Academic Vision

The United Arab Emirates University views its alliance with Sun Microsystems as a strategic move towards including IT security into its curriculum.

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By  Shankar Sharma Published  March 23, 2005

|~|SunFrontRow.1.jpg|~|Dr Hadef Al-Dhaheri, Vice Chancellor, UAE University (centre), Kim Jones, VP for Global Education and Research, Sun, (left), and Dr. Ali Al-Noaimi, Provost, UAE University (right) |~|Should one ask virtually anybody and everybody involved in the global IT community as to what they regard as the overriding contemporary issue, one can expect to receive an almost universal response: security.

Network security, which has been long overlooked, is now at the forefront of IT research and development (R&D). High profile cases like Bank of America’s loss of customer data in March have hit the headlines, further underlining the need for enterprises to manage and secure data.

It should therefore not come as a surprise to see organisations making concerted efforts to secure their IT infrastructure. Take the United Arab Emirates University for instance, which has teamed up with Sun Microsystems to establish a ‘Sun Centre of Excellence’ to deal with security issues.

The collaboration between the university’s College of Information Technology (CIT) faculty and Sun began in 2004 and the decision to embark on the creation of the centre was taken a few months back. Now that the centre is fully operational, students are beginning to utilise the facilities. Students are learning about safe hacking, cryptography and intrusion detection.

Despite being based in Dubai, the new facility is designed to play a leading role in the global IT community. Sun has directly invested into the centre and its contributions include the free availability of software packages and over a hundred different online courses for students to access. “This is just the beginning,” says Kim Jones, global vice president of R&D at Sun. “Network security is one of the most important topics right now.” ||**|||~|Dean-Makki.jpg|~|Dr Rafic Makki, Dean of the CIT|~|A laboratory has also been built, equipped with state-of-the-art simulation equipment and firewall tools. CIT’s 756 undergraduate students and 70 members of staff can enjoy facilities costing over US $1 million. “We are building a knowledge-based society that will take the lead in contributing to the region’s IT community,” says Dr, Hadef Al-Daheri, vice chancellor of the United Arab Emirates University.

There are two employees of the college that work at the centre and weekly tutorials are held there. It is hoped that instructions on creating IT infrastructures, coupled with exposure to applications, will drive technological development in the region and prepare students to secure viable long-term employment. The mission is to produce world-class IT locally, while providing the opportunity to learn from renowned experts in the field.

Prior to building the new centre, security did form a major chunk of the college’s curriculum. The topic can now be examined further, with plans afoot to introduce two new programs for post-graduates in the next academic year. One is a Masters in Science (MSc) in information security, the other an MSc in IT management. Internships and fellowships with Sun and other vendors are also scheduled, with four of the college’s students already embarking on internships in North Carolina, USA.

The centre nevertheless, is an important addition. It allows students and staff alike to expand their knowledge, while providing valuable research and innovative ideas for organisations. It has heightened the college’s security program. Furthermore, it creates an environment for testing new solutions that have been customised.

“By providing students with the latest tools and technology, we think there will be some really interesting developments,” says Jones. “It gives students a really good education and [provides] them with new skills in IT,” she adds. Solutions developed at the will be utilised by government departments and businesses in the Middle East.

Dr Rafic Makki, Dean of the CIT, understands the benefits the new facility will bring. He believes that security has not in the past received the attention it merits from within the IT community, and that it is essential to have knowledge of systems in order to prevent theft or corruption of data. This is applicable to any organisation, but is a most poignant issue for those in banking, government and military sectors.

“We rely so much on information we obtain from local intranet and local databases,” he explains. “So it is important the information is accurate and people can not steal it.” Makki highlights the pioneering role of CIT in tackling security issues, citing that the institution created the first Bachelor’s program in information security in the world.

Staffed by experts specialising in IT security, the new faculty will assist government and industry organisations with all aspects of their network and information security curriculum. As part of Sun’s commitment to the project, the company has dedicated two Sun Academic Equipment Grants. The agreement includes the provision of Sun hardware running the Solaris software environment, to be used for ongoing educational and research curricula.

Although the vendor is the major financier of the centre, providing consultancy and technology, it is by no means the only company involved. Equipment has been purchased from various vendors. Cisco is on board with the networking side and negotiations are underway to tie up partnerships with more companies.

Sun nevertheless, initiated the centre in collaboration with the CIT, thanks to the latter’s strong faculty and pool of talent. The CIT provides seven degree programs: computer engineering; computer science; e-commerce; information security; information systems; network engineering and software engineering. Sun’s own roots are firmly based in academia, being originally founded at Stanford University in California, USA, in 1982.

The current deal has been inked for three years, but both parties envisage a longer future together. Denying attempts to brain drain, Sun insists that its bias is toward helping build IT skills capacity in the Middle East. “One of the ways you prevent brain drain is by creating new jobs and one of the ways you create new jobs is by working on projects like this,” points out Jones.

“It inspires students to think of new technologies and ideas that will hopefully spawn new companies.” She reasons, furthermore, that the world of IT – particularly in the area of software development – can be done anywhere in the world.

However, due to Sun and Cisco’s heavy involvement in the centre, the issue of potential conflicts of interests arises. As the centre looks to expand and collaborate further with new companies, this problem could be exacerbated. Dr Makki however insists that such concerns are unnecessary, as the companies on board recognise and appreciate CIT’s independence. “Even though this is the ‘Sun Centre of Excellence’, we do not have to answer to Sun,” he says. “We are a university, an established public institution, so we will always provide an independent viewpoint.”

||**|||~|DSC_7264-web.jpg|~|The centre in operation|~|The Sun centre aims to drive innovation and development in enterprise-class computing, networking and security. The company’s direct investment is targeted at R&D strategies of organisations in the UAE. The college itself will continue to play the leading role in training students about security and networking technology.

The centre possesses it’s own Cert (Computer Emergency Response Team). Its activities include the setting up of a web/FTP (file transfer protocol) server as a vehicle to furnish the UAE community and the region as a whole with security advisories, bulletins, patches and relevant software. It will also assist in writing security policies and procedures and start the establishment of certification authorities (CA).

Cert will provide assistance in incident response and handling by organising workshops on security tools and incident response. Vulnerability assessments and patch analysis is being conducted, along with MSc and PhD thesis research.

Being the first of its kind, the excitement surrounding the future of the centre is immense. Currently, there are no liaisons with other academic institutions in the Middle East region, but Makki maintains that CIT will be happy to do so. All information on the facility’s R&D is to be kept on record and stored. Other grand projects are already in the pipeline, as Makki sheds light on.

“We are developing and soon looking to launch software that will allow on site classes,” he says. “Students, researchers and staff will be able to log into this and read from the system. The centre’s remit is large and extensive.”
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