OUCS Annual Report 2000/2001, covering the period 1st August 2000 to 31st July 2001
Paul Jeffreys
February 2002

1. General Overview

1.1. Mission Statement

The Mission Statement of OUCS1 is:-
  • To provide high-quality and cost-effective IT services that meet the needs of the University and its members;
  • to provide a wide range of IT training and relevant training resources;
  • to foster excellence and innovation in the use of IT in teaching, learning and research;
  • to promote effective communication throughout the University IT community.
OUCS will fulfill its Mission :
  • By operating, developing and supporting the University's primary computing infrastructure and services including: facilities such as the network backbone and its external connections; central email, web, news, and backup servers; and other core university-wide support services including security and anti-virus support;
  • by fostering the effective use of IT in all disciplines through the provision and development of training and courses, learning and teaching resources, and by such activities as negotiating advantageous arrangements for the supply and maintenance of hardware and software etc.;
  • by actively supporting the work of IT Support Staff within the University;
  • by developing centres of expertise in relevant areas relating to the application of IT;
  • by promoting and demonstrating good practice.

1.2. University Structure

The introduction of the new Governance structure for the University has brought about major changes in the way in which OUCS relates to its management committee and to the University as a whole. OUCS is now part of Academic Services and University Collections (ASUC), which is also responsible for other central services such as the Libraries and Museums. The managing committee of OUCS is the Information and Communications Technology Committee (ICTC), which has representation from all the academic divisions and is chaired by the Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Academic Services and University Collections),

The devolution of financial responsibility to the academic divisions has brought greater emphasis to the need for transparency in the finances and activities of the centrally funded bodies in ASUC, and OUCS is already well placed to meet this demand. OUCS has for some years been allocating all its expenditure, including staff costs, into a large number of account headings reflecting the various activities that it carries out. This scheme has ensured that OUCS can present detailed information on the cost of each activity, and so has enabled informed debate on the value of these services to the University.

The greater autonomy of the academic divisions gives them new responsibilities in many areas, such as IT support and IT training, in which OUCS provides services to the University. Some of these services are cost-recovered, and others are presently funded from the central allocation to OUCS. These services are currently being reviewed to see whether more elements should be put on a cost-recovery basis, giving the divisions more freedom to choose the services they use. However, there is a strong case for saying that some services, in particular training for transferable computer skills, should be part of the basic knowledge and ability set that the `well-found' university should provide for all its members. The existence of a solid base of computer skills in the University, and a proper level of support for the computer and information technology that now underpins all its activities, is vital to the University's position and world-class status.

1.3. Director of OUCS

Alex Reid resigned as Director in November 2000, to take up a position at the University of Western Australia. Dr Paul Jeffreys, previously the Head of the Computing and Resource Management Division at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, and leader of the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils' e-Science Centre, was appointed to the post, and started in April 2001. The ICTC is very grateful to Alan Gay who led OUCS as Acting Director during the interregnum.

1.4. Core Services

The demand for network connectivity and all associated services, such as the Herald email service and all forms of web access, continues to grow inexorably. This is shown in graphical and tabular form in later sections.

During the summer and autumn of 2000 (following an EU procurement exercise) the backbone network was upgraded from 100 megabits/second FDDI to gigabit Ethernet. This was a major task, involving a completely new central switch structure, and converting some 180 college and departmental network connections. The upgrade was managed without any change to the University-wide address structure being necessary, and was completed on schedule just before Christmas 2000. It has allowed the standard connection between departmental and college networks and the backbone to be increased from 10 to 100 megabits/second. The new network has proved both efficient and reliable.

In March 2001 the connection to the national academic network, Janet, was upgraded from a nominal 34 megabits/second to 622 megabits/second. This brought welcome relief, as the link had been showing signs of overloading at peak times. OUCS was fully involved with UKERNA's planning of the connection, which is made by a dual link to the Janet connection point in Reading. One link goes directly to Reading, and the other via the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, thus providing a resilient connection for both sites. Our links are shared by Oxford Brookes University.

