Wednesday, 30 March 2011

How an outage can provide hours of fun thanks to Twitter

Watching TV last night and idly glancing at the laptop, I noticed I couldn't get to the BBC website.So, I did what any sensible person does in those circumstances and checked twitter, and it was already starting to buzz with the news.  Shock horror, not reachable, the end of the world must be nigh, run to the hills.....

Rory Cellan-Jones was "Lying in bed reading twitter in the dark and trying to remember where I put my "how to switch the BBC website back on" manual".  A hashtag suddenly appeared (#bbcblackout).  Soon both it and BBC were trending worldwide.  The jokes were coming thick and fast, and even though I wanted an early night, I stayed up to follow it. My twitterstream got overloaded with the number of tweets coming in with the hashtag.  The techies on twitter were working out that it was a network problem, and the DNS entry had disappeared. Then the conspiracy theories started, the site had been hacked, it was a DoS attack, it was the work of Anonymous because of the BBC's handling of UKuncut.

I worried about the guys trying to fix it, and hoped no-one had made a change just before it happened..... Although I was bit pleased that outages happened to others as well.

It was all great fun. Then, it all came back to life. I went to bed. This morning,  there's a short statement saying what happened.  I was in a meeting so couldn't talk to anyone, so sent a tweet asking someone to explain it to me. It sounds like their BGP prefix stopped being advertised through their routing peering exchanges, was the response. Then the same person very kindly put it into my language, and all in under 140 characters: BBC's core networking kit stopped telling the world where to send data to that was addressed to them.

Who would have thought a website outage could have caused such concern, fun, entertainment - even though it must have been a nightmare for the BBC's  technical team. 

Lean and cake

This week we've been fortunate to have a visit from Heidi Fraser-Krauss from St Andrew's University, following our visit there last week. She came down to talk to staff from a number of departments including Student Services, Finance, HR, ACS, External relations and of course CiCS about what LEAN is, and how they've implemented it in St Andrews. A very informative presentation, and lots of good disucssion and questions.  What came across more than anything is the need for senior management support and a champion. LEAN also needs managers to relinquish some of their "command and control" and let the people who actually do the job suggest changes, and then help to facilitate the changes. This can be hard, and  many people I've spoken to about LEAN agree that one of the biggest barriers to change is middle management. The manager's job is also to set challenging targets - there's no point starting to change a 3 week process to get it down to two and a half weeks - go for a day, or an hour. Challenging is the polite term - I preferred Heidi's description of "pant-wetting" targets. So, lots of things to think about but a very positive attitude from everyone there, and I think we've probably got enough momentum now to get on with it.

Other meetings this week include a newly reinstated CiCS/Library Liaison group, where we talk about matters of shared interest. Research data storage, the Library's new technical architecture, learning spaces (including our plans for Information Commons phase 3), and how we support international collaborations were all on the agenda. The latter is an interesting one, and focused a lot on licences, both of electronic resources, and software, and the many different licening models we have for both. Some  allow access to our international collaborators, some don't, and some we just can't work out whether they do or don't.

We had the second of our coffee and cake meetings with a random selection of staff yesterday, and as ever, the cake was excellent I'm told. We're always happy to get feedback on how these things have gone, and suggestions for improvement. We have tried to find an informal space to have them in, and someone suggested a pub yesterday. Not sure about beer and cake.....

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

So long, and thanks for all the fish.....

The UCISA conference is over, and with it my term of membership of the Executive Committee, and the last two years as Chair. It's been a great time, I've thoroughly enjoyed it, but it has been hard work at times to fit everything else in, especially when you are invited to attend or chair so many other meetings as well. I'm very grateful to colleagues who covered for me and ran the department so well when I was away so much. I'm also grateful to all of the team in the UCISA office who have supported me so well, and the rest of the Exec who were a pleasure to work with.

During the past couple of years UCISA has continued to work on behalf of  all IT staff in Universities in the UK. In these challenging times we need more than ever to work together, to share best practise, and to make the views of our community known and listened to.  We've organised 25 events, including three multi-day conferences, recognised good practice by presenting awards, and producing resources for this community. During this year this final set of resources for ITIL in the HE community were published, as well as report on the Cost of IT Downtime.

 I'm also proud that we have extended our relationships with a number of other organisations, including the Finance Directors, Estates Directors, Heads of University Administration, as well as continuing our relationship with the Library community.  

UCISA relies very much on volunteers from the sector, and for people to be involved - the Groups orgaise many events including training days, seminars, conferences, there are best practice guides, toolkits and case studies to be written, and information to be collected. So, please get involved, attend the events, and use the resources available.

I'm looking forward to taking a back seat - and it was especially nice at this year's conference not to have to get up after the conference dinner and chair the early morning session!  That pleasure was my successor's, Tom Mortimer from the University of Dundee, to whom I wish lots of luck for leading UCISA through the next couple of years.

Sunday, 27 March 2011

Trust and Empowerment

Two of our "New World CIOs", Steve Williams from Newcastle and Martin Harrow from Cardiff gave a joint session on their perspectives of leadership.

Steve was up first, and used a nice phrase in describing his vision, he wants the IT department to be "first call consultees"' ie he wants people in the university if they're doing something with IT to want to call us. The IT department should be there to innovate, transform, enable and support.

It is vital that we are trusted, and we need to evident trustability round institution. Some tools for building trust are:
There's no substitute for showing your face
Get beyond all we want is a PC
Talk the same language, and see things from the VCs perspective. Stop using the language of the business and IT, we are part of the business
Get onto the right committees
Use different levels of formality, depending on the person and the situation
Prepare, but don't attempt to script
Demonstrate the benefits of IT

You also need to empower your team. Have just enough governance to provide a framework within which you can empower. Then align your team to the priorities. Manage the talent within the team, engage the mavericks, love the stars, energise the decent performers and appreciate the joy of a flower blooming. But, you have to manage performance, it's not harsh, it's fair to everyone.

Embrace ideas from around the institution, there's some great talent out there, and engage the external mavericks. Learn to love the audit committee, they can help you deliver.

But remember, it doesn't matter how well you communicate and good you are, no one will love you if the network falls over. Get the basics right.

