IT Services



Vision for 2008: a five-year strategic plan (2003-2008) for the Oxford University Computing Services


Contents

Mission of the Oxford University Computing Services (OUCS)

The Background: OUCS restructuring

OUCS recognised that it was important to refocus and set new priorities. During August 2001, OUCS carried out an extensive internal consultative exercise. Five Organisational Breakout Groups (OBGs) were set up to investigate, explore alternatives, and make recommendations in five areas: Career Development and Staff Communication, Objectives Refresh, Users' Needs, Service Priorities, and Decision Making Mechanisms. Each group brought together staff from different parts of OUCS, selected its own Chair and Secretary, and was given the opportunity to refine and develop its initial broad charge. A spirited discussion ensued, taking up much of the autumn of 2001.

The recommendations arising from this exercise were collectively presented and discussed at a general staff meeting in February 2002. Naturally, they ranged in scope, priority, and urgency; however OUCS senior management made a committment to assessing all recommendations equally, and responding as fully as possible. It was recognised that the value of the OBG exercise would be assessed by the extent to which its recommendations were translated into actions. The majority of OBG recommendations have been implemented, and a new Mission Statement generated.

Overview

After re-focusing, refining the mission, and setting new priorities (http://www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/about/restructure.xml), the Oxford University Computing Services (http://www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/) have embarked upon defining their future vision.

The ICT needs of the University are met by staff in the departments and colleges, by ICT providers (through the: Oxford University Library Services, Management Information Systems, Institute for the Advancement of University Learning, Telecommunications, Department for Continuing Education and the Director of Distance and Online Learning) and by OUCS. There must be an increasing emphasis on ensuring that the various components work together coherently to provide the best service for the user, and OUCS is keen to contribute fully to achieve this goal.

In developing its future vision, OUCS must maintain a dual focus. It must continue to improve, develop and focus its ‘user directed’ services, whilst in parallel, it must facilitate ‘technology transfer’ of new services, ensuring effective and timely application of leading-edge technologies in the support of teaching, learning and research. Services must be operated to maximise performance and quality, while being as cost effective as possible. Furthermore, OUCS must provide, in close collaboration with IT support staff across the University, and with other University ICT providers, a full, efficient and effective IT support infrastructure.

OUCS will continue to build key strategic partnerships with centres of IT-related activity in the University, focusing in particular on the implementation of University-wide facilities. The underpinning of e-Science through the Grid, and the concomitant security challenges (digital certificates, authentication, authorisation, registration) are foreseen as a key future challenges for the department.

Greater standardisation will become important, and a key area of expansion and focus will be ‘Open Standards’ and ‘Open Source Software’, as these will provide the ‘glue’ between loosely connected IT services across the University.

OUCS will pilot and develop new technical solutions for data curation, wireless and mobile computing, IPV6 and convergence of data and voice, and new VLE, MLE and portal services, in cooperation with other service providers within the University where appropriate. The Learning Technology Group, as the main e-learning centre, will play an increasingly important rôle in teaching and learning across the University, in developing education best practice, and in ICT training.



1. Introduction

The five year strategic plan is split into two main parts. The first (section 2) considers ‘Strategic Computing’, computing issues which are defined by, and help to define, the way the University operates. The second (section 3) addresses OUCS's role within the University. Naturally, some entries have components which belong in both parts, and since IT within the University is constantly evolving, this vision will undergo regular updates.

OUCS has long been in the vanguard of a move towards clarity and responsibility in monitoring and reporting on the costs of its services. The preparation and presentation of accounts is an important part of its accountability to the University. OUCS accounts are managed on an activity basis, and all costs, including staff costs, are allocated to appropriate headings. This enables presentations to be made to both ICTC and PRAC, which show the true cost to the University of all centrally-funded OUCS activities, ensures that cost-recovery activities are properly accounted for, that there is no element of cross-subsidy between the divisions, and enables priorities to be set.



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:-



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:

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.



3. OUCS's rôle in the University

The Mission statement (http://www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/about/mission.xml) defines OUCS's rôle within the University. This section outlines some of the important developments which are underway or planned as part of the ongoing development of the department.



3.1. Networking and Network Applications

The demands for higher bandwidth will continue to grow — the rule of doubling every 18 months remains valid, although there will be surges as major applications come online. It is anticipated that Grid computing will place large traffic loads on the network, as will the (long predicted) multi-media applications. Networked storage is still in its infancy but is likely to become a major player within the five years.



