Tuesday, 29 June 2010


Following on from the successful Barnum exhibition, our new Library exhibition space has a new exhibition - Mervyn Peake's Alice. Produced jointly with the British Library, it's fascinating display of some of Mervyn Peake's original illustrations for Alice in Wonderland which he produced in 1946.

I was lucky to go to the opening tonight, and meet briefly Sebastian Peake, Mervyn's son who helped to produce the booklet for the exhibition, and see the illustrations. They are tiny, which makes them more magical, and full of detail. The Cheshire Cat is positively evil,and the Mad Hatter looks nothing like Johnny Depp!

The exhibition is open to the public, free, and on until 29 September. Well worth a visit.

Where did we go wrong?

I've blogged about shared services before - lots of discussion about how sharing some back-end systems might save money. I was interested to see today that the idea is catching on in the US as well. There's an interesting article in Inside Higher Ed about the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University co-operating on the implementation of an ERP system for Finance, HR and Payroll. Now that in itself might not be particularly newsworthy over here, but what particularly interested me in the article was the amount of money they are going to save. Apparently they are going to save (or avoid appointing) 40 staff between them, with Chapel Hill estimating that they would have had to employ an extra 60 to 70 staff to run the new ERP, and the new arrangement means that they can eliminate the need for 40 of them, saving $3m every year on staffing which will be split between the two institutions.

So, three years ago we put in a new ERP system for Finance, HR and Payroll. We appointed 5 new staff in IT, and as far as I'm aware, no permanent staff in any other department. The two Carolina Universities are slightly bigger than us with c30,000 students and 8,000 staff compared to our 25,000 and 6,000, but not much. So, what did we do right? (or wrong?). What on earth were these 70 staff going to do? And is it any wonder shared services can give savings when the numbers involved are that big and some of us are sceptical about making large savings when our numbers involved are so small?

Friday, 25 June 2010

The end of an IC era

I've blogged often about our Information Commons and what a wonderful resource it is, but today sees the end of an era. Before the building was completed we appointed an Information Commons manager, Alex. It wasn't an easy job, especially as some of us had been working on the concept and design for 5 years. It was our baby - the love child of CiCS and the Library - and we had to hand it over to Alex's careful management. We knew where every piece of furniture should be, why things had been designed the way they had, and we probably weren't easy to please. Alex also had to cope with the very rushed opening of the building with only 4 days between handover and letting the students in, and the inevitable teething problems with any new building. Some were easier to deal with than others. I won't mention what leaked out under the ground floor tiles..... Alex dealt with everything with very good grace and a sense of humour!

Today is her last day in the IC as she moves back into CiCS to take up a new role. There was cake, in the shape of the IC of course, and some well deserved awards to her staff. I was particularly impressed with the information that the plasma screens were displaying!

So, a big thanks to Alex from all of us in CiCS and the Library, and here's to the next three years of the IC, under new management.

World cup match and the network

I mentioned in Wednesday's blog post that rather a lot of us watched the England world cup match using various streaming services (mainly the BBC I suspect). A couple of interesting things - although the BBC did a tremendous job and their servers held up well, there were some error messages, people not being able to get a feed and poor performance in the first 10 minutes or so, so I'm assuming that's when their technical guys were throwing more resources at it.

And as for our own network, well, it maxed out at 1G for the first time ever:

Some quick thinking by the network team reduced this to a more manageable level and allowed other traffic to get through, but a milestone has now been passed - by a football match!

Thursday, 24 June 2010

Is identity management that difficult, accreditation and telepresence

RUGIT meeting today in London, and some interesting stuff discussed. First up was a presentation from the NCC (National Computer Centre) about an accreditation service they have started running for IT departments. It's been piloted in about 15 different departments from different sectors and now they're looking to roll it out. Basically it consists of some prior work being done by the department in completing a workbook explaining how they fulfil certain standards and giving evidence. This is followed by a whole day visit from the assessor who determines if you have met the standard to attain accreditation. The aim is to reward capability and best practice, to provide IT departments with a structured business improvement plan, and to enable IT services to benchmark themselves against other both in and out of their sector. Normally I'm a bit sceptical about such things, but this came recommended by a fellow IT Director who'd been one of the pilots, and it was relatively inexpensive and fairly low risk. Might be worth following up, and it might give us some useful benchmarking data.