Martin Harrow then gave his perspective, and outlined the pressures we face at the moment in this time of unprecedented turmoil, change, threat, and opportunity.
The pressures on the sector are many and varied, and are economic, political, social, environmental, legal, and technological. We need to focus on and tackle things we might have ducked in the past.

There's a new IT agenda. A typical smart phone today has the processing power of a supercomputer 15 years ago. We have the potential to transform IT affordability, performance, value, sustainability; to modernise and make the student experience more distinctive; to transform institutional performance.

IT should be integral to both the formulation and delivery of strategy. Now is our time - we should seize the moment!

Trust is critical. It's hard won, but easily lost, as this little video shows.

As Steve said in his comment about the network, if you can't get the basics right, and can't be trusted to get the basics right, you'll not be able to influence anything. If the VCs printer won't work don't try talking to him or her about strategy.

Tips for success:
Establish credibility and build trust
Figure out your own game plan for success
Be a university leader, not an IT leader
Work with your organisation, warts and all
Spend 40% of time on upward and outward relationships
Run IT in a business like way
Show, don't tell, what IT can do to help
Pick your moments, use stealth not frontal assault
Always deliver promised results.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Friday, 25 March 2011

The right time augmented web

Good talk this morning from Paul Golding, CEO of wireless wanders, on current and future trends in mobile.

Mobile is everyware. 1.2billion mobiles sold annually. >90% of world has mobile access.
In 59 countries there are more mobiles than people.
6 trillion text messages sent in a year.
Each teenager sends or receives on average 3339 text messages a month. That's about 14 hours.

First internet enabled phone came out in 1999, and since then there's been a convergence of web 2.0 and Internet centric mobile devices with a 100 times increase in processing power. Can do so much more on them, really more like small computers than mobile phones.
There's a 35% penetration in UK , 70% increase in a year.
2 horse race between iOS and android. Heading towards billion of them sold.
Previously difficult to develop because too much fragmentation, now just 2 dominant platforms, and the advent of html5 also making it easier to develop.
Because of that, there's been a rapid transition from talking and texting to doing cool stuff with apps.

Now tablets have arrived which are more people friendly computers. Can do stuff for real on them rather than just looking which is really all that's done on mobile phones.
Fastest growing sector in app store is business applications,especially for tablets.
They're not an offshoot of a PC, but a mobile phone. There's an increasing transition form utility to experience.
Will lead to escaping the PC ( when current dependence on iTunes goes!). Some people may grow up without ever needing a PC, and it will change their experience of computing, especially as data moves more into the cloud. Won't have concept of folder for example.

Virtual, augmented reality also a trend to watch, This combines the physical world and the web world. Great applications and opportunities. Tipping point for virtual reality will be tablets now they have cameras.
There's an increasing number of sophisticated sensors being developed, which will augment the web experience. Small body sensors can already can detect and measure 20 different things. Sensors in your car can already detect tyre pressures. This leads to the concept of the Internet of things. Everything in our lives will be accessible via the Internet.

The enablers for this are Moore's law, and the every increasing processing power available, small bluetooth devices which will fit in a post it note, 4G LTE networks and Web technologies. Combine all of this with the power of cloud and sensor grids and a whole new type of application becomes possible.

The right time web is almost here, giving the right information at the right time to the right person.

To conclude, the right-time augmented web is the future, accessed by mobile devices, underpinned by cloud platforms and network as a service.

Very good talk, and the slides are here if you want more detail.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Mobile and Google, our contributions to UCISA 2011

We've been involved in a couple of presentations here at UCISA. Last year we won the poster competition for our CampusM poster, so as a consequence we got invited to do a showcase session. Although it was mainly about our implementation about CampusM, I also shared some of the results of our mobile survey.

Some quick figures:
99.6% of our students have a mobile phone, and 56% of them have a smart phone. 25% are going to upgrade to a smart phone within the next year.
Around 50% of the smart phone owners connect to the wireless network. The rest either don't because they don't know about it, don't know how to, or have tried and can't.
IPhone and blackberry make up around 50% of all smart phones.
25% of students use CampusM, 25% know about it but don't use it, and 50% have never heard of it.
The top five things students like about it are:
Library information
PC Availability
Friend locator

The top five things they don't like are
Library information
Friend locator

Notice any similarity? 3 appear on both lists, and the comments show that is because they like the functionality, but there's something wrong or missing. So, friends don't log in to the finder, you can't reserve a library book, or the data in the calendars is wrong.

When asked what new functionality they wanted, it was nearly all transactional - they want to reserve a book, book a PC or room. Also to see financial information and see their exam results.

Some other headlines, 96% of students have a laptop, and 70% connect them to our wireless network. The rest have problems connecting, but a substantial proportion don't bring their laptops onto campus. 80% of laptops run windows, 12% mac and the rest Linux.

Lots of interest in CampusM, who had produced an app for the conference which people could access on iPads loaned to them by Apple. A previous session had been on the Oxford Mobile project, which is not an app, but web based, and it was interesting to compare the different approaches.

The other presentation was a joint one with Google as part of their business showcase, and was about our implementation for google apps. Many universities doing it for students, but not many doing it for staff. We explained how we made the decision, some issues with implementation, although there haven't been many, and what we're doing next. Staff mail is n the middle of being moved, Google docs will be turned on in May, and then calendar will hopefully go live when we've moved all the data, hopefully June. A lot of interest in what we're doing, with predictable questions about data storage and security.

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Thursday, 24 March 2011

Some simple numbers for IT directors from an FD

First session this morning was Derek Watson, Finance Director at St Andrews, but with a much more exciting title of Quaestor and Factor. This session's theme was Knowing your Numbers, and Derek introduced us to one or two interesting ones.

A quick look back at history shows that in 2006 we had industrial action around pay and pensions and the dawn of new funding era.

In 2008 costs and inflation were going up. Lehman brothers collapsed. The world and the economic situation were fundamentally changed. All because we didn't manage risk.
Risk not just a word on a risk register. It's real, and if it goes wrong, it costs us. First interesting number was 2.8 trillion. Thats how many dollars the world economy lost during crash.