3.1.1. University Network

Plans (and SRIF2 funding) are in place for the next round of enhancements to the backbone network, in 2004. Meanwhile, industry is already developing the next generation of equipment, and it can be expected to become a commercial reality within the next five years.

Raw bandwidth alone is only part of the requirement, and has implications for other services that are run. For example, ‘Firewall’ speeds have managed to keep up with the current bandwidth requirements, but there is a considerable risk that this may not continue to be the case as network speeds increase, and present security techniques will be unable to keep up.

With IP now being widely seen as the transport of choice for many different services, each with its own characteristics, the network will evolve to handle these diverse requirements. Use of non-IP protocols will continue to decline as suppliers focus their resources on IP developments at the expense of these other protocols. This shift of emphasis is already visible, and the University must follow.



3.1.2. Email Services

Email will become the standard and accepted route for formal, as well as casual, communications within the University and it will become ever more important that all members of the University have easy access to their mailboxes at all times. It will become part of a ‘communications environment’ that will be demanded in the future; in particular, its integration with a future IP telephony infrastructure will be seen as important (ref. 3.1.3.3). This will also require consideration of regulations concerning the responsibility of members to ensure that they have regular access to their email, the preservation of email, etc. OUCS frequently faces the problems that affect the users of externally-hosted mailboxes, and these are unlikely to cease, so the provision of a central mail server/storage resource will continue to be essential. Standards will be required for email servers and clients to ensure adequate handling of attachments, but this should present little difficulty. An increasing reliance on email will require further consideration of security implications, in particular with respect to the forging of email headers, and it is likely that there will be increased use of public key cryptography and digital certificates in signing/encrypting emails.



3.1.3. Network Developments



3.1.3.1. Internet Protocol Version 6

IPv6 is the ‘next generation’ protocol, designed by the IETF (http://www.ietf.org/) to replace the current version Internet Protocol, IP Version 4, which is used on the University networks. IPv6 adds many improvements to IPv4 in areas such as routing and network auto-configurations, and although it is still under development, the major network suppliers are starting to introduce IPV6 capabilities into their equipment. OUCS will expect to introduce IPV6 within the next five years. This will present major technical challenges and OUCS will oversee and coordinate a cooperative programme of implementation throughout the University. It is expected that IPV4 and IPV6 will have to coexist for many years, and OUCS will be required to provide and support gateway equipment. Experimental work on this is just beginning.



3.1.3.2. Wireless and mobile computing

There will be a large demand for location-independent methods of connection, which probably will lead to a standardised way of wireless networking across the University. In the long term, wireless networking may be expected to become the main method of connectivity (for voice as well as data), with fixed connections only being needed for high-bandwidth applications. There will also be increasing demands for ‘home-working’, and interconnection services, such as Virtual Private Network, will continue to be vital. Security considerations will be of paramount importance. Wireless access points, for example, should be considered as outside the trusted network, and may mean that trusted users will have to ‘tunnel’ to the trusted network (unless a reliable authentication system can be developed).

The proliferation of access to computers is now becoming a key issue. It is important to consider how this will affect student learning and teaching practices. Hand-in-hand with this is a possible IBM ‘Thinkpad’ project where laptop/tablet PCs will be made available to students at competitive prices and will lead to more uniform hardware and software provision, and concomitant support benefits. There may be a widespread take-up of PDAs and tablet PCs, and it will be necessary to assess how best these can be harnessed to support student learning and teaching.

Many of the features required to implement a mobile computing solution are provided by the IPv6 protocol (see 3.1.3.1).



3.1.3.3. Convergence of data, voice and building management

Discussions are being held between OUCS, the Telecommunications section and Security Services over possibilities for connectivity and future requirements. It is important that the groundwork is laid now so that the University has a coherent framework on which to develop its telephony services. Its integration with the rest of the demands on the network must be fully considered if the ‘communications environment’ is to be successful, and the total provision of cables and fibres throughout the University must be reviewed.

A Network Management Working Party has been set up recently to address this area, which will give the University, for the first time, a body in which these issues can be brought together and future planning coordinated.