We then had a very interesting presentation from JANET UK about video conferencing and telepresence. V/C is becoming more popular now, especially with the need to reduce travel, use our time more efficiently and reduce our carbon emissions. We discussed the relative benefits and disadvantages of the rather heavyweight and complex offering of the JANET video conferencing service (JVCS), and the desktop clients that many of us use such as Skype. One is room to room, the other person to person. Room to desktop/person is still not particularly easy. Lots of potential for new developments - I liked the concept of telepresence, which I've not really looked at before. Warwick University are beginning to use it - looks a lot better than standard VC - I imagine you would feel lot more connected and as if you were in the same room.

Finally we talked about the Identity Management Toolkit which has recently been produced. Funded by JISC and supported by organisations such as UCISA, it's a very useful set of tools and covers governance and policies, systems, institutional requirements, gap analysis, project and supplier management. Looks like something we should be looking at and seeing if we can make use of it. The group had a long, complicated, and at times full and frank discussion about identity management. I can't decide whether we're doing it right, or I've missed the point altogether, as I just can't see what the problem is or why it seems so difficult to everyone else!

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

SSB, SAGs and change

First meeting of our Service Strategy Board today - part of our new governance structure. All of our service managers were there, and we had a good discussion about how we're going to operate, terms of reference etc. New Service Advisory Boards will be set up over the summer in each of our service areas consisting of our customers and stakeholders to advise us on strategy and service improvements. We also approved our change management procedures which will go live in 10 days time - will be quite a significant change for many of us, but hopefully will mean we can deliver a better and more reliable service in line with University objectives.

Oh, and we gave our network a good testing today as quite a number of staff watched the England football match on various streaming sites. Think it reached maximum capacity and had to be tweaked somewhat.
Would love to know figures if anyone has them. Think the BBC had to throw a lot of capacity at their servers as well. Still, we won!

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Pizza boxes to washing machines

Odd day today - was due to give a presentation to our Executive Board about challenges for us and the University, but got rescheduled at last minute. Knew I should have spent last night in the garden rather than putting the finishing touches to my talk! Hopefully will get my chance in a couple of weeks.

Then the CiCS Exec had one of our regular weekly meetings, where we spent a lot of time talking about how we cost our services. Lots of good work done by one of our Section Heads, and we have some preliminary costings. Still some work to do in refining it, but a good start. We've gone for a top down approach rather than bottom up - that means rather than taking every little discrete unit of cost and aggregating them up for different services, we focus on the major items of expenditure (such as staffing), and allocate as much as possible to the different services, whilst using a more generic method for the smaller items. Some interesting findings so far - we don't spend a lot on supporting research for example, but we do spend a lot on our back-end systems. Will be interesting to see what the final figures look like, and how they will feed in to our planning process.

Later this afternoon I had a meeting of the heads of administrative departments where we had a quick look at what the budget might mean for us (not good!), and a presentation about the Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health's strategic plan.

Finally we had an update about the University's carbon emission reduction programme. We all know we have to reduce our carbon emissions by 34% by 2020, but that reduction is on our 1990 baseline. That's equivalent to a 48% reduction on the 2005 baseline. Huge task. Biggest target is power usage. Just over 11% of the total power usage of the University can be attributed to IT, so we have a significant role to play. One of the areas which has seen some of the best results is server virtualisation. I was going to mention this in my UEB talk today. I don't expect them to be interested in the technology of moving from one server type to another (pizza boxes to washing machines in my simple terms):

but they should be interested in these figures:

Then - 130 servers, 5 year energy cost of £567,047
Now - 4 servers, 5 year energy cost of £130, 478

Some very good work, and great savings.

Monday, 21 June 2010

Departmental meeting

Interesting departmental meeting on Friday morning - nice to see lots of people there. I gave a short presentation on the good stuff that had come out of our last World Cafes around the 5 key challenges we'd identified:
  • Reducing Complexity
  • Doing things differently
  • Reducing Space
  • Reducing our Carbon Footprint
  • Diversifying Income
Lots of ideas and suggestions some of which will get fed into our planning process. We also like to get outside speakers in where we can, and this time it was the turn of the Director of the Development and Alumni Relations Office, who gave an extremely interesting and entertaining talk about the work of the office, and aspects of fundrasing, which I think is often misunderstood. Lots of good examples of why fundraising is important, and how it can make a difference, particularly to some students for whom scholarships are the only way they could afford to come to University.