Now in 2011oil prices are going up, there's industrial action on pay and pensions, and we're moving into an era of austerity.

Impact of fees kicks in. Are all of us going to survive? Are Universities going to be able to afford to charge 9k. Will students becoming customers cause instability between universities, What about subject mix, how we going to cross subsidy? What about forced mergers or closures. No funding to fund them

Vast majority of HE will be funded by students. What will the role of funding council be? Just monitoring quality, and do we really want that? What will sector and shape look like. How are going we going to ensure that we have the disciplines we need to grow economically?

So, some simple numbers to illustrate some points:

We talk of a single sector, implying we're all the same. We're not. We need to understand the individual financial characteristics of our own institution and the killer risks

The percentage of our expenditure on pay. Need to ensure that we are productive in our use of people and get value for money. Might be our biggest cost but also biggest asset. Look at total cost of services, and cost staff time.
Need to use knowledge we have to drive the efficiencies that will fund the sector. Need to make substantial bottom up savings.

The number of years a business case needs to show cash recovered in.

The percentage of our spend on buildings, not including power. Space needs to be productive or it is a silent cost. Does everyone need an office?

The percentage of expenditure at St Andrews spent on IT including power. Have to reduce power. Reduce no of servers, switch off old ones, reduce cooling. Understand what additional burden IT is placing on the institution. IT is critical, but its also a cost.

Cost growth at the moment, including many things especially power and pay. electricity. We need to understand the cost drivers that we're facing, understand their impact and plan our business accordingly.

Sector has generated a surplus of about 1% per annum. Not enough. Have to generate much more. We all have a huge problem with things like backlog maintenance. The surplus needs to be between 5 and 7. Capital funding has gone and we Need to generate it. So, to be sustainable, we need to make much higher surpluses.

An excellent session on the perspectives from a Finance Director. He did get thrown a potentially difficult question about how much money had been spent on finance systems, but countered it well by pointing out that shiny new systems can be good, but changing people and processes is what is important and will drive efficiency.

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Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Universities through the Looking Glass

Second talk was Mike Boxall from PA consulting, Looking at Universities through a looking glass. His talk outlined the challenges facing Universities, and the changes in culture they will have to face. Some of the key points he made, in note form, are:

HE is moving from the funded world to the market world. Measures of success changing also. Universities will have to live from their income. They will have to abandon funding-dependent business models and will no longer be able to base forecasts on expected, historical funding models. There will have to be new funding models, based on coherent capabilities.

Universities will have to become more business like, with social purposes. More market facing and competitive, without losing sight of their distinctive purposes and values. Will have to make a profit in order to survive - this is a real paradigm shift.

21st century universities will be social enterprises, justified and sustained by their value to society

When we look at the public debate about HE and the supposed crisis in HE, it tends to be focused on school leaving undergraduates and international students, but these form only part of picture. There are huge opportunities in the rest of the market.

Customers are driving transformation in the universities' core market
Post Browne, it is more about competition, student centred, bespoke, tailored, customised
International students used to be an easy pool of cash, unregulated, paying premium fees. Now this sector is more market based, with regulated numbers, competition, and high expectations.
Research is also changing, moving towards more problem based, thematic, focus on impacts, value based funding.

Very crowded market for the 150 odd universities. There's not going to be the growth that we've had up to now. Will be some winners and potentially some losers.

There are opportunities for growth beyond current horizons. For example, in CPD, open source, open learning, open content, consultancy and knowledge markets, open innovation, facilitated e-learning, learning apps, pathways and portfolios, accreditation and QA.
21st century Universities will be defined by the different markets and customer needs they seek to serve. Mission groups, eg the Russell Group, will cease to exist.

Who will shape our children's future higher education? Different players coming into the game including Google, iTunes Cisco. Private providers.

The learner journey is still a legacy of choosing from a set menu of choices in a prospectus. Then given the learning through lectures etc. Support is still 9 to 5, 30 weeks a year. Success is still measured by how much students can reflect back what they've been given.

Should be a fundamental change. Choices tailored to individuals. Learning processes more a co-production between learners and teachers rather than the transactional consumption of knowledge.
24/7, year round service should be the norm. Success should be measured by by recognising intellectual achievements and competencies. learning should be a

Tomorrow universities will have to earn their living from the private and social value they generate, and focus on building competitive competences in selected markets.
They should provide smart access to a universe of learning resources.

Leading edge information and technology capabilities will be fundamental to achieving this, BUT,
our sector is about 5 years behind where we should be. A final question:
How can we grow the i-maturity of our universities to match that of our customers?

An interesting keynote, and one that generated a lot of debate. Some members took issue with the statement that we were behind other sectors in IT terms. Others with the need to become more business and market focused, The debate will continue tonight I guess.

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Tips for elevator pitches

Now I'm at the UCISA management conference in Edinburgh, my last as Chair of the Executive. Jeff Haywood, CIO from Edinburgh University opened the conference and welcomed us on behalf of the 4 universities in this fine city.

He gave a short talk on how to make the case for investing in IT. Given the steadily increasing importance of IT in HE and FE and it is important to get the right questions asked of the right people. A University can almost define all of its business now as e something, whether that is learning,research, technology transfer or administration.
Our users expect our services to be as agile as Amazon and as reliable as their bank at same time - they are so demanding because of the range of the business that we underpin. There's also the rapid rate of change and stuff that people especially students, think have been around long time, which haven't been.

There are several ways of talking to senior management, one way is carefully argued business plan. But in order to be successful, it has to be combined with the carefully timed Elevator pitch. This is as much about emotional appeal as logic. Short, punchy statements and illustrations are important.

Some useful questions to start a good discussion with senior management. What is it we could do that would give you the confidence that were making the right investment in IT for now and the future. What IT services do you want, and what do you really need?
Given that most of us spend c15 % on transformation, 15% on growth and 75% on keeping things running, what would make you worry about any changes to above?

Use benchmarks such as the Gartner hype cycle to show where you are compared to other places. Discuss planning tools such as quadrants with them and show them where the high value or high risk stuff is that you do.

Excellent set of suggestions for engaging senior management in valuable and productive discussions about investment in IT and a good start to the conference.

