2. Strategic Computing Considerations

Section 2 considers issues which relate to the whole University.

2.1. Model of central and distributed computing provision

The new University governance structure, with its devolution of responsibility to divisions, has led to significant change. Divisional IT strategies are under development, whilst new requirements are being made on the IT infrastructure (OSIRIS, ISIDORE, …).

The model for supporting devolved computing in the University which has emerged is:-

  • front-line support of users is provided by local support staff in departments and colleges;
  • support staff are in turn supported by OUCS (IT Support Staff Support: ITS3);
  • departments and colleges, and their members, have the opportunity to purchase specific services from OUCS, complementing the services provided by their local support staff as necessary;
  • OUCS works closely with other University IT service suppliers to ensure coherent support;
  • OUCS helps to faciliate the ‘technology transfer’ of new services, ensuring effective and timely application of leading-edge technologies in the support of teaching, learning and research.

2.2. Strategic Partnerships

The ICT needs of the University are met by staff in the departments and colleges, by ICT providers (through the: Oxford University Library Services (OUCL), Management Information Systems (MIS), Institute for the Advancement of University Learning (IAUL), Telecommunications, Department for Continuing Education and the Director of Distance and Online Learning), and by OUCS. The relationship between OUCS and other ICT providers will continue to develop and change. OUCS is in the process of forming strategic partnerships with a number of centres, building both on its specific areas of expertise, and also on its position as a centrally-funded University resource. Some specific examples include:

  • working with providers of electronic content, such as OULS and the divisions and departments, to enhance delivery services for the University's needs;
  • partnering with departmental and college IT service providers to ensure the most effective service is provided;
  • building on the many practical collaborations which are emerging as a consequence of OUCS's rôle within the evolution of the e-Science centre;
  • expanding OUCS's contributions to university policy making and its implementation through relevant committee work, at university, divisional, and departmental levels;
  • collaborating with IAUL on the provision of training;
  • expanding and developing OUCS's portfolio of collaborative development work, currently managed through Research Technologies Services, Network Systems Management Service, and Academic Computing Development Team;
  • working with other centrally-funded IT services (most notably MIS) to promote synergistic resolution of common requirements;
  • growing a partnership with the Oxford Internet Institute, complementing its emergence as a centre of expertise in social aspects of the Internet with OUCS's expertise in technical aspects of Internet usage.

Along with the Computing Laboratory, OUCS has a key rôle in establishing support for Grid technologies. This is expected to expand greatly, as the pervasive high power distributed computing resources, which characterize the Grid vision, make the transition from state-of-the-art to commodity. OUCS will play a key rôle both, locally, in the development of a new Interdisciplinary e-Science Centre and as a key player in the emerging national Grid infrastructure.

2.3. Generic solutions

MIS is developing cross-University ICT solutions, which include a central accounting system (OSIRIS) and a central Student Information System (ISIDORE). OUCS is offering a centrally supported and managed pilot Virtual Learning Environment (VLE, i.e. a system to bring together online teaching and learning activities into a single place). The emergence of these generic systems, rolled-out across the University, is in-keeping with national trends. In order to gain the maximum efficiency for effort and resources, it is important to seek solutions that are widely applicable, and easily reusable across divisions.

2.4. The changing business context

In order to face a changing financial climate, and to meet new statutory demands, the systems supporting the administrative activities of the University may need to develop more along the lines of those found in business, with greater standardisation of equipment, support, etc. Conversely, as businesses become more high-tech, the solutions which the University needs are more likely to be standard products. Moves towards standardisation, however, will have to be carefully judged, to balance the need for innovation, flexibility and adaptability against the need for efficiency in management and support.

2.4.1. External Requirements

The increasing legal pressures on the University (HRA, Freedom of Information, Accessibility, etc), and the need to publicise itself effectively in a competitive world, may require greater central ‘control’ over web content and structure. This will primarily be the responsibility of central administration, but OUCS has a role, especially in the subsequent education required.

2.4.2. SENDA

The SENDA legislation has been in place since October 2002, and will be enforced in October 2003. The University needs to be sure that its information provision and facility comply with this Act - in terms of both current and future practices. OUCS is pursuing areas related to hardware and software facilities for disabled access, and methodologies for web site maintenance which make it easy to comply with accessibility standards. This is an issue, which is set to become even more complicated with the requirements to adhere to further legislation such as the Freedom of Information Act. OUCS plans to position itself as the main advisory body to the University on software solutions (especially in connection with Web sites) that tackle this area.

2.4.3. Level of Service

The University must judge carefully the level of service that is required to support all its activities, and the cost-effectiveness of supplying that level of service. The ‘business’ model may be substantially different from the research model, and the teaching model different again. There will also be externally-driven requirements for access to information and resources. This will lead to much greater attention to the arrangements for providing support to ensure the provision and continuity of services. Quality of Service (QoS) offered to the user, possibly in the form of service level agreements, will become important (offering specified levels of service end-to-end) if new services are to work acceptably. Furthermore, the University's requirements will continue to be advanced, complex and rapidly changing, and in many areas must be maintained by dedicated support from directly-employed staff. (It must be emphasised that these considerations are not solely, or even primarily, about ICT provision … they affect many areas, from staff availability to building services.)