3.1.4. Will Janet remain as a general purpose provider?

The future of Janet as a general-purpose provider will be increasingly questioned, as ISPs become accustomed to supplying reliable and high-speed services to meet business demands, and widespread provision leads to realistic pricing. Provision from more than one supplier offers the potential for protection against failure, although this is not straightforward and has major implications for the way the University achieves its internet access. It would, however, enable the University to support ‘commercial’ activities and collaborations not allowed over Janet at present. A separate but overlapping question is that of the College connections, which are often heavily entertainment-orientated, and are imposing an increasing burden of policing and legal responsibility on the University. Other universities already adopt the policy of using a commercial supplier for student residences; this is of course complicated at Oxford by the dual work/residence nature of the Colleges.

A generation of SuperJanet, to support very high-speed research applications without being clogged by general traffic, may come about, as in the US. This has serious political implications: if it is not funded for all universities, it immediately creates a virtually unbreachable two-tier system, and would almost certainly result in increased costs for the University.

OUCS will monitor developments closely.



3.1.5. Security

The University network, and the machines attached to it, will continue to be a prime target for hackers/crackers, and new developments in data sharing will bring new opportunities for security breaks. The rôle of a central body to monitor the University systems, to respond to incidents, and to be a source of advice and education for systems managers, will continue to be vital.

As the internet races forward, the law runs to keep up, and the providers of University services must always be aware of the legal risks and liabilities that surround them. Much effort is devoted to handling threats of action over breach of copyright (defamation is another common concern). Under current understanding of the law, the University is not so much at risk from breaches of civil law by its members, but more for not responding quickly to complaints about such breaches. This is another rôle that needs to be managed centrally, while OUCS will contribute fully.



3.2. Archiving, backup and data curation

The issues concerning data preservation and curation will have ever-increasing importance. OUCS will continue to play a major rôle in all these areas and respond to changing demands from departments. The HFS service is currently being upgraded to provide increased performance, resilience and greater storage capacity.

The HFS service may be considered in two main functional areas: backup and archive. The distinguishing feature is that the former records the changes in data that is being actively used on the system being backed-up, so that it can be restored if that system is lost or damaged, while the latter preserves data in the longer term, when it is no longer being developed.



3.2.1. Backup

Provision for the day-to-day backup of working is considered to be vital, and the University must always strive to minimise the danger of neglect of this need. It is currently accepted that a central back-up service, free at the point of use, is the only way to encourage adequate safeguards being taken by individuals. Larger departments may have their own policy, often supported by the central service.



3.2.2. Archive

Preservation of data is essential to the University (and to any major organisation). The data that has to be considered covers a wide range, and includes data generated by research projects, archives of University business, and digitised representations of assets such as library and museum holdings. All these areas are expected to grow rapidly, as the data generated by research projects grows ever-larger, as all new printed material becomes available digitally, and digitisation of historical material becomes cheaper.

One of the first steps of any archive provision must be to establish a method of determining what is worth preserving (for backup data, it can be assumed that as someone is working on it, it is of importance). The fundamental point is that preserving data carries a cost, and that cost is the responsibility of the owners of the data, whether the University as a whole, one of its departments or the funders of particular research.

At the moment, most emphasis is given to storing material, but the difficult part is making that material available on demand. The thrust for better meta-data handling will continue, but it is not clear that general solutions will emerge. The JISC Digital Curation Project is an example of current work that may reap major benefits in the future (and Oxford must decide whether to bid to host the new Centre). Demand, led by the Grid and other huge data collections, will lead to viable solutions to the authentication and security considerations.



3.2.3. New Technology

The problems of data handling are looming large in many areas of business, administration and research, and significant advances in methodology are expected- for example in methods of determining changes in data, and so minimising the amount that has to be backed-up (data coalescence). These are areas where technology is advancing rapidly, for example with network-attached filestore, and SAN technology, the goal of which is to enable heterogeneous data sharing and cross-platform connectivity. Work in this area will make it easier to handle data in a structured manner, with departments and OUCS able to share responsibility.

OUCS would like to extend its rôle in the area of data management, and to provide a wider service to the University. Consideration should be given to a model for a University-wide filestore, supported and backed-up centrally. This model has applications in a Grid environment, where it could be used to enable and facilitate transparent access. A development on these lines would provide new and easier ways of working throughout the University, could be a driver for cross-disciplinary projects, and would be of major assistance in facilitating common access to data, both administrative and technical.