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Monday, 21 March 2011

LEAN Central

Today myself and colleagues visited St Andrew's University, on our way to the UCISA Management Conference. We were talking to them about their implementation of LEAN, and spent the afternoon in LEAN Central. The space was one of the first things we talked about - you need a big, friendly, comfortable space, with lots of wall space, on tap tea and coffee and good AV. Just the sort of space we're hoping to create when we move out of the Computer Centre later this year.

St Andrew's began using LEAN 5 years ago, and have made a lot of progress. It was very helpful talking them about what had worked well, what might have been done differently,  and where they had had the greatest successes. What is very clear is that to be successful you have to embed change into the culture of the organisation,  and you must have support from senior management to ensure that change happens. It isn't easy - like most things it's no magic bullet, and does not always involve technology. What can be an issue is capacity - if you come up with recommendations to radically change a process, and it requires some sort of technology change or development and you haven't got the resource to implement it, then you have a problem.

I'm hoping to set up something similar to their LEAN Unit, and really make a difference to some of our processes. Lots of things still to sort out, but am optimistic that we can do it.

Friday, 18 March 2011

A silver award and a green hero

Green Impact awards today - good to see so many departments in the University participating, and completing a workbook of all of their achievements. Everyone in the University can take part, and there's more information about it here.

Last year we gained a bronze award, and this year we upped our game, and achieved silver.  Great work from everyone in the department, and especially Simon who's our green coordinator. Simon, along with the other silver winners went up to collect the award from the Vice Chancellor:

Not only did we get this, but one of only two special awards also went to the department. Dominic, who's our data centre manager, was made a Green Hero!  This was for his contribution to our server virtualisation project which has greatly reduced our energy costs, and also all of the work he's being doing to make our data centres more efficient.  Well done Dominic.  That's two year's running the Green Hero has been in CiCS. So, next year we're going for gold and a hat trick! He got a certificate, and 10 trees in his name at Penguin Wood, Botany Bay, Derbyshire a Woodland Trust site. Perhaps we'll have to have a trip out to see them!

 That's Dominic getting his award from the VC, together with Valerie from the Faculty of Arts who was also made a hero for the work she's done on the Jessop West Green Impact scheme - there's some great information about it here.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Rough ride to good times

Today our VC gave his annual address to all staff - well attended, and as usual very stirring stuff. A bit like a sandwich really - good stuff at the beginning, some challenges in the middle, and some positive stuff at the end.

Started with examples of our achievements over the past year - and this is just a sample:
The opening of SITraN
Project sunshine
The Sheffield Siemens Wind power research centre
The refurbished Student Union and Western Bank Library
Coming second in the Student Experience Survey
The Miracles database
The Women of Steel oral history project
The video of earth from space made by students

Then the changes we're seeing in the HE environment. The shift from  direct funding of teaching by government to funding through student loans. And not just this major change, but a very rapid change.
Changes to the fees, the effect it will have on student decisions, and student expectations.

A lot of criticism for the proposed changes to the international student visa system and the effect it will have on our ability to carry out international research, especially in engineering and science.  Quite valid criticism too - the idea is barmy, and based on some dodgy statistics. It's the number one threat to our international reputation and could destroy the research capability of the UK.

But, amongst all this, we can look forward. We have a future based on our values, as outlined in our Mission Vision and Identity and Strategic Plan.  Our vision is one of growth in a time of cuts, and we will build on our strengths. We'll build on our partnership with  the City and develop our civic and cultural engagement so that we are even more a University that the region is proud of. There's a lot of work to do in widening participation and raising expectations of young people, and again, we have a lot of good work already in this area, especially SOAMS.

So, a lot of reasons to be confident, and as the VC said, we can look forward to a good future, but it's going to be a rough ride.

I think everybody came out of the room proud to be part of the University of Sheffield, and I was  especially proud of our VC - it was a great, passionate, honest address.

Innovation and Amplification

The third session at the 2011 JISC conference in Liverpool was a workshop on innovation - specifically how innovation can help Universities to be agile and efficient. After a few opening remarks from the panelists we had some round table discussions on the theme of innovation. So, some points from our discussion:
  • How do you engender innovation at the enterprise level.  Individual innovation is great, but there needs to be widescale take up if there's going to be major benefits.
  • In these cash strapped times, how do we protect innovation, and find the time and space to allow people to do it. In highly innovative companies like Google employees are given a percentage of their time as innovation time - sometimes as high as 20%. Can we afford to do that?
  • Time is also an issue for embracing and using innovation - eg lecturers and innovative teaching methods. There needs to be time to try things out, and acceptance of failure. Things have to be easier - user interfaces as good as in the consumer space. 
  • Universities are very risk averse (and sometimes arrogant  - the not invented/written here syndrome). How do we foster a culture of innovation and managed risk taking, accepting that not all innovation is good, and not all will succeed.
  • One persons innovation is someone else's overhead  - good  soundbite there from JohnT ;-)
  • Innovation is risky, but in the current climate the biggest risk will be not innovating.
Interesting debate, but more questions than answers!

The final session was on Amplified Events. Not how to get the sound to work properly, but using various technologies to provide a richer experience for remote participants at events, as well as those present in person. Brian Kelly and Marieke Guy gave the session, with a remote contribution from Paul Shabajee.

Brian has blogged about the session in advance,  and all of the slides are on the blog. I suspect that a recording of the talk will also be available soon, and I'll link to it when it is. I won't therefore repeat everything that was said, but just make a few comments, especially around the discussion.

I've taken part in amplified events, and spoken at them. IWMW last year in Sheffield was one such event. There's extensive use of video streaming, photographs, slidesharing, twitter, twitterwalls, social networks, RSS feeds,  Facebook (although this is decreasing). The link has many of the resources still available. This workshop also made use of iTitle, which combines the video stream and the twitter stream, so you can track the tweets alongside the video. As a speaker I found this really helpful - to see what people had been saying while I was speaking. .

