Mexican Revolution: ITESM

by Jonathan Littman

Mexico's pre-eminent engineering school, the Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey, opted for NeXT in a big way. Its mission: change the way Mexico approaches computing.
A visitor to Monterrey, Mexico, can't help but notice the mosaic of tin and cement shacks skirting the city's proud, granite-faced mountains. Many of the delapidated homes are freshly painted an odd forest green. "The president came a year ago and thought the slums were ugly," explains a local guide. "He gave them free paint."

Across the city from the shantytown, computers are helping Mexico generate more lasting change. Two monolithic slabs of concrete and glass are stuck at odd angles into the earth as if plunged from the sky. They house Monterrey's Center for Advanced Production Technology, the ultramodern centerpiece of Mexico's premier technical university, the Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey, or as it is called here, ITESM.

Behind the stark exterior are hundreds of computers arrayed in labs for automated manufacturing and advanced engineering. But the building's heart is in the basement. There, next to the traditional mainframe computers and minicomputers that power the Institute's vast fiber-optic token-ring network, are dozens of NeXTs and a tightly knit group of users called Academic Computing. Their mission: to change the way the Institute – and Mexico – approaches computing.

Founded in 1943 by a Mexican businessman who studied at MIT, ITESM's goal has been to train professionals at standards equal to those of the best U.S. universities. Today, the private, U.S.-accredited Institute boasts a Monterrey enrollment of 15,000, with another 30,000 studying at campuses around the country. ITESM's graduates have gone on to become leaders in business, engineering, applied sciences, and computer science.

ITESM prides itself on leading Mexico in the introduction of new technology, and the Institute's influence on Mexican industry is clear – more than 30 percent of the top 100 CEOs of Mexico's largest companies, and an estimated 25 percent of all Mexican engineers, are ITESM graduates. Today, a total of 170 NeXT workstations are installed on the Monterrey campus, with another 40 scattered around satellite campuses elsewhere in Mexico.

David Trevino, technology director of Academic Computing, was Mexico's first user of both Apple and Macintosh computers. In the late 1980s, Trevino and the Institute began looking at UNIX systems. Digital Equipment Corporation donated a VAX in 1988 and the Institute bought a number of IBM minicomputers.

Meanwhile, ITESM kept track of its favorite computer entrepreneur. "When we knew that Steve Jobs was founding a new company we kept track of what he was doing," says Ramiro Flores, ITESM's information director. And in early 1989, the Institute purchased ten NeXTcubes, following up the order the next year with five more.

The Institute wasn't ready to make a long-term commitment, however. Flores was ruminating on a far-reaching plan to shift ITESM's computing from vast PC labs to UNIX workstations running open systems. Each of the more than 600 full-time professors would have a workstation on his or her desk. Faculty, students, and satellite campuses would be connected by distributed systems with open-system servers and powerful parallel computers. The dramatic shift would cost over $10 million.

Flores and Trevino were at the early stages of this ambitious plan. "We looked at the IBM RS/6000, HP systems, Apollo," says Trevino. "We found that they cost a lot, and they were not workstations we could put on every desk."

Then came the NeXT power breakfast. In July 1990, while in Dallas for a conference, Trevino had breakfast with Pliny Gale, NeXT's district sales manager for northeast Texas and Mexico. Trevino told Gale that he had ordered 100 IBM PS/2s at roughly the same price as NeXTs. Gale dropped his fork.

"I said, 'David, sign this napkin, you're under nondisclosure,' " says Gale, who quickly filled Trevino in on the new machines – the 68040 NeXTstations that NeXT was readying for production – and invited him to tour NeXT's Fremont plant a few weeks later with Flores.

Flores's reaction was a salesman's fantasy. "He said, 'What's the upper limit we can buy?' " remembers Gale. To Flores, NeXT's university pricing and software bundling made the workstations seem too good to be true. "The least expensive [workstation] from Digital was $25,000, compared with $4000 for the NeXT," says Flores. "That was impressive to me."

ITESM responded by promptly signing a contract worth half a million dollars that has since been upped to a million dollars.

And that order for 100 IBM PS/2s? "In the end we only bought a few PCs," says Trevino.

"We don't want to use packages, we want to develop them," says Ciro Velasquez, coordinator for Academic Computing, who argues that nondiscounted Mexican prices for U.S. software are one of several good reasons for ITESM to be self-reliant. "We must develop our own software."

Indeed, methodology may be what separates ITESM from other universities, including the best north of the border. The Institute has a carefully thought-out plan to use NeXTs that balances central-application design and the seeding of departments with showcase applications.

For example, Information Services has created a general-purpose testing engine that uses the NeXT as a client front end, networked to an IBM RS/6000 server. Templates of math exams have been set up on the NeXT using FrameMaker and Mathematica, with problems categorized by difficulty and category.

Drawing from thousands of problems already stored on the IBM server, professors will soon be able to sit at a NeXT and generate new, custom examinations in a few minutes. Multiple-choice exams will be graded by scanners. Similar plans are underway for foreign languages, the sciences, engineering, and other disciplines.