3.3. Other central Facilities

OUCS operates a range of services on behalf of the University, the most prominent of which is the provision of web server facilities to support many departmental, college and individual web pages. There is a tension in web development and presentation between the exercise of departmental autonomy (especially where departments require that their web pages operate as part of a national or international structure within their discipline), and the need to present a consistent interface to the University, conforming to legislative requirements. It is expected that the need for centrally provided web-services will continue to increase. How the legislative issues should be handled is currently the subject of much debate, and although it is likely that this will become the responsibility of central administration, there will be requirements on OUCS to promote, teach and support standard solutions.



3.4. IT in Teaching and Learning

IT is part of the fabric of the University, and the importance of e-learning has risen (as witnessed in the forthcoming University Learning and Teaching Strategy). Oxford has a growing number of initiatives related to ICT in teaching and learning and has produced recent reports and recommendations which are currently being enacted. Some examples are:-

These not only reflect the rising interest in e-learning at the individual academic level but also the recognition that it is key for Oxford to engage in this at a higher level. It is anticipated that the activities of the LTG will continue to become more and more central to the support of teaching and learning across the University.



3.4.1. e-Learning Centre

The LTG has established itself as the main e-learning centre within the University. It already has a well developed team in place to cover its stated goals:

  • developing computer-based teaching and research packages in collaboration with Oxford staff and external bodies as appropriate;
  • researching the latest developments in the use of C&IT in traditional university teaching and student learning;
  • in collaboration with IAUL, providing training of staff and students in IT literacy skills, plus courses on how to effectively use C&IT in teaching and research;
  • disseminating information about the use of C&IT via the website publications, workshops and conferences, and acting as OUCS's formal liaison and point of contact;
  • providing user facilities for staff and students to work on projects;
  • providing access to specialized learning and teaching applications, and multimedia equipment.

The context within which the LTG operates extends beyond the University and is affected by external factors. The LTG must be aware of external pressures and be responsive to them, primarily to guide University policy to meet the new demands. An example of this is the growing emphasis on e-learning at the DfES which has impacted HEFCE policy and funding resources and strategic directions undertaken by JISC and the Research Councils. RAEs, and to a greater extent TQAs, have all had to be taken into account, as have such recent initiatives as Personal Development Plans and the TQEC paper. Moreover external demands on the University, such as the forthcoming Institutional Audit, have had a direct impact on the priority attached to e-learning.



3.4.2. Traditional Teaching Support

More and more emphasis (both locally and nationally) is being placed on the promotion of ICT in traditional teaching and learning. In particular measuring ‘effectiveness’ appears to be the key topic emerging from the Department for Education and Skills (DfES), and it is recognised that it is extremely challenging to measure this accurately.

The LTG is collaborating closely with the Director of Distance and Online Learning to ensure complementarity between traditional teaching support and distance learning initiatives.



3.4.3. Importance of Educational Best Practice

There is an increasing recognition that educational best practice is often overlooked in the implementation and development of learning technologies. It is important, therefore, that the LTG covers this area effectively, in collaboration with IAUL and the Department of Educational Studies.



3.4.4. ICT Training

IT skills are now perceived as a basic literacy on par with reading, writing, and arithmetic. Any IT training programme, therefore, must be in a position to cover a comprehensive range of skills to the level required by the subject and future employers, and must be able to adapt quickly and easily to emerging technologies. Courses will need to change to reflect the working practices of academics, for example shorter more targeted sessions are emerging as very popular. The LTG Advisory Group provides input from divisions specifying the directions in which the courses should develop.



3.5. New Services Planned



3.5.1. Authentication and Authorisation Services

As the number of IT-based services proliferates, there is increasing need for a single and reliable method for authenticating users. There is also a clear requirement for service-specific authorisation data to be maintained in a compatible and standard way. OUCS has been for many years at the forefront of University activities in this area.