The practice of tweeting during talks led to a discussion on the value of this. Do people just repeat key phrases and sentences from the speaker, and if so is that any use?  Probably not to the people in the room, but in can be immensely useful to people who aren't there. Someone also commented that tweets sometimes misrepresented the speaker - said things they didn't say, or interpreted things wrongly. Did that mean they were only half listening because they were tweeting?  I would say in general no. As someone who tweets a lot during talks, I find I concentrate much more - my mind doesn't wander as much because I'm having to listen to be able to type the tweet. I also believe that speakers sometimes misremember what they've said. I've read tweets and thought "I didn't say that", and then gone back and checked the video, and I did!  Also, if as a speaker you are misrepresented, twitter gives you the chance to correct, explain again, and engage with the listener.

Another discussion point was technology. The speakers quite rightly said that is was about the audience, not the technology. But, and this is a big but, the technology is vital. If you get it wrong, it is very frustrating, and in fact can turn people off the whole idea of participating digitally. The JISC conference was a good case of this. Amplification of the event was encouraged, the hashtag had been widely publicised, there was a remote audience, but - the wireless network in the venue wasn't good enough. During the main keynote it stopped working entirely - there was some 3G coverage, but not much, so tweeting was out. I could only blog by posting later when I got a connection. Slightly ironic that we were in the BT conference centre....

Very good session to end on, and I'm a great believer in amplified events - the concept can be extended to any event, including meetings - doesn't just have to be conferences. With the need to reduce our carbon footprint and travel less I think it it will become more the norm.

EDIT  links to this session resources including videos and slides is here

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Clouds and clouds and feeling strange

Next session was on Cloud Computing, three different speakers.
First was from the University of Newcastle and was about the use of cloud in Research.
Large companies like Google, Amazon, Microsoft have huge data centre to run their core services. Now these are being opened up and they're giving others access on a pay per use or pay as you go model. It provides better scalability, particularly being able to cope with "bursting patters" common in research and the peaks and troughs of term time working. It also allows organisations to move capital expenditure to recurrent as it's up to the cloud provider to refresh machines etc.

Problem with clouds is it's a low base provision, if your not an IT expert it can difficult to use.
Researchers need systems to be scalable, reliable, secure. Takes skills beyond most researchers. In Newcastle, they designed a platform which sits on the low level infrastructure which cloud providers provide.
Researchers want 4 common things:
Secure data storage
Ability to analyse data
Automate analysis
Share in controlled way

Plus, everything should work through a web browser.

Newcastle's platform is eScience central
It has a Web 2.0 look and feel with a blogging system. The security is based around social networking, as for young researchers it's a way of life. Can connect with each other, form groups etc. Security built round these groups. It has versioning and metadata in the form of tagging or XML.
Data can be analysed using blocks of code, some are provided, others can be uploaded, and a workflow system. Runs in cloud.

Now starting to use it for teaching. Because browser based can be used anywhere on anything. Teachers can set up exercises, and remotely view students work.

Support tech transfer, supports industry collaboration.

Clouds have potential to transform research, teaching and technology transfer and it's not just about cost reduction
But, moving to cloud infrastructure doesn't help the vast majority of potential users who lack deep IT skills
High level platforms are needed which handle storage and processing, scalability, dependability, security and audit
Insulates users from cloud vendor lock in. Can deploy on intranet eg medical data as well as cloud. Runs on azure, amazon, google etc

Next up was Phil Richards from Loughborough talking about using the cloud to make cost savings. Used example of HP consolidation project. They created a private cloud, reduced data centres from 85 to 6 and applications from 6000 to 3000. Had to invest $100ms to create network, equivalent of our JANET. But, they achieved savings of $1b per annum in revenue.

Loughborough have done something on smaller scale as their old old data centre needed refurbishing. Couldn't afford it so working on cloud based solution with Logicalis based on two mini pods.

In terms of HE, the killer app is not going to be research tools or shared administrative applications but the provision of cheap virtual servers or Infrastructure as a Service via hybrid clouds.

We are lucky to have a network already in place and ready to provide this service, ie JANET, which puts us in front of private sector and rest of public sector. Also JANET now acting as broker. If we get good commercial deals there's the potential for big savings.

Final speaker was Henry Hughes from JANET.
Drivers for moving to cloud. Universities being told that we're not taking advantage of savings, we're operating in outdated way, big cuts on the way.
Focus on cost reduction. Data centres can use >10% of power for an entire campus.
Carbon reduction commitment.
Real estate becoming more valuable for other activities
Some problems provisioning power in some areas

Government cloud developing the G cloud.

Is it that easy to move to Cloud? No
We often have customised in house systems , integrated with other systems
Total cost of ownership often not known, difficult to build business case, elements outside IT eg finance
Costing of IT services difficult, three things have to be taken into account - people, processes, technology
Making reliable estimates of cost savings difficult
Concerns over data security and privacy
Uncertainly over data location and legal risks
Uncertainties with regard to changes to security

Risks have to be considered, eg
Compliance eg DP, patriot act, safe harbor
Multiple tenancy, ie shared storage, provider being responsible for security,
All down to risk assessment, flexibility and value have to be balanced against the security risk

EDIT  The video of this session is now available here.  You need to install Silverlight (there is a prompt to do this), and using the i button on the bottom left of the presentation, select Parallel session 1, Cloud solutions.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

JISC Conference opening sessions

I'm at the JISC conference in Liverpool at the moment, so I'll try to post about some of the sessions, but they may be a bit rough and ready as I type them straight into the iPad, which is balanced on my knee as I multitask between taking notes, blogging, tweeting and keeping up with the conference hashtag (#jisc11).

Good exhibition and networking session last night, lots of talk about what's happening in the sector, and what will happen to JISC following the recent review. The conference was opened by Malcolm Read, the Executive Secretary of JISC who referred to the period of great change we're now in.

Professor David Baker Deputy Chair of JISC gave the opening speech, welcoming the 700 delegates, and many more watching it stream live on line.
He outlined JISCs recent achievements in helping education leaders use technology to cut costs and increase efficiency. For example, for every £1 JISC spends the sector saves £12 through its advisory services and £34 through the work of jISC collections. They are also delivering efficiency gains through national collaborative purchasing and shared services. Other areas they are working in include providing a vision for resource discovery supporting the student experience and understanding researchers needs.

Obviously the recent Review of JISC was mentioned. He stressed the high regard in which JISC is held and lots of positive comments were made to the review group, especially around shared services, content collections and the network. But times are changing and JISC needs to refocus to meet the sectors needs. They need to be focused on achieving a large impact. They will be funded by a mixture of grants, subscriptions and user charges. They should become a separate legal entity and the governance arrangements need to be clarified.
Work has begun on implementation, and extensive consultation is taking place. It could take up to 18 months, but the "new JISC" should be clearer by this autumn, and there will be a shadow board in place by then.
4 key commitments and objectives for the future
Delivering a world class national infrastructure
Providing valued and valuable services
Innovating though programmes and projects

Next up was Professor Eric Thomas VC, University of Bristol talking about Universities 2011, the new world onwards.

He started with a bit of historical perspective. Until 1820, there were only 2 Universities in England, Oxford and Cambridge. Then in first decade of last century, the red bricks were built, including us. There were several other big expansions, in the1960s and 1992. So we've gone from very small system to big one rapidly. Compared to US where they were chartering universities from middle of 17th century. Our system is based on an elite, exclusive one but theres more inclusive.

In 1961 4.2% of 18 year olds went to University. In 2011 it is 44%. An order of magnitude change. Not fee even then as tax was higher.

Whatever happens, its important that the values and ambitions of HEIs must remain unchanged.
Vital that HEIs see themselves as educational and academic institutions, they continue to provide the public good aspects of uni education and we retain our values in the face of changes

The cuts, a history!
December 2009 £1b cut. Mandy's christmas card.
Followed in Spring 2010 by further £200m
In Jan 2011 VAT up to 20% which had a significant effect on Universities
Now teaching funding reduced from £3.9b to £700m. 80% cut in real terms.
So, has to be increase in funding.
Fees cap increased to £6000, or £9000 "exceptionally"
There's an Increased focus on Widening Participation
No upfront cost to the student
£21000 earrings threshold' after that will pay will pay £0.09 per £1 earned above 21k.
Still similar to 70s because funded from taxes then. But now we've entered language of fees and loans.
Paradigm shift. Funding for teaching cut, given to student via SLC for them to take to whatever uni and course they decide to go to.
Create a consumer led demand. Much more unpredictable.

There's an income gap. Unis financial years don't coincide with government financial year so we've had an in year cut already
Second gap, state funding wilt reduce at a faster rate than increase in fee income

So, the challenges are:
Admissions conundrum, will fee put people off going to university
Pricing. Don' buy most expensive camera a because it's better quality. So people won't think. A £9k fee is better quality. Hmm, not a lot of agreement with that statement in the room if the twitter stream is anything to go by.
WP, as yet unknown targets
Marked increase in student and parent expectations, especially for facilities.

University strength will be determined by:
Turnover and size.
Being in a population centre. Students going to local university.
Being highly sort after and in a popular location.
Attracting the best staff and students.
Working with student union esp on student experience.
Financially robust

An Excellent governing body will becoming increasingly important to assist the university to meet the challenges.

Implications. Period of immense uncertainly. Will need outstanding leadership in universities, not just VC, but all senior management.
Further diversification of the sector. Research concentration will increase.
More HE in FE.
Private providers, will increase in areas like business.
Institutional stress or failure?
Mergers and acquisitions, especially in big cities. Eg 44 separate providers of HE in London.
Maybe be return to non degree entry in some courses

good introduction to the issues, but not a lot about how ICT etc can help. he did say that one certainty is that JISC will still be around in 10 years time, no matter what other changes had taken place in HE. Discuss!

EDIT the video of these sessions are now available here, you need to install Silverlight (there is a prompt to do this), and using the i at the bottom left of the presentation select opening address and opening keynote

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Friday, 11 March 2011

Police, Google, IC and Toxic Data star at the User Group

CiCS User Group this morning. A very good attendance - we ran out of biscuits!  Did wonder what we'd put on the agenda that promised trouble when I saw 5 policemen outside, leaning on their cycles having a quick cup of coffee. Didn't know our move to Google was so controversial. Suspect they had something to do with a certain event happening in Sheffield at the moment.

After a report on stuff we're doing at the moment, our first presentation was a report on changes taking place in the Information Commons from our (relatively) new IC manager, Rene. Providing students with transferable skills, more flexibility in the use of the space,  loaning laptops ( possibly with assistive software preloaded), providing high end machines for media processing - all currently being evaluated following focus groups with students. Exciting to see how the building is evolving.

Next we heard how one of our faculties had coped with the move to Google mail. Great to see a Faculty IT and CiCS IT support person presenting together. This has definitely been a joint operation - we have worked with the faculty to plan the move, and have staff based in the departments the morning after the move floor walking and generally assisting people. Staff from other areas of the University have been involved as well - a real collaborative effort. I think what surprised people more than anything was how few problems there's been - for most people their mail has moved, there's a small reconfiguration to their client, and that's it. Now we're moving round the University adopting the same technique, and we go live with Google docs in May, then the calendar - which will be big bang rather than staggered.

A scary talk then on Information as a Toxic Resource.  Our Data Protection and Freedom of Information experts gave a very informative (and yes, scary in places), about how information can be requested under DP and FoI legislation, what we are obliged to release, how we should be storing it, how much we should be keeping etc. We should of course be deleting anything we don't need to keep, but that is definitely not the practice with emails where many people keep everything. We also touched on the dangers of downloading data onto mobile devices and the need to have suitable encryption in place.  Requests under FoI and DP are on the increase - we need be make sure everyone knows and understands their responsibilities - the Information Commissioner can now fine us up to £500,000, and there is personal liability, as well as corporate.  Be afraid....

