Center of Excellence for Experimental Systems in Education

Sun Centers of Excellence

The Sun's Center of Excellence program provides a formalized framework for partnership between Sun's Global Education and Research group, the institution, and additional partners. It is intended to drive the widespread use of Sun technologies by students, researchers, faculty, etc.; to enhance business and technology relationships between the engaged partners and external parties; and to facilitate the adoption of Sun technologies in both academia and industry.

Experimental Systems in Education

This COE focuses on bringing an experimental systems approach into the classroom. Experimental systems combines science with the creativity and skills needed to translate good ideas into useful systems that work in realistic settings; this approach is central to the research process both as the ultimate validity test for new theories and methods, and as a way of exploring factors and understanding new phenomena. We believe this same approach must be also made central to undergraduate education.

The adoption of an experimental systems approach in education is particularly challenging for instructors, as it requires us to integrate and balance the theoretical basis and practical aspects of the topic at hand in a relatively short period of time. In operating systems, for example, the instructor is normally left with two unsatisfactory options: either superficially focus on one small aspect of a complex but real OS, or aim at a more thorough understanding of a ``toy'' OS. The complexity of the systems under study is partially to blame. Operating systems are large, involved "beasts" of several thousands to millions of lines of code, implementing various, tightly interconnected, subsystems. A single academic term is clearly not enough to understand, let alone modify, such a complex piece in any meaningful way.

With this goal in mind, we are designing interactive lab component for experimentation in operating systems that closely resembles the model followed by labs in traditional science classes such as Chemistry and Physics. Armed with a good understanding of the components of an OS and a carefully crafted set of exercises built on a system instrumentation tool, students will better able to create useful mental models of the interactions between applications and the OS and among the OS's components - a level of understanding virtually impossible to attain in a regular, term-long course. By working with a real, open-source OS (Open Solaris 10), students will learn how to navigate existing complex software and be better prepared to enter the job market. For instrumentation we rely on DTrace, a new tool for dynamic, kernel/application interactive instrumentation.