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From researcher to entrepreneur

February 20, 2017

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

Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering