Texas Ticker

IT innovation by agencies, cities, counties, schools and universities throughout the state.

by / July 1, 2006
Defending Cyber-Space
The University of Texas at San Antonio finished third in the first National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition (CCDC).

The University of North Carolina at Charlotte won first place, and Pennsylvania's Millersville University placed second in the event, which was held in late April at the Airport Hilton in San Antonio. Other participants included Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and a team of cadets representing all five military service academies.

"We hope this exposure helps to raise the level of interest in security as a potential career and educates the students on the importance of defending the nation's critical infrastructures," said Greg White, director of the Center for Infrastructure Assurance and Security at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

The National CCDC was sponsored in part through donations and volunteer support from the Department of Homeland Security and others. -- University of Texas at San Antonio

Beefing up the Cluster
The Board of Regents for the University of Texas (UT) System established a three-year partnership with the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC) at UT Austin to significantly expand world-class research programs and increase external funding of research at UT System institutions.

The partnership will invest approximately $7 million over three years to substantially increase the capabilities of the Lonestar high-performance computing cluster at TACC. Lonestar also will be made available to researchers at the UT System's 14 other institutions.

The board approved a $3 million investment in equipment to upgrade Lonestar from 1,000 processors with 6 teraflops peak performance to newer technologies offering at least 1,800 dual-core processors providing at least 35 teraflops of peak performance.

Researchers in the UT System can tap the TACC Lonestar cluster via the Lonestar Education and Research Network (LEARN), a fiber-optic communications network funded by the Texas Legislature in 2004.

LEARN provides high-speed connectivity among academic institutions and to research networks across the country. The network, including the TACC, was built to enhance Texas' research competitiveness and the state's economic competitiveness, and to provide advanced, cost-effective data communications to support educating students around the state.

The computer hardware upgrade will increase TACC's computing capabilities, making it one of the leading academic high-performance computing centers in Texas and the United States. The upgrade, which will use new blade technology from Dell, will also make it more cost-effective to upgrade further when Intel releases new processors.

As demand for supercomputing has increased, TACC has grown from a staff of 15 to more than 60 in four years, and is expected to double over the next four years. -- University of Texas

RFID on the Road
The Harris County Toll Road Authority (HCTRA) in Houston is upgrading its electronic-payment system for toll roads.

For the past 13 years, the HCTRA used an older, hard-case radio frequency identification (RFID) tag to collect toll payments electronically from passing cars. The upgrade to TransCore's multiprotocol eGo Plus RFID tags will replace the HCTRA's current EZ TAG transponder with next-generation windshield sticker tags.

The new RFID sticker tag is a 915 MHz radio frequency programmable windshield tag, and requires no battery to operate. Packaged as a flexible paper-thin sticker, this transponder is designed for applications that require low-cost, easily installed tags, and is appropriate for high-speed electronic toll collection, airport ground transportation management systems, parking and security access.

The HCTRA said it plans to migrate approximately 1.2 million motorists to the new RFID tags over the next couple of years. The order is for 1 million new RFID tags with distribution slated to begin in spring 2006.

The same RFID tag also was selected in September 2005 by the Texas Department of Transportation, which hopes to overcome the cost barrier to widespread RFID tag adoption. The multiprotocol tag allows motorists to use their EZ TAGs on toll roads in other parts of Texas, as well as any other states that have established interoperability agreements with the toll authorities in Texas.

The tag offers a read range of up to 31.5 feet and 2048-bit read/write memory at a fraction of the cost of older, less flexible RFID technology, according to the manufacturer. -- TransCore

High Voltage
In early May, Sharyland Utilities convened a ceremonial groundbreaking at the Sharyland Plantation in Mission, Texas, to debut the utility's new $40 million 150-megawatt High Voltage Direct Current Tie (DC Tie) project.

The tie will be located along the Rio Grande border and will link the Electric Reliability Council of Texas grid with the Mexican national grid, maintained by the Comision Federal de Electricidad.

"We are exceptionally proud to be working on a project that further binds our countries together, and that enhances the reliability and trade opportunities on both sides of the river," said Hunter Hunt, president of Sharyland Utilities.

This cross-border tie will be the first of its kind to support both emergency power and commercial business activity in Texas and Mexico. Its technology will allow the two-way flow of electricity between both grids, allowing each grid to rely on the other in times of peak demand.

