Networks lab, and went on to develop new educational materials on GENI.

The lab materials are offered to educators as a fully hosted service, which means that everything from a personalized lab website, course materials, and testbed infrastructure lives on servers at the NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering and can be easily made available to other schools. Instructors using the Wireless Implementation Testbed Lab (WITest) facility for educational purposes get a private class site with materials specific to their group.

The researchers modeled their project on other connected capabilities like "software as a service" or "networks as a service".

"This new approach that we call 'classroom as a service' provides a whole educational framework to both the tutor and the students, enabling the students to define a new interesting scenario on networking, to run it using resources of a real heterogeneous and modular network infrastructure, and to collect and to analyze the results, understanding in this way the dynamics of real large-scale networking systems," Korakis, a research assistant professor at NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering, said.

The package includes assessment materials which are automatically graded by the computer system, as well as open-ended questions which can be graded by an instructor directly on the lab website.

Earlier this year, supported by GENI's first round of grants to develop course materials, Fund and Korakis turned their curriculum and exercises into a series of MOOCs on networking powered by the EdX software, with GENI and next-generation technologies at their heart.

The mini-courses cover topics related to computer networks and distributed systems, from expected subjects like routing and Internet security to more of-the-moment courses on Bitcoin and Network Neutrality. Unlike the classroom-as-a-service offerings, these lessons are offered directly to students at all levels, with no instructor support, academic affiliation, or technical background required.

"If you're a student in one of the classes, you get to try out state-of-the-art research experiments entirely from your browser without any programming or formal technical education required," Korakis said. "We hope this platform will serve as a venue for a new kind of experiential online education."

Meanwhile, Korakis and Fund have been experimenting in their classroom with design challenges hosted on GENI. After participating in a software radio design competition organized by DARPA, Fund, who is a Ph.D. student and NSF Graduate Research Fellow at NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering, worked with Korakis to adapt the competition into an undergraduate course. In the course, students work in teams to design radios, and later compete tournament-style to outperform one another.

"It is great to see students learning about the difficult concepts of wireless signal processing by building a real communication system from scratch and coming up with innovative communication modules in order to compete with their schoolmates on the best implementation," said Korakis, who taught the course last semester. "It is impossible to give such knowledge to students through a traditional teaching approach."

Last year, Korakis taught a class on wireless communications, based on labs and projects that the students had implemented on the NYU GENI Wireless Testbed.

"The most impressive part of the whole process was the outcomes of the projects assigned to the students," he said. "They came up with very interesting schemes to implement, insured by the hands-on labs of the class. I was inspired to see them implementing their cool ideas and presenting experimentation results that, in many cases, would be worthy of being published."

"Education on GENI has been a tremendous success for the program," said Vicraj Thomas, lead for experimenter advocacy and the support group at the GENI Project Office. "Professors don't need to acquire and maintain expensive lab facilities; students have 24-7 access; and learners are able to experience lab exercises not previously possible."

Just as GENI is helping scientists and entrepreneurs do smart policing or provide personal fitness instruction, it is also inspiring and training the next generation of network engineers.