An entertaining (as always) presentation on some new features of our phone system, and a look at the issues surrounding Common Timetabling were also on the agenda.

Finally we saw a demonstration of our remote assistance service. Users can initiate a chat session with an analyst on our Helpdesk through our self service pages:

who then takes details of the problem, and if necessary initiates a remote assistance session and takes control of the user's machine. One analyst can handle up to 10 consecutive sessions, it reduces time traveling to see individual users, provides easier diagnosis and resolution of problems, and is a much less frustrating experience for the user, who doesn't have to be asked to do things they're not comfortable with. An excellent service which we're now starting to promote heavily.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Green Gowns

Last night I had the honour of attending the Green Gown Awards at the Globe Theatre. UCISA had sponsored one of the awards so we were there to present it.

The awards recognise excellence in sustainability within the higher and further education sector and were founded by the Higher Education Environmental Performance Improvement (HEEPI) project, and are now administered by the Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges (EAUC). The compere for the night was Mark Watson, comedian and environmental campaigner, and I felt for him as he coped with many, many acronyms.

UCISA sponsored the Green ICT award in recognition of the growing environmental importance of ICT within the sector. Each category had a Highly Commended and a Winner - but in this case they'd printed them the wrong way round on the card in the gold envelope which I had to open and read out! I therefore announced who was Highly Commended, to much muttering and shaking of heads from behind me - everyone of course assuming I'd read it wrong! Much embarrasment when their mistake was realised, and another nominee read out. Didn't take a lot for the audience to then work out who'd won!

Warrington College were Highly Commended for a variety of initiatives following the redevelopment of their campus. For example they reduced the flow of power to their building from 230 to 220 volts and saved a small fortune. They've also carried out a programme of server virtualisation, greener printing, ICT recycling and powersave.

The winners of the award were the University of Liverpool for their development of a system to power-off idle student computers when no-one is logged on. Called Powerdown, it has resulted in a reduction of more than million hours of needless uptime per month. Liverpool have made it freely available to other organisations to help them reduce their carbon footprint. The picture is of John Cartwright, IT Director from Liverpool University, Mark Watson and some glamorous presenter.

An excellent evening and some great initiatives rewarded in the sector. Mark Watson was lovely, and the venue was amazing. It was as sustainable as possible with ethically and locally sourced food, only organic candles as decoration and as much as possible recycled afterwards.

I suppose the only question for me is, why didn't we enter? Maybe next year.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Evolution or Revolution?

Met up with some fellow IT Directors and senior managers last night for a discussion on the Future of the University IT Department. Lots of interesting topics covered, some agreement on where we're going, and some disagreement, which is what makes for a good and interesting debate.

General consensus was that we have interesting times ahead (in the Chinese sense of the word of course). We know University budgets are going to be reduced, so we will all be looking for significant savings, but there's going to be an increasing demand for our services - especially from students if fees are increased, and from the rest of the University to help them become more efficient and make their savings. It was also generally acknowledged that in general we already run good and efficient services, so there's not a lot of quick wins to be had - this is especially important when shared services are discussed. There's also a move towards more lightweight solutions to services, including cloud, web2.0, and outsourcing.

In terms of global top priorities, Gartner identified improving business processes and reducing enterprise costs as their top two for CEOs this year, whilst UCISA's top concerns of CIOs have funding and sustainable resourcing, IT strategy and planning, and organisational change and process improvement as the top three. How do these match with our own institutional objectives, and where does the student experience and teaching and learning fit in?

We talked a lot about innovation, and how to protect it when financial pressures often mean that we put all of our available resources into keeping the lights on.

Other pressures on us include the mobile market, and in particular its diversity, the green IT agenda and data and document management and storage. Shared services are seen by some in government as the way forward, but will be difficult and costly to implement, and how do we build a business case for them? As we move more towards a different service delivery model, our service management model will also change - where does ITIL sit for example when services are not delivered from on campus?