The Institute's most dramatic use of the NeXT may be the 26-campus satellite network. Technology-crammed control rooms on the Monterrey and Mexico City campuses beam courses by satellite to the other campuses. This Sistema de Interaccion Remota enables students at the remote locations to send questions or comments via PC, dumb terminal, or a toll-free telephone number.

Only two years ago, texts and other necessary course materials arrived by mail – but often late. In Mexico, even the $30-and-up express mail packages arrive maĖana. Now, each moderator at each distant campus receives class work via NeXTmail, a program Academic Computing finds so useful that it routes mail to the NeXT from many of its other workstations and computers. NeXTs are currently being tested as replacements for the on-line PC gateways at all 26 campuses.

Academic Computing has also seeded the use of NeXT by developing a showcase architecture application called Historia de la Arquitectura. Eighteen famous works of architecture, ranging from the Palacio Ricardi in Florence to Frank Lloyd Wright's Falling Water house, are featured in a MediaStation presentation jointly created with the architecture department.

Architecture history students see color pictures and CAD-drawn plans of the buildings, study a time line, hear contemporary music, and listen to explanations about points of architectural interest while a pointer highlights building sections. Each work has an average of nine images scanned in with a scanner from HSD Microcomputer U.S.

Students can also work on a tutorial or focus on particular building elements, using a 150MB multimedia application that has increased student interest in history and won admiration for its integration of images, text, and voice. Architecture professors and students, who wrote all of the original text, selected the images, and drew all of the CAD plans, hope eventually to feature 100 architectural masterpieces. The application has been entered in an Educom software contest.

ITESM's marketing department plans to set up a similar showcase for Mexican ads and a system for students to create their own adver-tisements. At this writing, the department also hopes to install NeXTs running SAS, the powerful statistical program, in the Institute's library.

Meanwhile, the Advanced Computing lab at the Technology Center is on the verge of duplicating its success. The lab, which features 40 NeXTs connected to four NeXT servers through a token-ring network, has been so popular with students that the math department has recently begun clamoring for one of its own.

Domestic content
ITESM has come a long way when you consider that the big concern over its first NeXT purchase was whether the black machine might eventually go Red. "NeXTs weren't easily exported to Mexico," says Flores. "We have relations with Cuba and [U.S. government officials] were worried the machines might end up in Moscow."

Today, NeXTs not only breeze through customs; they also arrive speaking the language. NeXT's operating system includes the capability of switching between languages and accessing translated user documentation.

And much of the expertise to repair NeXTs is now on the Mexican side of the border. Aurelio Sanchez, another of the Academic Computing faithful, attended a California NeXT technical-support course and became a certified NeXT technician. "It's really much easier to service than any other machine," says Sanchez, who routinely swaps out disks and makes minor adjustments.

Occasional problems have been resolved quickly. "I send e-mail and usually get a response in a few days," says Sanchez, in sharp contrast to the procedure with ITESM's other major workstation vendor. "While we have a very good relationship with IBM, we think we get better service from NeXT – and IBM is here!"

But ITESM would like to see a few more standard applications before it makes a larger commitment to NeXT. First on the wish list is a strong CAD program: "What I expect and what I would like is a lot more software," says Flores. "It has been a slow process. Now they are doing something, porting to the '486. That is a good sign."

With more than 700 PCs at the Monterrey campus, ITESM is a beta site for NeXT-STEP '486, as well as for NeXTSTEP 3.0, token-ring cards, and other NeXT networking technology.

Trevino thinks NeXT has a shot at competing for the desks of the Institute's 600 faculty members. "In my personal opinion the workstation on the desks must be a NeXT," says Trevino. "You can put one machine instead of several and the NeXT is designed to be networked."

But professors and students will likely decide this competition themselves. Making the rounds of the Institute's departments, Academic Computing's Velasquez is hounded by the same questions: "Have the new NeXTs arrived? When will the next shipment come? Can we order more?"

Some professors can't seem to get enough of NeXT. Isabella Carmona, a math professor, is huddled with a student over a couple of NeXTs in her cramped office. It is Monday and she is preparing a test for Wednesday. Carmona holds up a NeXT-generated exam. "ŃQue presentacion!" she says, shooting off a series of Spanish adjectives that sound like an ad for a luxury car: "La rapidez, la harmonía, la concurrencia." ("The speed, the harmony, the integration.")

One of ITESM's first to adopt NeXT, Carmona has been smitten by Mathematica. She uses it to generate exams, quizzes, and homework. And the author of several respected Mexican math books wasn't satisfied with just having a NeXT in her office. She is ITESM's first professor to plunk down the over 12 million pesos necessary to buy her own NeXT, an unheard of investment on a Mexican professor's salary.

She paid for the machine months ago, and though her workstation has yet to arrive, her enthusiasm is contagious. This dedicated professora is only half joking about the sacrifices she made when she laughs, "Cinco aĖos sin zapatos para comprar mi NeXT."

To Isabella Carmona, five years without shoes is a small price to pay for a NeXT.

Jonathan Littman is an investigative writer and author whose work has appeared in Forbes, the Village Voice, the Los Angeles Times, and the San Francisco Chronicle.