Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Shame it's just too late for the Oscars...

Had another of our coffee and cake meetings yesterday where we meet a random group of staff for – coffee and cake! Of course we talk about things as well – no topics are off limits – and yesterday we talked about LEAN and how the setting up of a small unit to take it forward is going to work, how we foster and support innovation, and some practical stuff like our imminent move to a new building.

I also spent some time yesterday looking a draft of our revised Research Support Strategy. More on that later when it’s been to our Research and Innovation Strategic Advisory Group for comment.

Today I’ve been working with another University, helping them review their IT Strategy - always interesting looking at what other places do, and always informative as you can learn as well as input to the discussion.

Finally, some congratulations to our Teaching Technologies Team who under cover of darkness the other night produced and edited a great film of the light show on our Arts Tower which was officially opened last night after a £36m refurbishment.

Friday, 24 February 2012

Leaner and meaner?

This morning's RUGIT session opened with an update from the new chief Executive of JISC Martyn Harrow, and the Chief Executive of JANET Tim Marshall. The Wilson Review concluded that JISC should become leaner and more focused, and that there should be changes to the funding model, moving to a more subscription based approach. A Transition Board has produced a report apparently containing 35 recommendations which should be published next week. These will cover governance, funding, focus and legal issues. One of the major services which JISC funds is our network, JANET, which we all feel passionately about, and there was a lot of discussion about how this might be funded in the future, and it's relationship with whatever legal entity JISC becomes. I think it's fair to say there was a full and frank discussion on the future, with a number of different views expressed. I look forward to seeing the report which hopefully will produce a leaner, meaner JISC with a much clearer focus.

The final session of the morning looked at governance and organisational structure. Representatives from four different universities gave us an overview of how they were organised and governed, and we had a discussion on the relative merits, issues etc of each. It's always fascinated me how many different structures there are across the university system.

All in all a good couple of days, lots of ideas shared, opinions exchanged and contacts made.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Thursday, 23 February 2012

VLEs and beyond

Last year at the Gartner conference some of us visited the Open University of Catalunya just outside Barcelona to look at how they had developed their VLE.

It's not a big, designed system, there's lots of projects which contribute to it, it's more of an ecosystem than a VLE. Not all done in IT services.
They based it on an underlying ESB and a set of data standards. Then procured or built selection of modules. Eg some Moodle, some blackboard, some using blog tools,some other web services. Used common look and feel as far as possible. All web based, very agile, and easy to develop new services.

Very easy for staff and students to use. Lots of very rich media including audio blogs, electronic annotation, eFeedback, student video conferencing, video assignments. It also serviced a lot of different academic approaches, not a one size fits all approach.

A presentation on this to the rest of RUGIT kicked off a discussion on the future of the VLE, and how appropriate this sort of model would be to a research based, campus university, rather than a distance learning one.

We also talked about how we ensure an effective route for the adoption of technology and applications into our core learning and teaching offer. Most of us have a mixture of core, supported, recommended and recognised applications. So a recognised app might not come anywhere us, staff find it, use it and often fund it. When it becomes recommended, we give more help and provide the environment. When it's supported, we set it up and integrate it with rest of systems. Core systems are provided and supported and we expect everyone to use them. So, what's the route through all of these different stages? And how do we ensure the effective use of these different technologies?
Do we need to send people out into the faculties to look at the "recognised" apps, see how they're being used, see if they're scaleable, supportable.
Is there another layer of "discouraged"? (Some here suggesting Dropbox should be in that category! ) If there is, it should be between recognised and recommended. Most innovation sits outside of " core" apps. We need to encourage an environment of innovation in teaching and learning, whilst still being able to support core stuff.

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Innovation and IT Lite

Meeting with Russell Group IT Directors and assorted Deputy and Assistant Directors in Oxford at the moment. There's about 30 of us here, and one of the first sessions we had was on Innovation, where we had someone who works in innovation at Virgin Atlantic talking to us.