2.5. Standards

2.5.1. Open Standards

IT provision at the University is the responsibility of a set of central, departmental and college services, which are coordinated through the ICTC. In such an environment, and in the absence of a centrally imposed IT strategy, there has been a widespread tradition of local software development, sharing of resources, and reliance on open standards to enable data communication across different computing environments. This variety can be regarded as a source of strength, analogous to other benefits of the collegiate university, but it is crucially dependent on the existence of open standards for resource interchange and functionality. OUCS has a major rôle to play in promoting awareness, in providing training, and in demonstrating best practice in the use of such standards.

2.5.2. Open Source Software

In addition to its support of open standards, OUCS is likely to expand its activities in the area of Open Source Software support and development. In recent years, OUCS has invested heavily in the production and deployment of Open Source solutions in a number of key areas such as the: WING web mail system, underlying Herald IMAP-based mail infrastructure; Request Tracker (RT) help-centre management package; Bodington VLE framework; TeX typesetting system; Globus toolkit used by e-Science; large variety of tools used to support the OUCS main website and others, and the uPortal framework. This activity may increase further with Open Source software becoming increasingly viable as a solution at all levels of the computing infrastructure, from the server to the desktop.

The Research Technologies Section (RTS) in the Information and Support Group has an explicit remit to raise awareness about appropriate areas for the deployment of Open Source software and open standards. The RTS will seek to investigate more formally the implications of institutional support for the Open Source model.

2.5.3. Educational Interoperability Standards

As introduced in section 2.3, it is vital that University-wide systems interoperate and that data can flow between them seamlessly. To do this ‘Interoperability Standards’ must be considered, such as IMS Enterprise and Content Packaging, particularly with respect to educational applications. Other universities recognise the benefits as not only being the easy migration of data from one system to another, but also of ‘future-proofing’ activities by using international standards based on non-proprietary formats. OUCS has taken a lead through the activities of the RTS, and is soon to be appointing a new post to advise on Educational Interoperability Standards within the Learning Technology Group (LTG).

2.5.4. Grid and e-Science

‘By linking digital processors, storage systems and software on a global scale, Grid technology is poised to transform computing from an individual and corporate activity into a general utility’ — Ian Foster, Scientific American, April 2003.

A very substantial e-Science activity, underpinned by the Grid, has grown up in the University over the last two years (http://www.oerc.ox.ac.uk/), which embraces computer services and computer science, and underpins leading scientific research. Oxford is a key player in the UK national Grid, and has a number of flagship projects, including, in particular, a digital mammography project named e-DiaMoND (http://www.gridoutreach.org.uk/docs/pilots/ediamond.htm - out of date).

The growth of e-Science has important consequences for the University as it:

  • enables, and encourages world-leading research underpinned by e-Science;
  • positions the University to respond to a host of new funding opportunities;
  • is a hybrid between Computer Services and Computer Science:
    • connecting the two in a way which has never happened before;
    • developing a new discipline … similar to ‘computational science’;
  • leads to new technical challenges:
    • Quality of Service, higher network bandwidth demands through network;
    • authentication and authorisation;
    • which start as challenging new IT requirements, and gradually move to become ‘general utility’ and become part of the IT infrastructure of the University
      • -> leading, in turn, to new demands on OUCS.

Oxford has a particular responsibility within the national e-Science programme. It is endeavouring, through OUCS, to create a bridge between the e-Science middleware developers and the University computing services across the country. It is leading the way towards the creation of a production Grid which will provide users with the rich resources available, without their needing to be experts in Grid software and authentication/authorisation. The result will be that Oxford researchers will be very well placed to exploit future opportunities made possible through a secure, robust Grid infrastructure, managed by OUCS.

2.5.5. Information Strategy

A number of substantial changes within the University, for example a change of emphasis from print to electronic media, and developments outside it, particularly new legislation, have resulted in changes to the way information is used, protected, and managed.

AnInformation Strategy (IS) is a set of high-level aims and policies for the University in the use and deployment of information, independent of medium. It addresses fundamental issues, which relate to the whole University, and its creation, therefore, requires consultation with staff representing all parts of the collegiate University. It is a tool for management, a means by which changes can be brought about, and attitudes and culture re-evaluated. Aspects which would be addressed by an Oxford University IS are given in Appendix A.

OUCS is facilitating the collection of input from staff across the University who are occupied in Information Management. By evaluating their activities, and in particular their requirements, it should be possible for the University to decide whether there is a need for an IS. Should Oxford develop an IS in coming years, it would provide overarching principles under which OUCS would develop its policies and strategies.

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