Finally, an interim report on the mobile survey we're in the middle of conducting. It closes on Monday, so a bigger and better blog post when we've analysed all the results, but initial result show all students (except 2 apparently) have a mobile phone, over half of them are smart phones (with many of the rest expecting to upgrade to one soon),  and 95% ownership of laptops.  Lots of good info about how students use them, and what other mobile services they want to see.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Welcome to Sheffield

Quite a lot of stuff going on at the moment, and some major meetings.  Yesterday was Senate, where we had a good discussion on the current external environment. Summed up by uncertainty and some disagreements in Whitehall - which only add to the uncertainty of course. Lots of unrest about the proposed changes to the student visa system - a barmy idea it seems to me and many others which will have a profound affect on this country's ability to undertake research in science and engineering.  We also discussed student fees, and the discussions which are taking place about fee levels, OFFA, widening participation etc.  Great speech from our student union president, who accepted that they had lost the fight on fees, but were fully behind the university in widening access, supporting poorer students, and improving the student experience. He made a significant point to members of senate -when students are paying more, they will expect teachers to be teachers. Teaching will not be something you do because you have to, and it will have to have the same importance and respect as research.

There was a meeting of the Professional Service Directors early on in the week where we tracked the progress of several workstreams, had an update on the University review of pensions, and looked at some work on costing services and activities.

Another major meeting is about to happen - the LibDem conference in Sheffield.  Walked into town at lunchtime, and a huge fence has gone up round the City Hall, with a rather ironic sign on it:

Glad to see the South Yorkshire police are making good use of social media during the conference, with regular updates from Chief Inspector Green and Inspector Forrest from the liaison team - the event's even got its own hashtag - #libdempolicing.

Monday, 7 March 2011

Days of Future Passed

One of sessions at our departmental meeting last week was a look back at what we've achieved over the past year, and a look forward to what we're aiming for this year.

Our overarching themes continue to be:
  • Reducing our carbon footprint/Green IT
  • Improving the Student Experience
  • Reducing complexity
  • Improving Resilience
  • Doing more with less
So, a summary of achievements and priorities by service area:

Learning and teaching
– MOLE 2 (our new VLE based on Blackboard Learn 9) Pilot
– Common Timetabling Pilot
– Learning and Teaching Space improvements
– MOLE 2 – implementation
– Common Timetable Pilot (again)
– New managed student desktop based on Windows 7
– Piloting teaching with laptops to make better use of lab spaces
– Satisfaction survey of all students / Survey students about mobile devices

Research and Innovation
– Support for Computer Simulation using graphical processing units
– Central License Management
– Working together with Research Groups
– Upgrade Iceberg (our High Performance Computer)
– Research Funding - URMS ( the University’s Research Management System  that researchers use to cost funding bids) now automatically lets us know when about research submissions that have a heavy computing requirement.
– Better Research Data Storage and management - working with the Library to reduce the amount of data stored in inapprpriate ways, and to improve its life cycle management

Communication and Collaboration
– Move to IP Telephony
– Improve Video Conferencing facilities including installation of another Access Grid
– Implemented Google mail and calendar for students
– Develop an Enquirer and Applicant Portal
– Implement a new portal based on Liferay
–  Implement Google Apps for Staff Google
–  Implement a text messaging system
–  Complete new Content Management System roll-out

Help and Support
– Implemented Self Service and Live Support on Helpdesk
– Worked closely to improve links with IT Support in Faculties
– Wokred with departments to deliver targeted training, especially improved induction for staff
– Upgrade SupportWorks (Helpdesk software) to a system supporting service management
– Develop Professional Services Strategic Liaison
– Review of Information Security policies and procedures

Corporate Information
– SAP Upgrade
– Upgrade of CIS (student Information System) and  CRM
– Implemented Student Attendance Monitoring
– SAP upgrade continued - this is a long term project
– Statutory Items (HESA, UCAS, SLC, PBI, Payroll). Acronym City. Has to be done.
– Implement Online registration

– Resilience - server virtualisation, introduced new hardware for VMWare and moved major systems onto Solaris Zones. Improved network resilence by removing single points of failure, setting up dual paths round campus and using resilient load balancers
– Increased storage capacity
–  Green IT - 5 year energy costs reduced from £500,000 to £150,000 due to server virtualisation
– On and Off site Bandwidth increase / management - hoping to increase link to 10Gb and upgrade internal core to 10Gb
– Wireless
– Storage refresh (2012)
– Review how we currently provide file and print services

Business Activities
– Managed 16 Major Projects
– Transport and Parking services relocated  to Estates and Facilities Management
– Carried out several Print Audits
– University archive provided information for several high profile events including the visit og HM the Queen
– Implement a managed staff printing service
– Review software licensing
– Venues:
       -  upgrade Octagon technical infrastructure, replace bleachers etc
       -  Drama Studio increasing  support to academic activities

Phew - that's quite a list. On top of all of that we're continuing to introduce service management by developing and reviewing our change, incident and problem procedures; setting up Service Advisory groups to support our Service Strategy Board; reviewing our Business Continuity procuedure; developing a methodology for understanding the cost of our services.  Last, but certainly not least, developing and investing in our staff.

Friday, 4 March 2011

The Science of Cocktails

My background is science - I might be a manager now, but I have a degree in science, a PhD and I've done 3 yrs as a postdoc - all in Genetics. I love science - and can't understand why everyone doesn't. I remember being incredibly disappointed when my kids came home from school and told me that science was "boring'. How can it be I would ask, and then they told me how it was being taught, and I believed them. Apparently they weren't allowed to blow things up, or bury dead badgers till they rotted, or chase mercury round a bench....all things that I did in science lessons.

Over the past few years I've been very disappointed in how undervalued science has become, and how it's been represented in the media, so I'm so pleased that a group of very enthusiastic science students here in Sheffield have formed Science Brainwaves, an organisation dedicated to bringing science to everyone. I've been to a few of their events including a talk on chance by Brooke Magnanti, but tonight was perhaps the most enjoyable. The Science of Cocktails was a great way to start the weekend!

We started with a champagne cocktail, and then learnt about how alcohol is produced, including a taste test comparing cheap vodka produced by a continuous distillation process, and an expensive vodka produced using pot distillation. The cheap stuff was better! We also tasted whisky and learned why you should never put ice in it but always add a splash of water (it's all to do with esters...), and how to mix a good vodka/gin/fruit juice cocktail.  And - the most important lesson - how to avoid a hangover.  That one's easy. Don't drink.