They are an airline, not a software house. Very light touch in terms of IT, most of it is outsourced. Only have 100 IT staff. They have been voted the leading innovative airline.

Innovation = Invention + Exploitation+ Persistence.
Or, (new things or pragmatic new use of old things) + (get business value out of it) + (keep trying)

IT Lite team were set up to deliver fit for purpose business solutions, tools and models, rapidly . Team were set up outside of normal IT team, with a different culture. Very small, about 5 staff. Speed is very important.
Used 2 plus 2 model:
2 days to define requirements. 2 weeks to deliver working solution.
Used simplified project and product management.
Kept within a suitability filter:
Must have senior sponsor
Must have clear business benefit
Mustn't be business or mission critical
Must have small development effort (30 days max)
No significant impact on IT network and no additional hardware or software required.

In such an innovation team you need all-rounders, and people who can translate IT to business speak. Techies who scrub up well!
Need people who want to own a problem end to end.

Some good examples of what they developed include:
Scheduled flight dashboard
iPad application for pilots
Tactical SMS flight alerts
Disruption support using laptops
Facebook flying club application ( developed by customers)
IPhone app

Social Media Lite
Very Virgin, part of brand value. Customers listen to other customers.

Graph of virgin tweets compared to BA during snow. Virgin are red, BA blue!
Huge growth of followers on Twitter and Facebook.
Very fast way of communicating when things go wrong, eg snow, ash cloud
Also improves search engine results if you get customers talking about you.
App strategy is to have one Virgin App and keep it free.
Very lightweight skinning of website onto mobile devices.

It's not about innovation, it's about business value.
The right culture of strong leadership and considered risk taking needs to exist
Prune early and be selective
Protect and nurture, create sandboxes and a sensible approach to investment
Know your limits and stay within them
Pick your targets, a mix of quick wins and high value wins
Expect success and get ready to turn a service created through an innovation process into a production level service.

Interesting presentation, and setting up this separate group outside of the IT team seemed to work. Wonder if it's something we should try? Especially to tap in to some of the great ideas both our staff and those in the Faculties have. Also co-development with our students, in the same way Virgin have done it with their customers for things like their Facebook app. Tesco have used something similar to develop their shopping baskets with customers. Crowdsourcing might have a role to play?

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Wednesday, 22 February 2012


We're busy planning this week - we're right in the middle of the planning round, and producing our plan for next year, as well as having a look a back at what we've achieved from last year's objectives.  Then we take our plan and go out and meet all of the Faculties, talk to them about theirs, and refine our if necessary. Lots of good stuff in it so far including implementing our eLearning strategy, refreshing our Research Support strategy, developing further our mobile and web strategies and completing a number of projects with impenetrable acronyms (HEAR, SHIP, DARE, KIS). Lots more, and I'll publish bits of it when completed.

Also this week we've been looking at a possible structure for a Programme Board to pull together some of the projects associated with the utilisation of resources, particularly teaching space, such as Common Timetabling and other data related projects including those looking at how we handle programme regulations. Accurate, timely data is a key prequisite for many other processes, including timetabling.

Yesterday it was a UEB/HoDS meeting, where the Heads of Academic Departments, the Directors of Professional Services and the University Executive Board get together. A key part of the meeting yesterday looked at the purpose of the meeting,  what topics we might discuss in future, and how meeting s might be facilitated.  Interesting round table discussions, with the key point being that this is one of the few times these three sets of people get together, and the time should be used as interactively as possible, to hear others opinions, to generate ideas, and to bridge any gulf between the academic community and professional services.

Setting off later for an awayday of RUGIT - the Russell group of IT Directors where we'll be discussing topics including Innovation, VLEs and beyond, Governance and Organisation, and getting an update on what's happening in JISC.  All good stuff. Blogposts will follow!