OUCS plans to develop a single authentication mechanism for all of its own services, which can be used by other service providers across the University, should they wish to do so. This will be based on the best currently available technology, and will build experience in developing local web-based services and also on the outcomes of the nationally funded DCOCE [Note: The DCOCE Project which formally commenced on 1 Jan 2003 and which will run for two years is expected to play a significant part in the development of interoperable access management services for authentication and authorisation within the University and beyond. It begins at a time when access management is emerging as a crucial development area both locally and nationally. At the national level, the JISC-funded national authentication service, currently provided by Athens, will undergo significant changes over the next couple of years to ensure access management within the UK is based on a combination of open standards and models of devolved authentication. RTS staff have already made major contributions to these developments via their participation in the JISC's Subject Portals Project and will continue to do so via their inputs to the AHDS and the national e-Scienceprojects. Locally, ISG staff in Registration and Databases work closely with all agencies within the University developing single sign-on and authentication facilities, to which they contribute unique experience of the complications of current university wide information sources. ISG staff in Help and Information Services will be early adopters of new authentication systems being developed within the OUCS Unix team and are well placed to evaluate their usability.] project.

‘Single-sign-on’ has obvious convenience benefits to the users of IT services. It also has many implications, both positive in that it facilitates customization and personalisation of services, and negative in that it requires greater vigilance and more complex technologies to avoid compromising the security and privacy of users. OUCS expects to continue to play a major rôle in addressing these issues, both by contributing to the wider policy debate and by providing specific technical solutions as need arises. A desirable goal is to eliminate the use of ‘clear text’ passwords for access to central services, and to replace with a secure single-sign-on solution.



3.5.2. Directory Services

Over the years, OUCS has built up considerable expertise in methods of aggregating authorisation information of different kinds from various sources across the university. As the University develops better integrated sources of such information (most obviously in the ISIDORE project), the need for this activity should decline. However, there will still remain a need to make such information available to the many IT-based services proliferating across the University in an open and standard way. OUCS's intention is, therefore, to focus on the development of tools to facilitate such directory services, which will complement the authentication mechanism mentioned above.



3.5.3. Development of web based services and University Portal

With an effective authentication service, it will be possible to provide access to web services that require user-level authentication. This clearly leads to the concept of a University portal as the common front end to such services. As an interim measure, OUCS is developing a prototype portal into which its own web based services can be integrated. It will also open up opportunities for OUCS to develop further web services, building on the infrastructure being developed. This will include the PC Maintenance service and printing services.

A portal offers personalized and customisable access to distributed information sources, at local, institutional and national levels. The long-term goal will be to maintain and further develop the expertise gained, with a view to making a significant contribution to the evolution of Oxford's institutional portal.



3.5.4. VLE

The VLE Pilot Project is now underway with a view to completion in August 2004. If it is successful, and the take-up of a centrally supported VLE becomes widespread, then this will become a major OUCS service/activity in the future, covering not only maintenance and support of the system, but also its development to reflect the Oxford context, its integration with other systems, and associated training.



3.5.5. MLE

As noted earlier, the emergence of the VLE, ISIDORE, OSIRIS, and the existing myriad of systems developed by departments and colleges to cope with various administrative procedures, need to be interoperable. In essence then, Oxford is recognising the need for what is being termed nationally as an MLE (Managed Learning Environment). These are becoming ubiquitous, and reflect the clear and present need to provide systems that are cohesive to administrators, academics, students, and external auditors. OUCS has identified this as an area for future investigation.



4. OUCS Departmental Developments

Section 4 considers the development of existing OUCS services.



4.1. Network Systems Management Service Developments

NSMS provides and develops cost effective services that departments and colleges need, but are unable to offer from within their own resources. The service typically works in close collaboration with local IT support staff, but in a number of cases NSMS is the only source of IT support. New services will be developed, based on an understanding of the needs of the University environment. An example of this is a fixed price, comprehensive IT support package for research projects, which is currently being market researched.

An emphasis on security, resilience and continuity is an essential ingredient of all the services that are managed by the section, and a significant training budget is set aside to maintain high skill levels.

The following new services are under development:
  • Web based credit card payment service. The University has signed a contract with Barclays Merchant Services for internet credit card services and there is interest in exploiting this facility from a number of University departments, including OUCS. The NSMS is planning a service that makes it very simple for any University organisation to take advantage of the facility.
  • Conference web registration service. This service has been prototyped and will be developed to incorporate web based credit card payments and payment management options.
  • Database consultancy, frequently related to the development of web sites. It is intended to develop a support service for these types of needs in due course, possibly by further recruitment.
  • ‘Added value’ backup service with a robot tape backup system, commissioned for use by NSMS customers which will complement the TSM backup service.
  • Video-audio streaming service, will complement the existing comprehensive web server service.
  • Macintosh Management Service based on Mac OSX Server.