If you do drink, the paler the drink, the better you'll feel. Drink water, take Neurofen, eat bananas (for potassium), and eat a fry up if you can stand it - you need the glycogen.

Good luck to Science Brainwaves - they deserve our support -  a great night, and I've got the Neurofen and bananas ready for the morning!

Virtual ABBA

Today was a departmental meeting, and we were lucky to have the Registrar address us. He gave an excellent overview of the current situation facing us and other Universities, and the role that we can play in helping the University of Sheffield move forward. He talked about the uncertainty facing the sector, and how the successful Universities will be the ones that can seize opportunities by being agile and flexible. The need to promote collaboration and partnerships was emphasised, and how communication and staying connected will become more and more important.  As student fees rise, then the student's expectations will change, and we'll need to understand them and try and meet, or in the words of Disney, exceed them.

That was followed by a session on "Virtualisation: the new reality" delivered by Dave Speake, whch explained the progress of our virtualisation agenda - absolutely vital work which is usually completely hidden from our users, and sometimes from the rest of the department.  Pre 2010 we had around 200 physical servers whereas now we have 70 physical computers and 110 virtual ones, and by the end of this year we should have 50 physical ones and 200 virtual machines. The main advantages to us of this are:
  • It's cheaper than buying and running physical machines
  • Easier to manage
  • Uses less electricity
  • More flexible
  • More reliable
  • More functional
  • Quicker to set up
We've also been doing a lot of work virtualising our discs We've gone from 15 different types of disc boxes with loads of discs of all types in individual computer to 2 physical disc enclosures and nearly all of our storage on NetApp discs with all of the benefits listed above. Some great work by the Infrastructure Team.

We then had a look back on what we'd achieved this year, and what we are planning to do next year, which will be the subject of another post - too long for this one!

Finally, the all important announcement of who'd won the ABBAs - the Above and Beyond Awards. I'd decided at the last minute to include pictures of all the nominees and winners, but could only get my hands on ones from parties so nearly everyone had a silly hat on, or a drink in their hand!

The winners were:

Outstanding collague Award:     John Ollerenshaw
Unsung hero Award:                  Jayne Halsey
Team Award:                             The SAP Basis team, Neil Campbell, Andy Turner and James Ibbotson

Well done to all, and the rest of the nominees.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Controlling and Warmth

Admin Team Awayday today - that's Heads, Directors, some Deputy Directors of Professional Services, and the Faculty Directors of Operations.  Quite a big group, and good to get some quality time together. Today was about planning - looking at the external environment, sharing our plans, and  looking at some financial issues.  Lots of good stuff shared, and I think we all enjoyed looking at the different plans and seeing where they interact.

Lots of common points made - some key themes about where we're trying to get to as Professional Services. In the climate of increased competition, we need to be distinctive, and we had a lot of discussion about what differentiates us from other Universities, and how we can market that. The University of Warmth was suggested as a strapline...

We had a long discussion about what we as professional services need to be better at - communication, team working, getting rid of silos. Simplifying processes, only doing what we have to do, stopping doing anything which doesn't add value. Looking at different ways of providing services - which may not be by us. Getting rid of unnecessary reviews and policies. Understanding what we do, what activities we support and what services we offer. Knowing our costs- how much does it cost us to provide services? Working in partnership and collaboration with academic colleagues. Breaking down any "us and them" mentality, especially around the "we earn the money, they spend it" opinion of some academic areas. As someone said, we'll know we've succeeded when no-one refers to "the University" as if somehow they're not part of it. And my favourite phrase "The Centre".

That's not to say we don't do any of the above of course - we do a lot of it very well. But we need to get better, and smarter. I managed to get my favourite word in - mandation! It came up at the Modernisation and Efficiency meeting, and I rather liked it. Of course it's all about how much people can be told they have to do things a certain way, rather than suggesting, or encouraging them to change.  It's an interesting balance. My own experience is that you can tell people what they have to do, if it's clearly explained why, and they can see the benefits to them. But it is clearly dependent on the situation. It was reported to us that one University, not in this country, has a Department of Controlling. I'd love to be head of that one....

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Efficiency and Modernisation

Last Friday I was in London for the Universities UK Task Group on Efficiency and Modernisation -  made up of Vice-Chancellors, and a Director of Finance, HR, Procurement, Estates and IT (me!). It's a group set up in response to the funding cuts, and the challenge of managing efficiencies whilst charting a growth path out of the current financial position.   Retaining the quality of teaching and research with fewer resources, without damaging future prospects will be a key objective. The group is looking at what drives efficiency in the sector, and then analysing whether there are specific areas in which the sector can achieve large scale savings by introducing more efficient operations, so that resources can be targeted towards supporting teaching and research.

Several areas are being looked at including Procurement, HR processes, Estates and Facilities Management (including utilities), and of course - administrative processes, back office systems and shared services. A report showing savings which had been achieved in other sectors including local authorities and the NHS was discussed - and there were some hefty savings. But, and I did make this point, these figures don't mean a lot unless you know how efficient they were to start with, and what their baseline costs were.  But, these figures showing huge savings in, for example the NHS, do get bandied around government, with the implication that we can achieve similar ones.

Of course, I'm not saying there aren't efficiencies to be gained - there are. And we probably all know where they are in our own organisations! We have to start sharing services within our own institutions before we can begin to think about sharing them outside. Standardising and simplifying business processes and using the same systems are an absolute prerequisite to sharing services between institutions, or to looking at different models of service delivery. I know there are Universities still running multiple email systems for example (more than 20 in some cases) - fairly soon we won't run any, but that migration to Google was made so much easier by only having one system in place to start with.

The other thing we all have to do is understand our costs better - we need to know how much services costs, and in some cases drill down to the cost of a process - or how can we make sensible decisions about  achievable savings, what services or processes might be suitable for sharing, or outsourcing.

So, an interesting meeting, and I look forward to seeing how this agenda progresses. The only thing that slightly amused me, was that the group is  about modernisation, and I was the only person in the room using anything digital to read the papers - everyone else had printed copies, carefully placed in folders and labeled  - by their PAs I imagine. Maybe I'll leave tackling that one till next time....