Friday, 17 February 2012

Releasing CRABs

This week we had a Service Strategy Board, where looked at a release management policy. "Releases" can come form several different sources - projects, internal pieces of work which aren't projects, and supplier driven releases, such as upgrades or new feature implementations.  Currently we don't have a formal release policy which is consistent across all three different types, although we do have a good "go live" checklist as part of our project management process. So, we've now agreed to have a formal release policy for all three types, which we are combining with change management - our Change Advisory Board (CAB) in effect becoming a Change and Release Advisory Board (CRAB).  To keep it manageable it will be as lightweight as possible, and only apply to significant releases.  One of the issues we looked at was how this links with process change, as many projects involve changes to organisational processes, which may or may not be coincidental with the release. Often these processes are not owned by CiCS, so this is an area for further discussion.

Talking of processes, we're moving ahead with our implementation of LEAN,  and have the go ahead to set up a small unit which will be based in CiCS. A Steering Group will help us prioritise and monitor progress, and we're gong to move on this as soon as possible.  Exciting stuff!

I've also had a meeting this week with the CEO of Yorkshire Universities about the possibly of talking to their Executive Management Group about Shared Services next month, which I have agreed to do. The plan will be to get them talking about the possibility of sharing services, and what opportunities there are.  Just looked at the membership of the group and spotted University of Lincoln in there. Didn't know Yorkshire had taken over Lincolnshire.....

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

The Big Flip!

Today I took part in another of those bizarre things that happen when you work at a University - a world record attempt!  Staff, students and members of the local community came together to see if we could break the world record for flipping a pancake. After donning our t shirts and getting our wristbands we were given a frying pan and pancake and marshalled carefully to one of many pens on the Endcliffe Paddock. Loads of people there - the VC, Registrar, sabbatical officers, lots of students of course, local people, and the press including both local TV stations. We all had a bit of a practice flipping, and when the siren went off had to flip continuously for 30 seconds - Guinness are very strict and if you didn't keep flipping or dropped the pancake you were disqualified.   Marshalls were assigned to every group, and watched you carefully! At the end of 30 seconds - which seems like a very long time when you're flipping - the marshalls gave the scores to the scrutineer, and it was announced that we'd broken the record which previously stood at 405 by more than doubling it.

Great event, and well done to all of the organisers - there was a real party atmosphere at the Student Village with free food, other pancake competitions and even an F1 simulator car to have a go in. Of course, it wasn't just about fun - the students on our three villages choose a charity to support each year, and all proceeds from the event went to them which this year are  ACCT, PACES and Project Buzz.  In addition, the frying pans were all donated to the St Vincent Furniture store which distributes household goods and furniture to vulnerable people in Sheffield.

I'm sure it will be in the local press and on the TV tonight, and if it is, watch out for when they ask everyone to toss their pancake as high as possible, and  some dimwit right at the front drops theirs. It just might be me!

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Janet Brokerage announce framework suppliers

This next talk is on the JANET Brokerage Service. It's been up and running for about 6 months now, and its aim is to become a hub for good practice in the cloud arena for UK HE.  It is a unit within JANET working between HEIs and suppliers to add value.

There's an interesting white paper on moving email to the cloud on their web site.

They've also recently announced that eight suppliers will be working with them on a framework to deliver cloud and data centre services. Not all of them announced yet, but will be over next few weeks as they sign the contracts.  The ones they can announce today are Dell, HP, Eduserv and Liberata.

They hope to provide value to both HEIs and supplies by aggregating demand, negotiating prices and assisting with contract negotiation. They accept that one size won't fit all, and will be working with Universities to make things are used in the right way.

They are setting up an Advisory Board (which I have been invited to sit on), so expect a lot more information about this service.

Does the cloud pay for itself?

Next up is Oxford Brookes, talking about making the cloud pay for itself.

How much does the cloud cost?
Consumer view is that its free, eg iPlayer, mail. So, is the cloud free? No, not that simple! Even consumers have costs, connections, data tariffs, devices, etc. So, there is a consumer cost.
Also costs borne by organisations - we provide devices, connections, Janet, hardware, software, people, skills etc. Content is an immense cost.