4.2. Help Centre

The OUCS Help Centre was created in order to provide a single integrated interface for users of all OUCS services. Its mission is to complement and assist the IT support services provided by individual colleges and departments, providing both a safety net for University members without local help, and a fast track to specialist advice for local IT support staff.

The rôle and scope for a complementary central provision of this kind is likely to continue to change. The OUCS Help Centre provides both a computing help desk and a centre for computing and learning resources. It provides a single location and point of contact for all of OUCS's front-line user support services; access to experienced staff able to deal with a wide range of commonly encountered problems immediately; a reliable way of routing more specialist queries to appropriate experts and tracking the progress of queries; friendly and informal advice for University members needing orientation amongst the many sources of information available to them; and hands-on access to reference documentation and instructional material.



4.3. Distributed IT Support

The University distributed IT support model places direct support of users where it is most needed, within the departments and colleges. It also provides a market-driven mechanism to scale support activity up, or down, dependent on the priorities and resources identified by individual units. This distributed model has proved to be successful over the last few years, and OUCS is keen to help ensure its continued success.

The ITS3 section was created within OUCS after the restructuring exercise, and is expected to expand and tune its operation by:-



4.4. Multimedia Developments

The hardware, software, and supporting networks for advanced multimedia work are not affordable and accessible to most academics. The steady demand for courses in Digital Video and similar will increase and it is foreseen that there will be an increase in the use of DV, streamed DV material, and videoconferencing.



4.5. Marketing

OUCS will continue to promote the uptake and awareness of its services to the wider user community within Oxford University. OUCS will be presented at the Freshers' Fair, an annual Open Day will run at the start of Trinity term, and paper-based reports and circulars will be used, in addition to email, web pages and other electronic means, to promote new services. Use will be made of entries in the University official documents such as the Gazette and Blueprint, as well as the diary features of these magazines. The Learning Technologies Group will focus on academics in particular, as through them the use of the services can best be promoted to students.



4.6. Personnel

Whilst the IT service provision market can be seen as internal in the economic sense, OUCS is in full market competition with other service providers, particularly with regard to the paying customer base who are themselves seeking a value for money solution to their computing needs. It is anticipated that in order to remain competitive the need to recruit suitably technically qualified staff will increase.

Over the past 2-3 years OUCS has faced fierce competition from the private sector for technically qualified personnel, while to some extent this has eased recently. The problem may be compounded by changes in employment legislation and ‘best practice’ guidelines applicable to the University, particularly those affecting working time. It is important, therefore, to develop a ‘culture’ of working for OUCS, which overrides salary considerations (at least partially), and this may well be assisted by the department's aim to remain at the ‘cutting edge’ of technological advancement.

There is a new departmental emphasis in appraisal, training, and Continuous Professional Development, reflecting the view that members of staff are OUCS's greatest asset.



4.7. Finance and Accounts

The introduction of the Oracle Financial Accounting packages signals a fundamental change in the way the University will handle its finances. In order to comply with HEFCE transparent accounting methodologies, and to comply with the external auditors recommendations for greater clarity and control of these funds, the emphasis will switch to a more pro-active financial planning regime. A greater depth of budget proposal and financial forecasting will be demanded as the University wide historical accounting records achieve an acceptable level of compliance.



4.8. Buildings

The buildings in Banbury Road must provide the facilities in which the OUCS Mission can be achieved. Not only will OUCS plan to maintain these facilities in accordance with this mandate, but to accommodate planned expansions and opportunities. This may include the upgrade of public facilities such as teaching & other user area facilities, but also as a core service provider OUCS must be mindful of the back office needs.

OUCS is reviewing whether the building in its current state meets all its needs. One particular issue is whether it is possible to integrate the need for more out-of-hours access with the need to maintain security. OUCS will address the issue of building security and in particular with how it will comply with BS7799, the new security standard.



5. Conclusions



5.1. Re-focusing of activities

OUCS has undergone the largest restructuring in 20 years, has revised priorities which are reflected in the new Mission Statement, has a new departmental structure representing its new areas of focus, and enjoys improved connections and interactions with the University.



5.2. Goals

OUCS has defined a set of short-term, medium-term and long-term goals which are set out in Appendix B.