Lots of very good debate, and sharing of experiences. General agreement that the IT department of the future will be different to now, and we will need different skill sets to deliver different services - although I suspect that has always been the case as technology has evolved. The question in this case is it it evolution or revolution?

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Lessons learned

Programme Board yesterday, and possibly the last one, as we move to our new service management structure and a Service Strategy Board. Had our normal look at progress of projects and any resource issues or problems identified by the project managers, and then had a few project closures and reviews to consider. Each project has to produce a closure document, with the normal stuff about what has been delivered, what outstanding tasks there are and who has responsibility for delivering them, benefits, and whether the aims and objectives were achieved. Then a few months later the Programme and Project Unit carries out a lessons learned review by collecting information from the project team, the project manager, customer, sponsor etc.

This is a very useful exercise and all recommendations are fed into our project management process to continually improve what we do. Yesterday we looked at the Media Hosting Project and eRecruitment.

Within the Media Hosting project, much of it went well, but one issue which arose was that we were faced with a rapidly changing technology market and changes to the project scope. We looked at a number of products and services, but none met all of the identified requirements and it soon became apparent that we were looking for a product which didn't exist! We therefore had to decide whether to put the project on hold and wait for the market to mature, or split the project into separate projects for audio and video streams. The project was paused for a while, but in the end we decided to implement a video only solution for now. It was suggested with hindsight that we should have done a review of the market place first to see what was available before defining user requirements, but this would have constrained users to what was available, and we know that one supplier has built our requirements into their roadmap to we should get the additional features we need in the next release (or the one after that....)

eRecruitment (the staff recruitment module of SAP) also went very well, with cross departmental teams working successfully together, and good communication channels established. Lessons learned from this much bigger project included the need to have good commitment - from all of the teams involved, the sponsor, the project board, engaged users etc. Ownership of the project should be primarily with the business side, not the technical, and the focus on new ways of doing things, not the system itself. The people who are going to run and support the system need to involved very early on, and good training and comms are essential. All stuff we know already, but reinforced by thei review.

Thanks to everyone involved in all of the projects which have closed recently - some great work done.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

JANET Debate

Last night I attended a debate on the future of JANET, our academic network, and in particular what funding model will be appropriate for the future. Currently the majority of the service is funded by JISC as a top slice, with a small proportion paid directly from universities based on their income. Will this model be sustainable in the future, or should we move to a more contribution based model, where we pay for what we need?

Of course, the discussion focused on the current financial climate - we know the government is going to make serious cuts to our budgets, and we also know that they don't like IT. Vince Cable said so in his letter to VCs, suggesting that IT projects should be prioritised for cuts. What we need to do is demonstrate the value of the services we provide, using evidence of our successes - we have plenty, and I think JANET is one of them. It demonstrates economies of scale, efficiency in procurement and the delivery of a consistent and reliable service, as well as the added value in services such as EDUROAM - the roaming wireless network.

Shared services always gets a mention, and we are going to have to work together much more. One of my colleagues currently in HE but who used to be in the not for profit sector gave a great example of a shared service which a number of charitable organisations got together to produce - Justgiving.com. Those of us in HE are going to use different mindsets to come up with similar innovative solutions to reducing costs and improving efficiencies.

JANET is a critical service to all of us - as a knowledge network (©ptinson) and as a business network which we rely on to run many of our services. As we outsource, put services into the Cloud or develop shared services, it becomes even more strategically important and we need to protect it. Personally I think the only way to do this is to maintain the central top slice.

A good debate and discussion, some good contacts made, and a very pleasant walk back via Tower Bridge which is very atmospheric at night. Although the Tower of London looks very menacing.

Finally - is it my imagination, or has mobile coverage got worse? I'm writing this on the train coming back from London, and my Vodaphone modem on the laptop stays connected but has no signal for about 80% of the time, while the 3G coverage from O2 on my iPhone is virtually non-existent. I probably get about 15 mins signal in the two hour journey. Makes keeping in touch very difficult.