So, the cost of the Cloud is a lot! But a simple RoI is not the right metric. Need to see it not as a cost, but an investment. Look for business benefits, driven by customer expectations.
Innovation is another key driver. Everyone wants self service, mobile delivery, anytime, anyplace etc.
Carbon reduction targets also important.
Operational excellence, adopt best practice - buy a solution and use it out of the box. In principle can do this with cloud solutions.

Oxford Brookes have gone with Google for staff and students. Are some cost savings, eg licence costs for exchange. Not a lot of savings for docs, hangouts, sites yet. There are other ways of doing most of these things, so they are providing business benefits but not saving money.

Other cloud examples at Oxford Brookes include Moodle VLE  and web content management system. Doing some experiments with virtual desktop on Google Chromebooks. Also have a mobile app, but again not saving money, because not turning anything off. Just providing different way into services.

So, there is a lot of cost efficiency, ease of engagement, innovation, anytime anywhere  etc. Not necessary saving money.

Might be a cost in terms of reputational damage if services go down. Will nearly always be us that take the flack, not Amazon!  Need an exit strategy.

Conclusion - cloud services are probably not saving us money, but are getting business benefits and innovation.

JANET Cloud conference, outsourcing your datacentre

Today I'm at the JANET Cloud conference in London, speaking later today on our move to cloud with particular reference to security.

First session is from Middlesex University. They have 52 staff, and 37 hot desks. Everyone hot desks, including the senior staff and they can book hot desks in half day slots. They also work from home, and come together for project work. It makes them realise what they have to deliver themselves and what they can get third party suppliers to do. They have outsourced their datacentre and server management.Their data centre is based with IBM, it is Tier 4 and they use 10 racks at 18kw. It's about 8miles from campus. IBM staff do the tape backups. Middlesex can get into it, but very seldom do.

Also have a DR centre with them in Warwick, only 2 racks, 80 miles away. They own some of the hot equipment, but rest is shared and has significantly reduced costs.  There is some small amount of equipment on campus to handle local stuff eg printing. Only 5 racks.

Have virtualised almost everything, about 90%. Use VMWare.

Data centres joined up by virgin network to push data around, not JANET. Main data centre is then joined to JANET.

Wanted to move staff away from looking after hardware, patching etc, and have them looking after applications. IBM monitor hardware 24/7/365. They do all of the patching, Middlesex look after applications. Remote support is provided out of India, patching done locally. They also patch the SAN. There's a service and change management process in place.

Service and contract management very important. Terms and conditions, change management, charging, DR plans, DPA, security controls etc all need agreeing and documenting.

Exit strategy is looking for tier 4 DC with low PUE, servers and storage on demand, delivered using multi tenanted architecture and connected to JANET. Because everything is documented, should be easy to move. Have a defined set of requirements. Will no longer own hardware. Very liberating!

Why have they done it?
Uncertain Estates strategy. Unsuitable space allocated, power and air conditioning not maintained.
Didn't want staff to be doing patching. Needed them to work on significant projects which deliver visible business benefits to students and staff.
Budget pressures.
These sort of technology skills can be obtained from outside the university, don't need to be internal.
Total cost of ownership much lower if outsource. It isn't cheaper to run DC in house if you look at all costs. Focus on institution cost, not just IT cost.
Global 24/7 aspirations of University not viable on current University staffing.

Issued tender in January 2009, contract in place September, migrations finished by July 2010, transition complete January 2011.

Lovely quote from Paula, " moving a a data centre's a bugger".

Lessons learnt:
Shape and know your service contract- don't rely on supplier to do due diligence
Know your baseline configuration and technology, it's your exit strategy
ITIL practice is key

The cloud is maturing and stoppable, plan for it.
Why put high bandwidth services on campus, eg video content, if your students and staff are accessing them from off campus

For users it's the service that's important, not the location.

Need to help technical people let go, show them that there 's more interesting roles to have. Letting go is hard, and trusting a third party to do stuff you've been used to doing is hard. But it gets easier with practice!

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Availibilty and Common Sense.