5.3. Main Themes of a 5 Year Vision

After re-focusing, refining its mission, and setting new priorities, OUCS has embarked upon defining its future vision. The forthcoming issues, challenges, and anticipated technical, legal, research, teaching and learning changes have been discussed in this document.

OUCS recognises that the services it provides are part of an overall ICT provision for the University. It is committed fully to working closely with support staff in the departments and colleges, and with other University ICT providers (Oxford University Library Services, Management Information Systems, Institute for the Advancement of University Learning, Telecommunications, Department for Continuing Education and the Director of Distance and Online Learning) to produce an optimal ICT service for users. OUCS understands that there will be an increasing need for Quality of Service to the user to be defined by the University ICT providers, but appreciates the complexity of the implementation challenge.

In developing its future vision, OUCS must maintain a dual focus. It must continue to improve and develop its ‘user directed’ services, whilst in parallel, it must facilitate ‘technology transfer’ of new services, ensuring effective and timely application of leading-edge technologies in the support of teaching, learning and research. Services must be operated to maximise performance and quality across the University, while being as cost effective as possible. Furthermore, OUCS must provide, in close collaboration with IT support staff across the University, and with other University ICT service providers, a full, connected and effective IT support infrastructure.

OUCS will continue to build key strategic partnerships with centres of IT-related activity in the University, focusing in particular on the implementation of University-wide facilities. The underpinning of e-Science through the Grid, and the concomitant security challenges (digital certificates, authentication, authorisation, registration) are foreseen as a key future challenges for the department. Greater standardisation (in solutions and standards for interchange) will be necessary in the administrative systems which support the University's teaching and research. A key area of expansion and focus will be ‘Open Standards’ and ‘Open Source Software’, as these will provide the ‘glue’ that interconnects the loosely coupled IT services across the University.

OUCS will pilot and develop, in cooperation with other service providers within the University where appropriate, new technical solutions for data curation, wireless and mobile computing, IPV6 and convergence of data and voice, and for the new VLE, MLE and portal services. The Learning Technology Group, as the main e-learning centre in the University, will play an increasingly important rôle in teaching and learning across the University, in developing education best practice, and in ICT training.



6. Appendix A: Oxford University Information Strategy

An Oxford University Information Strategy would address the following issues:-
  1. Which information is required to fulfil the aims of the University?
    1. Definition of ‘ownership’ of information across the University
  2. Definition of ‘right to information’ — to whom, when, from where? [The White Paper, ‘Future of H.E.’ states in chapter 4, ‘Student choice will increasingly work to drive up quality, supported by much better information’.]
    1. Which information must be available for staff and students, and how should it be organised, shared and not duplicated?
    2. Definition of information service availability
    3. Definition of processes required to present information ‘cohesively’ across the University
  3. Which channels of information flow need to be established?
    1. Specification of requirements on students and staff to define acceptable means of information flow
  4. An over-arching policy below which Records Management, Web Management, Open Access and Freedom of Information Issues and the University Card can be developed [Key issues highlighted within the White Paper].
    1. Specification of the University's position on the UK's e-Government Interoperability Framework, e-GIF, which sets out the government's technical policies and standards for achieving interoperability and information systems coherence across the public sector (http://xml.coverpages.org/egif-UK.html)
  5. Definition of information priorities, given finite resources to invest within the University
  6. Specification of the set of principles defining information to be delivered through the IT infrastructure?
    1. For example, specification of the University's position on Open Source Software (Cambridge and MIT are creating a federation of institutions which use ‘DSPACE’, an open source digital repository system, http://www.lib.cam.ac.uk/dspace/)

There is not a consensus, at this stage, whether Oxford needs an Information Strategy to be created. In order to determine whether one is required, it is proposed to collect examples of Information Management within the University, and to investigate whether various activities are related and inter-dependent. If each activity is largely autonomous then there is no advantage in developing over-arching policy or coordination. If information management across the activities is correlated, and if, therefore, there is a risk of duplication of data, planning or policy, then the case for the University to develop an Information Strategy would be significantly strengthened.



7. Appendix B: The Five Year Plan Goals, 2003-2008

The table that follows is a breakdown of the goals required to achieve the Vision for OUCS, and specifies the planning targets envisaged broken down into short, medium and long term. The short term goals will be reviewed annually.

Short term goals

Medium Term Goals

Long Term Goals