EDIT: Since I wrote this I've noticed tha Peter Tinson has written an excellent post about mobile networks (or the lack of them), and innovation

Managing files

First meeting yesterday morning to discuss our data and file management strategy. Currently we have many places to store files and data ranging from individual hard discs to services we provide including uSpace and the VLE, to cloud spaces such as iDiscs or Google docs. We know that our users (and that includes us), put stuff where it's easiest, and tend to be indiscriminate about what they keep - ie everything. It's not unusual for people to keep every email they've ever received or sent, just because they haven't the time to manage it, and go through through and delete stuff. I archive my email every year, and I could count on one hand the number of times I've gone back to look at the archive folder in the past 10 years. So why are we so attached to it? Why don't we just delete everything over a certain time limit? In case there's something in an email that's important and we have to go back to it is the normal answer - but, in the words of our records manager - "if it's important, it shouldn't be stored in an email". Wise words. I am going to make much more of an attempt to manage my email properly in future. Honest.

With all of these places to store things, how do we advise our users, and how do we help them find stuff? We had a very good discussion on many issues, and as usual came up with more questions than answers, but are now starting two pieces of work - an advisory docment for users, and a file storage strategy for ourselves, which will have to take into account cloud services as we move more of our services into them.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Mobile apps and iPads

Meeting this morning to look at our mobile strategy - especially in relation to our mobile app, CampusM. We want to capitalise on it as much as we can, and that involves getting a lot more data into it, and being strategic about what additional functionality we want. We also need to closely tie it in with the development and implementation of our new portal, and look at how it might integrate with the mobile functionality of our new VLE. Next week we're meeting with a number of representatives from departments including the Student Union, the Library and our student information centre to discuss with them how we might increase the amount of information available to our students.

The iPhone/iPodTouch version has been really popular, and we're about to release the Blackberry version. Then the web version will be available for all other phones, so we should reach all students with a smart phone. At the moment we're not sure how many have them, or what kind, so we will be carrying out a survey soon.

Then a bit of excitement in the department as our iPads arrived. We've ordered a few to test things out - how they synch with our services for example, and what we can deliver to them. I'm particularly interested in how we might use them in meetings. If we can get our documents onto them, and annotate them, they might be more popular than laptops. Not as heavy or bulky, and without the perceived barrier that a laptop creates. Think we'll have to wait a couple of weeks for iOS4 for the annotation/notes facility, but I'm hopeful that we shoud be able to use them to reduce the amount of printing we do.

Monday, 7 June 2010

Too many devices spoil the wifi....

Today I spent the afternoon in a review of one of our academic departments. The Department of Information Studies (DIS) has a review group which meets 2 or three times a year, and I have been invited to be a member. Fascinating afternoon, and some interesting insights into this field. The first half of the meeting was spent discussing the Research Excellence Framework, and the necessity to demonstrate the impact of research. As there were many people from outside the department, and indeed the University on the group, DIS was interested to know how there research could be made more relevant, and how an impact could be demonstrated. There was general agreement that their was a need to bridge the gap between practitioners in a particular area, and the academic researchers. It was interesting for example that DIS has a research group looking into Information Systems. What do we do? Implement, design and develop Information Systems. Have we ever spoken to each other? No. Virtually everything listed in their list of research topics is something we are interested in, so one great thing to come out of today was making contacts. Another area where we could work together is in Information Retrieval - web searching, the development of better search systems, and the analysis of query logs. Again - good contacts made and we're going to look at working together.

There was also an interesting discussion about their new postgraduate curriculum, and whether all information scientists should all be taught to program - a two week intensive course of perl scripting was suggested. A good idea?

I suppose I could finish this post by saying that I've just watched Steve Jobs deliver his keynote at WWDC2010 and announce the iPhone 4. Pretty impressive, and of course I want one. Bit worried by Facetime (video calls) though - I often make calls when I wouldn't particularly want anyone to see me! Also comforting to see we're not the only people to have problems with wireless networks - at one point the demo wouldn't work because 527 Wi-Fi hotspots were in operation in the hall, most of them MiFi, and over 1,100 devices were connected among those and other shared Wi-Fi networks. Apparently Google had a similar problem a couple of weeks ago when demonstrating their new version of Android, and they also had to ask members of the audience to turn devices off.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Service management takes shape

This morning we had a University Collaboration Improvement Board meeting where I outlined to them the new structures we're putting in place as part of our service management strategy.

