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Week of 19 September 1997

Vol. I, No. 4

Feature Article

New information systems VP got in on the ground floor

By Eric McHenry

John Porter loves putting things together.

In high school he built a photomicrographic camera -- one that takes pictures through a microscope. As a graduate student at BU (GRS'69,'76), he spent his days studying physics and his evenings studying the underbelly of a 1960 Mercedes-Benz 300d.

"I couldn't afford to have it fixed," he says. "It's a very complicated car, too, with a mechanically fuel-injected engine."

In the 1970s, as he was completing his graduate studies, he was also building what would become BU's academic mainframe computer system for the next 20 years.

John Porter


John Porter says his facility with computers comes from having first learned "what was underneath."

And now, as he assumes the vice presidency for information systems and technology, a newly created position at BU, he is undertaking what might be his biggest building task yet: bringing together the office of Information Technology, which oversees academic computing and the campus network and phone system, and the University Information Systems office, which deals with administrative computing. Together they employ over 200 people.

The consolidation has been made necessary, he says, by a marked increase in faculty, staff, and student access to the University's computer network, which is now used by nearly 100 percent of the BU community. The merger also mirrors a process under way at other U.S. colleges and universities.

"I think it's becoming common at many institutions," says Porter. "It's a necessary unification be-cause the technology is becoming so ubiquitous. It's reaching into everything, and the dividing line between administrative and academic computing is just not a natural one anymore."

Erasing that line altogether will enable the delivery of more efficient systems, according to Michael Krugman (COM'75, GRS'81), executive director of Information Technology.

"There was a time," says Krugman, who has been working with Porter for over 20 years, "when people used to tolerate having two separate terminals on their desks -- one for administrative application access, and one for campus network access. Nobody looks at it that way anymore. They just want the workstation, with access to every service and system."

Such streamlining requires not only the integration of two different offices, Krugman says, but also a leader sensitive to the needs of a growing, demographically diverse client base. He's happy that the new helmsman will be John Porter, whom he describes as "a Renaissance man."

"John can talk very intelligently with just about anybody about whatever their particular interests might be," says Krugman, "and then synthesize that into what is needed in the context of computing, communications, technology. Then he can make those requirements clear to people like me, who perhaps have narrower perspectives and have to deal with the actual implementation issues. We're really very, very lucky."

Porter's varied interests are evident even in the art he's chosen for his office. The west wall features three framed still lifes that were created, Porter says, by SFA students using a computer painting system developed in the BU graphics lab. Opposite that hangs a blowup of Porter's old Mercedes.

"I had that most of the time I was a graduate student," he says. "I may be the only person in the United States who knows how to put the exhaust system in one of those. Every time I look underneath one, they've got it in backwards."

Figuring out what makes things run has always been among Porter's strengths. As a undergraduate student of physics at Boston College in the mid-1960s, he learned computers "from the bottom up." Describing that early education, he uses terms -- circuits, bits, machine instructions -- that to today's computer programmers might sound rudimentary, if not anachronistic.

"By the time I started to learn about higher-level languages," Porter says, "I knew what was underneath."

That nuts-and-bolts introduction to computers has been of enduring value, he says.

"Computers are a lot more complex now because of the chip technology. But the fundamental physics and engineering and logic -- that doesn't change. So that core of understanding is highly valuable, and while it doesn't tell you how to administer Windows NT, at least it gives you a picture of what's got to be in there."

For the past 11 years, Porter has been BU's associate provost for information technology. His vice presidency is only the latest step in what has been a path of steady ascent since he joined the staff as a systems programmer in 1974.

Porter first came to BU in the late 1960s for graduate study, and did not wait long to get his hands on the University's computer system, which at the time resembled a stegosaurus -- large, unwieldy, and with a very small brain.

"In those days," he says, "it was the computer. It was in a basement. It was an IBM mainframe, and if you really wanted to get significant time on it, the best way was to sign up as an operator -- a weekend operator or a nighttime operator."

Porter parlayed his operator's position into the job as programmer. People were impressed, and a little disturbed, by the level of expertise he had attained.

"I was a hacker," he says. "But they were fairly enlightened people, and they realized that it would probably be better to get me to do things officially than to have me hanging around hacking unofficially."

He was grateful for the Uni-versity's interest in harnessing his tinkerer's instinct, which he'd been unable to rein in.

"I had been fooling around with the operating system. I wasn't supposed to be, but you know, I was there all by myself, and there was the computer . . . "