Not only will this strengthen the stability of both grids, it also has the potential to foster an international wholesale market that could bring together power generators and commercial customers on both sides of the border.

"The economic impact of this project is enormous," said Mark Caskey, general manager of Sharyland Utilities. "Its benefits will be felt not just in Mission, but throughout the Rio Grande Valley and northern Mexico."

 "We are really glad to see this additional tie between the Texas and Mexico grids coming online," said Barry Smitherman, commissioner of the Public Utility Commission of Texas. "I expect it to have positive economic and reliability benefits for both grids."

Of Nanotubes and Nerve Cells
Texas scientists have added one more trick to the amazing repertoire of carbon nanotubes -- the ability to carry electrical signals to nerve cells.

Nanotubes are tiny hollow carbon filaments about one-ten-thousandth the diameter of a human hair, and are 100 times as strong as steel and one-sixth as dense. Nanotubes can also conduct electricity better than copper and can substitute for silicon in semiconductor chips.

Researchers have proposed carbon nanotubes as the basis for everything from elevator cables that could lift payloads into Earth orbit to computers smaller than human cells.

Thin films of carbon nanotubes deposited on transparent plastic can also serve as a surface on which cells can grow. As researchers at the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) and Rice University suggest in the May issue of the Journal of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology, these nanotube films could potentially serve as an electrical interface between living tissue and prosthetic devices or biomedical instruments.

The group employed two different types of cells in their experiments: neuroblastoma cells commonly used in test-tube experiments, and neurons cultured from experimental rats. Both cell types were placed on 10-layer-thick "mats" of single-walled carbon nanotubes (SWNTs) deposited on transparent plastic. This enabled the researchers to use a microscope to position a tiny electrode next to individual cells and record their responses to electrical pulses transmitted through the SWNTs. -- Jim Kelly, University of Texas Medical Branch

Check, Please.
Voters, civil rights groups and a statewide candidate filed a petition on June 14, 2006, to attempt to prevent Texas from using electronic voting machines in the November elections.

The plaintiffs filed a petition asking the court to enjoin Travis County from using voting machines that do not produce a paper ballot. The Texas Civil Rights Project (TCRP) represents the plaintiffs.

More than 25 states now require their electronic voting machines to print a paper ballot when voters cast their votes, according to the TCRP. The voters read their ballot to make sure it recorded the intended vote, and then cast both the electronic and paper ballots. The paper ballot can be counted in case electronic ballots are lost, or if there's a discrepancy between the number of people who voted and the number of votes recorded. Having a paper trail also makes fraud less likely, the TCRP said.

Some voting machines used in Travis County and a number of counties around Texas have no such feature. Once voters cast the ballot, they don't know what the machine actually recorded, and there's no record available in case of a dispute.

The petition charges that use of these machines violates three of the plaintiffs' rights guaranteed under the Texas Constitution and Texas Election Code: the right to a secure election, the right to a recount and the right to equal protection under the law. -- Texas Civil Rights Project

Informing the Public
Tyler Independent School District (TISD), the largest school district in northeast Texas, recently deployed new technology to comply with the Public Information Act, the law guaranteeing citizens access to public records kept by government agencies.

When the district's legal counsel advised the TISD that an efficient archiving system was needed for compliance with the act, the TISD's IT team researched prospective solutions and selected a network-attached permanent storage appliance coupled with archiving software to meet the district's requirements.

The solution extracts a copy of every e-mail sent through the TISD system and writes it to the storage appliance, ensuring that all e-mails will be stored and indexed within the application. A structured permission-based management system enables authorized administrators to quickly search the mail archive in response to requests for message retrieval.

The stored data also has an extra layer of protection, since the storage appliance stores the e-mails on unalterable media. While the lifespan is initially set for permanent retention, the setting can be easily changed so that TISD can delete e-mail data when allowed by law.

The system was implemented in two weeks across 2,500 mailboxes throughout the entire school district.

The storage appliance consists of a terabyte cache on the front-end appliance and virtualized DVD-based media libraries in the storage subsystem. Each appliance provides up to 30 terabytes of storage in a single volume without staff having to manage individual DVDs. A newly created archive file can be stored in both the cache server and on the DVD within the library, which helps ensure the safety of the data since DVDs don't suffer hardware failure the same way spinning disks do. -- PowerFile
Shane Peterson Associate Editor