We've had a first go at defining our service areas, and these are currently being defined in our Service Catalogue, We've appointed service managers for each area who will be responsible for the delivery and development of the seven service portfolios. One of the important things we want to do here is bring together new projects, and business as usual. Too often they are seperate and the service as a whole is not looked at by the same group of people. This should also enable us to more clearly define the resource split between innovation and new things, and keeping existing services running.

Each area will also have a Service Advisory Group made up of key customers, users and stakeholders. These groups will be strategic and hopefully will not get bogged down in detail,and should help form the direction of each service area by identifying key services, agreeing service levels and performance indicators, identifying areas for improvement and ensuring that benefits are realised.

These will report to a Service Strategy Board made up mainly of the CiCS Programme Board and the service managers, although we're still looking at the exact membership. The purpose of this board will be to improve planning and decision making by having a single place to look at all aspects of all services.

That's the plan - lots of details still to be worked out, including how existing groups fit into the structure or whether they will continue to exist. We've still to complete the service catalogue and work out whether we have the service areas right, but things are definitely moving in the right direction.

This afternoon I was interviewed as part of a JISC project on developing a toolkit to help CIOs and other senior managers to assess how mature their organisation is in terms of ICT strategy. Interesting set of questions about how we define our strategy, how it aligns with the objectives of the organisation, and more importanlty, how is ICT represented at the University Executive level. I look forward to seeing the results!

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Treemaps, supercomputers and the internet of things

The biannual survey of the world's top 500 supercomputers has just been published, and there's some rather nice graphics on the BBC web site illustrating it. The graphics are treemaps, and show a lot of complex information in a very clear, concise way - also very easy to understand and interpret. You can see the computers ranked by operating system (Linux basically wiping the field), the country with the most (USA), the manufacturer (IBM, followed by HP and Cray), the processor, the speed and the use. The fastest in the UK, (and the 16th in the world) is at the University of Edinburgh. The highest application of these supercomputers is for research, as you might expect, followed by academic - but I'm not sure of the difference. There's other interesting applications - the fastest/biggest supercomputer in New Zealand for example is owned by WETA - the digital media company responsible for some of the best movie special effects around.

I wonder how things will change over the next few years, and if the application of these supercomputers will move away from academic research and into more information processing. At the recent Eduserv symposium both Paul Golding and I talked about the Internet of Things, and there's a rather nice video from IBM explaining it here:

Not quite sure about the analogy of the planet having a central nervous system, but it explains the interconnectivity of things, and the amount of data being produced which needs processing into information, knowledge and wisdom. But perhaps data processing doesn't need supercomputers? I'm sure someone will tell me in the comments.....

Digital Economy Act, part 2

So within hours of me posting my last criticism of the Digital Economy Act, Ofcom publish its draft code of conduct to deal with copyright infringement. It contains good news and bad news! The good news is that initially, the code will only apply to ISPs with over 400,000 subscribers - so even if a University is defined as an ISP, we won't be covered by it. Of course, if our internet provider, JANET were to be defined as an ISP, that would be a different story. The bad news is that this is only the initial implementation of it - the code includes provision for more ISPs to be added later, and still doesn't really clarify the definitions of ISP and subscriber.

I've been away for the weekend and haven't had time to study it in detail yet, but Andrew Cormack from JANET has posted a very good summary on his blog here.

With my professional hat on, I'm concerned about the effect of this Act on those of us who provide IT Services to Universities, but with a more personal hat on, I am concerned about the path we are being led down of monitoring the use of the internet - particularly for the next generation - our children, and grandchildren. This is being done to protect the interests of a few large entertainment companies who we are told are losing millions of dollars because of illegal downloading. Personally I don't believe those figures - people who download content also buy it. And they will continue to download, finding harder to detect ways to do it. The current copyright laws are wrong - written to protect the printed word - they are not appropriate in this day and age. I've said this before, but listen to Larry Lessig's talk at last year's EDUCAUSE for a great summary of the situation (go to about 27 mins in for the start).

EDIT: since posting this I've been reminded of an excellent TED talk on this topic by Lessig.