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Entrepreneurial-Focused Course Seeks to Expand on UI-Led Revolutions in Distributed Computing

2/22/2010 10:57:00 AM


PayPal.  YouTube.  Mosiac.  All three innovations were led by Illinois computer science alumni.  And all three helped launch and shape the distributed computing revolution. The latest incarnation of this revolution involves cloud computing, massive datacenters, and distributed data-intensive computing, which is poised to emerge as a multi-billion dollar industry.

Now, Illinois is expanding its toehold in distributed systems entrepreneurialism through a revamped graduate course offering in Advanced Distributed Systems (CS 525).  The course will focus the efforts of graduate students (and advanced undergraduate students) to create real-world, industry-ready solutions to distributed systems challenges, in the form of open source or licensable software.

The revamped course is made possible by a grant from the Academy of Entrepreneurial Leadership at Illinois. 

“Given Illinois’ history in leading distributed computing revolutions, it seemed only natural to refocus the Distributed Systems course to be more entrepreneurial,” said computer science professor Indranil Gupta, lead architect of the Advanced Distributed Systems course.

Illinois computer science professor Indranil Gupta
Illinois computer science professor Indranil Gupta
Illinois computer science professor Indranil Gupta


“Firstly, the atmosphere is highly conducive to entrepreneurial activity – ranging from startups to nonprofit services – in a wide variety of distributed systems, both traditional as well as contemporary. Secondly, students have always been at the source and fount of new ideas in distributed systems. Thirdly, the success of our alumni is a testament that Illinois is a unique source for such entrepreneurial activity.”

Traditional graduate-level courses have a uniquely academic perspective; students focus their studies on academic research papers and channel their contributions into publishing cutting-edge research papers in journals or at conferences. 

The CS525 distributed systems course, by contrast, will cover the field with both an academic and an industrial perspective, covering papers not only from academia, but also from industry’s top researchers.  The nature of the student’s projects, which have so far been driven by the need to publish, will add on a new layer.  Students will now have the additional option to consider entrepreneurial motivations and value for their projects. Academic projects oriented towards cutting-edge research will still form the core of the course projects.

“YouTube, Napster, PayPal: no one’s writing research about those kinds of systems, but look at the impact that they have had,” remarked Gupta.  “It is my hope that with the CS525 course, we will get some projects that will really have an impact on the industry. And the course will will continue to have the kind of impact on academia that we have had in the past 6 years of this course’s offering.”

“We’ve had tremendous success from this course. Since 2003, the projects from CS525 have resulted in 10 papers in top journals, and about 20 papers in top conferences. A majority of project papers make it into competitive conferences and/or journals,” remarked Gupta, “The open software releases from the course project are popular too. A student released an open source tool that studied the characteristics of the PPLive network.  That crawler tool and the data from this project have been downloaded by hundreds of researchers and by industry all over the world, with little publicity or promotion.”

The Advanced Distributed Systems course is already one of the most popular graduate course offerings in computer science, attracting a wide range of students.  In addition, students in the course have access to use 3 different cloud and distributed testbeds, including the Cloud Computing Testbed, PlanetLab, and EmuLab.  The diversity of interests and outlets in the course leaves Gupta optimistic that some really interesting collaborations will result.

“The University of Illinois, and the computer science department, are uniquely positioned – due to our history, students, infrastructures, and course offerings – to serve as a major catalyst for entrepreneurial activities in this new age of distributed systems,” said Rob A. Rutenbar, Abel Bliss Professor of Engineering and head of the computer science department.  “This new course will help us better mentor and foster our student’s entrepreneurial aspirations, and enable Illinois to have an even greater impact on the future of distributed systems.”

The revised course will be offered for the first time in Spring 2011, however the current Spring 2010 offering of the course ( has already begun to incorporate many elements of entrepreneurialism into it.  Gupta and his teaching staff will be working on new course materials and a new course structure to suit the new focus.