Senior Capstone Project Is Sponsored by Red Hat

Electrical and Computer Engineering faculty, business men and students pose at the first meeting of the Open Source Club at UML
From left: Electrical and Computer Engineering Prof. Vinod Vokkarane, Friendly Fedora capstone project team members Robert Moeller, Ali Dia and Sage Lyon, and Mohan Boddu of Red Hat at the kickoff event for the Open Source Club on May 8 at University Crossing.

By Edwin L. Aguirre

A team of electrical and computer engineering students has set out to develop a more user-friendly version, or distribution, of Fedora, a popular open-source software operating system, as part of its senior capstone project.

Fedora is Red Hat’s community distribution of its Linux-based enterprise operating system. Unlike Windows and Mac OS, which are proprietary, Fedora is free for anyone to use, modify and distribute. Red Hat—a world-leading provider of open-source enterprise software with offices in Boston and Westford, Massachusetts—is sponsoring the students’ capstone project.

“Our goal is to create ‘Friendly Fedora,’ a secure system that is easy to install and use and has applications that appeal to the UMass Lowell community. We want to increase the usage of Fedora in university labs,” says Sage Lyon ’22 of Chelmsford, Massachusetts, who is a member of the team.

“With free and open-source software, anyone can view and modify the source code, and it is completely free to run and redistribute,” says Lyon.

According to Electrical and Computer Engineering Prof. Vinod Vokkarane, Fedora and Ubuntu are two of the most popular Linux distributions. He says ease of installation is a major factor that affects people’s Linux choice, but installation of the entire desktop/laptop system can vary a lot depending on hardware, desktop environment, tools and which applications the user needs to use regularly.

“UMass Lowell students most frequently choose Ubuntu for their laptops. This project aims to build better, more user-friendly Linux systems that will serve their needs,” says Vokkarane, who is the team’s academic mentor.

Aside from Lyon, other members of this year’s team include Ryan McCann ’22, Vibishan Wigneswaran ’22, Robert Moeller ’22, Ali Dia ’22 and Robert Santos ’22.

The team is working with organizations such as the student chapter of the Association for Computing Machinery, as well as UML centers that use Linux, such as the Cyber Range and the Innovation Hub, to evaluate and improve their systems.

“We want to package specific software in Friendly Fedora to make it easier for undergraduate students to complete their class projects and help master’s and Ph.D. students in their research,” says Lyon. “Our plan is to eventually create a custom distribution that is solely meant for the UMass Lowell community.”

The team uses student-developed metrics to evaluate the effectiveness of the project and will share the results with the open-source community.

As part of the capstone project, the students also launched an Open Source Club this spring at University Crossing.

“Here, students will be able to learn about open-source technology and engage with the open-source community for their own projects, as well as to get technical support,” says Lyon. “We will also use the club to get feedback about Friendly Fedora.”

The team plans to invite guest speakers each semester for in-person and virtual talks, and it will also host hackathons and competitions.

“It is exciting to be able to introduce our peers to the open-source community and get them interested in open-source software,” says Lyon.

The project will be handed off to a new group each year; it is expected to be completed by May 2025.

A Valuable Learning Experience

“[The project] taught us many technical hands-on skills, but also many other non-engineering skills, like how to work productively as a team.” -Sage Lyon '22
Mohan Boddu, Red Hat’s lead Fedora and CentOS release engineer, is the primary industry mentor who works with the capstone group. Funding for the project is made possible by Heidi Dempsey, Red Hat’s research and innovation director.

“We really enjoy the synergy and creativity the students bring to the program. They learn a lot, and so do the Red Hat engineers working with them,” says Dempsey.

“It has been a great experience on both sides, and it helps students to gain a better appreciation for what working in open source is really like,” she says. “They learn to look at challenges from many perspectives and interact with engineers from both industry and software development communities. We are very glad that UMass Lowell makes these opportunities for collaboration available.”

Lyon praised Red Hat’s mentoring and financial support. “Mohan’s technical expertise has been extremely helpful. His weekly lectures and advice are key to completing the project,” he says.

The capstone experience was a valuable introduction to the professional world, Lyon adds — something that he and his teammates would not have been able to get in a traditional classroom setting.

“It taught us many technical hands-on skills, but also many other non-engineering skills, like how to work productively as a team and, if there are several potential solutions to a given problem, how to go about choosing one successfully,” says Lyon, who is pursuing a master’s degree in computer engineering at UML.

Dempsey says there is an active group of 31 UMass Lowell alumni in a Red Hat chat room who are very interested in following what UML student interns, co-ops and capstone members are doing.

“There are a lot of alumni volunteers who frequently participate in activities at UMass Lowell and mentor students on a regular basis,” she says.