The increase in the University's network connectivity makes it an even more attractive target for malicious computer hackers, and the wide variations in equipment throughout the University, and in standards of support of this equipment, means that it is always possible to find vulnerable targets. OUCS's security team, and the volunteer OxCert team, have striven to keep these problems in check, and to keep system managers informed of the potential threat and the steps necessary to keep their systems secure. It is to their great credit that impact on University systems has been relatively slight.

Demand for the central filestore (the Hierarchical Fileserver) also continues to grow rapidly, and a bid for a major enhancement, partly from the HEFCE Capital Funding, has been approved.

1.5. IT Training

OUCS is committed is the provision of IT training within the University. This training ranges from the basic IT skills needed by all who use word processors, spreadsheets, etc, to the specialist knowledge needed by IT support staff in departments and colleges. The training is provided in formats suitable for the subject and the audience. The more general training is done in lecture mode, supplemented by ample practical experience with help on hand, and the detailed technical training in seminar mode.

The provision of training must be considered as necessary to the University as a whole, and as the proper and comprehensive way to obviate the difficulties with IT systems which users invariably encounter. Ultimately this must reduce the burden on support staff, both centrally and in departments and colleges, and provide a better standard of work in all areas of the University.

In addition, this training provides the means for students to acquire transferable skills, which is a national as well as local priority, and helps fulfil the University's responsibility as an employer to give appropriate training to its employees.

1.6. IT in Teaching and Learning

The opportunity has been taken this year to reorganise OUCS's direct provision of support for the use of IT in teaching and learning. The Academic Computing Development Team, initially funded by a special grant from General Board, and recently awarded additional funding to expand its remit beyond the Humanities, forms one key component of a new Learning Technologies Group (LTG), which will provide important new services to the University as a whole. The LTG's remit includes both practical support for academics wishing to integrate IT into their teaching and research, and state of the art research into the best ways of doing so. It is co-operating closely with other units within the University active in this area (notably TALL and the Director of Online and Distance Learning) and consolidates more than a decade of pioneering work at OUCS. This increased emphasis has been effected from redeployment of existing posts and from earmarked grants from external sources, and is an illustration of OUCS's ability to respond rapidly to changing priorities in the deployment of its accumulated expertise and resources.

1.7. Participation in University Activities

There is a large demand for OUCS staff participation in many IT-related committees and working parties within the University, and for consultation on a wide range of issues. Much of this, for example work with the Surveyors to establish new duct routes around Oxford, has to be considered as a central University overhead cost. Furthermore, OUCS is responsible for many outside interfaces, such as acquisition and control of the many Internet domain names that it is prudent to own (to stop anyone else owning them).

1.8. e-Science and the Computational GRID

It is widely believed that the GRID (http://e-science.ox.ac.uk/) will be the next significant development in Internet computing, and that its importance will come to rival, if not outweigh, the World Wide Web. The GRID provides a distributed computational infrastructure, giving to its users availability of distributed high performance computer systems able to access and process terabytes of data stored in federated databases, and the appropriate tools to control these resources within a secure environment.

The original applications envisaged were in the field of e-Science, by which is meant science carried out through distributed global collaboration enabled by the Internet. Typically, a feature of such collaborative scientific enterprises is that they require access to very large data collections, very large scale computing resources, and high performance visualisation techniques.

Increasingly it is realised that these facilities are needed in many areas of university research, not just the sciences, and projects are being sought in all disciplines.

Funding for a regional e-Science Centre in Oxford has been received from the Government's e-Science Core Programme initiative, and the Director of OUCS, Dr Jeffreys, will also be Director of the e-Science centre.

OUCS is playing a full part in the development of the e-Science centre, and will be housing the coordination centre and some of the computing equipment. OUCS staff will assist in setting up initial demonstrator projects, coordinating authentication and authorisation, and be responsible for the web pages, as well as managing key central Grid services.

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Recent revision.
At the expressions of interest stage the ACDT Project Manager spoke with all potential project nominators. Some of these stated that they did not have enough time to meet the December deadline but would be very interested in submitting their project for the future May call.