Over the last couple of days I've been in some meetings talking about new developments - always exciting. First was a way of better testing and displaying the status of our services (as opposed to systems). We currently have a status page which is excellent and very well used by our staff and students but it's really a list of issues, rather than a list of what's working and what isn't. An interesting new dashboard has been developed, and we're working on appropriate tests now as to whether a service is actually working from a user perspective, rather than whether the server is up and you can log in. Watch this space - availability management is an important part of our service management strategy. 

Currently I'm writing a presentation I'm giving at the JANET conference tomorrow on our move to cloud based services, and the issues around security and privacy and how we've dealt with them. Suspect I'll be putting the finishing touches to it on the train on the way there!

Whilst I'm doing that I'm following the progress of Paul Chamber's appeal at the High Court against his conviction for sending a menacing tweet two years ago. Lots of coverage in the press about it, and I've got the hashtag #twitterjoketrial set up as a search on tweetdeck, and it's beeping so much I've had to turn the sound off my mac. Absolutely ridiculous waste of public money, and huge implications for the use of social media whichever way the verdict goes. Fingers crossed that common sense will prevail, but given the judges' comments when this has been considered previously, I'm not holding my breath. I'm tempted to say that if this goes the wrong way I'll blow Doncaster Airport sky high, but that could get me into a lot of trouble!

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Upgrades, liaison and gin.

This week we had the first meeting of our new liaison group between the Executive teams of CiCS and Estates. There's many areas where we work together and overlap, and although we have operational meetings and work jointly on projects, we've not had these high level strategic meetings before. It went very well, and we identified a number of areas of joint interest including Business Continuity, ensuring that the IT needs of customers are built into capital projects at an early stage, various infrastructure issues, and planning for our data centres. Very positive and constructive meeting.

Also this week we've been involved in another major software upgrade - our VLE (MOLE2 to people in the University). In order to take advantage of key new features in Blackboard Learn 9 we had to do this large upgrade during the academic year.  It's not ideal because the system has to be taken down for several days, and academic colleagues from our project board and from the faculties have identified the 'least worst' date which has meant taking the service down for the last couple of days of exams.  Academics and departmental support staff have been incredibly supportive and worked with our central learning technologists to identify solutions to minimise any impact on students.  The upgrade has gone without a hitch and the service is up and running now - slightly earlier than expected which gives us a great opportunity for it to be thoroughly tried and tested before it's really put through its paces on Monday morning when teaching begins again.  I'd like to thank everyone who worked on it, and got the upgrade done faster than we thought possible. It was a great example of team work - well done everyone.

Finally, last night I went to another event organised by our Science Brainwaves team. An innovative group who's aim is to engage everyone with science. I've posted before how much I support them, especially when they run such great events as The Science of Cocktails, and last night - The Botany of Gin.  Unfortunately as part of the event we had to taste the various different kinds of gin. Tough I know, but someone has to do it. I've written about it here.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Community clouds

Good meeting this morning being brought up to date on YHMAN's virtual shared data centre project.  We're running a pathfinder or pilot service, with machines based in three Universities, hosting virtual services based on VMware to form a community cloud. It's connected by a resilient ring with virtual security in place and is serving the eight universities in the MAN. You can see some slides about it on the YHMAN projects page here.  The technology behind it is all very clever - resilient and secure, and as we move forward with it we'll be looking at the use cases for it. Offsite back up, resilient storage, business continuity and temporary capacity are all possibilities for us. We're one of the current sites where a server is hosted, so we are both a supplier and customer. Quite exciting - will be interesting to see how it develops.

This afternoon we had a Business Continuity Operations group, looking mainly at our work programme for this year, and lessons learned from recent incidents and near misses.

Also had a phone call with a Gartner analyst, an expert in business process management, about some aspects of our implementation of service management. I find these conversations really useful, a they often offer a different perspective, especially as the Gartner analysts have a lot of experience and examples of good practice from all sectors - not just HE. They also know the questions to ask to make you think differently.