OUCS has a well-defined role as a provider of core IT services to the University as a whole, and is also a major source of support services within the University and colleges, many of these being provided on a cost-recovery basis. Its mission and objectives are defined as:
- To provide high-quality and cost-effective IT services that meet the needs of the University and its members;
- To contribute to the University's wide range of IT training and relevant training resources;
- To foster and support excellence, innovation, best practice, and value for money in the use of IT in teaching, learning, and research across the University;
- To promote effective communication throughout the University IT community.
- 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, and collaborating closely with, 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.
The major restructuring of OUCS undertaken during the spring of 2002 has increased the focus on these objectives, and enabled integration of services in a more directed and cost-effective manner. This has produced marked improvements, particularly in the provision of training and course-development services and support for IT Staff throughout the University.
The Information and Communications Technology Committee (ICTC) completed the review of charging for OUCS instigated by PRAC. The exercise resulted in more services being charged directly, with a consequent reduction of £221k in OUCS’s baseline. The ICTC will review the position again in the future, but it is now generally agreed that OUCS is correctly funded at present for the services that it is expected to deliver to the University.
- being fully committed to working alongside other ICT providers to provide for the overall ICT needs of the University;
- maintaining a dual focus, both on user directed service and technology transfer from new services, to ensure effective and timely application of leading-edge technologies in the support of teaching, learning and research;
- continuing to build on key strategic partnerships with centres of IT-related activity in the University, focussing in particular on the implementation of University-wide facilities which would include the underpinning of e-Science through the grid, and the encouragement of greater standardization (in solutions and standards for interchange) in the administrative system supporting the University’s teaching and research;
- piloting and developing, in cooperation with other service providers where appropriate, new technical solutions to meet the University’s needs, with the LTG as the main learning centre in the University playing an increasingly important role in teaching and learning across the University.
A mid-term review was held, six years after the last major review, and was chaired by Professor David Clary, head of the Mathematical and Physical Sciences Division. The recommendations from the review will be reported in the next Annual Report.
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. There has been no need for increases in the Janet access speed during this period and the Janet connection has coped well with the demands on it.
The security team has continued its work of protecting the network and the computers connected to it from the constant threat of attack from outside. This year has seen many major events affecting the internet and the team has been very successful in pre-emptive action in terms of blocking routes, and education. Demand for the central filestore (the Hierarchical Fileserver) also continues to grow rapidly, and a major enhancement, after the award of significant HEFCE funding, has been made employing a switched fibre channel infrastructure, FASET900 disk servers, and increased tape capacity. Over the past year the desktop (departmental/college server) backup service has shown a growth of almost 50% (70%) in total data stored. The growth in archive space has been almost 20%.
The Technical Support Services Group comprises a set of services for the University, many of which provide support for local IT staff, and some of which are chargeable. It consists of the following sections:-
- Desktop Services Development Section: taking a leading role in the development of services directly related to the support of desktop systems;
- Network Systems Management Services: providing a wide range of chargeable IT services to the University;
- Shop and Media Services: providing a range of IT related sales services to the University;
- Software Licence Management: minimising the costs of software to the University;
- Printery: providing a high quality offset litho printing service to OUCS and other departments.
The Learning Technologies Group (LTG), continues a 13 year tradition at OUCS of being a key centre for IT in teaching and learning in Oxford. It is charged with developing computer-based teaching and research packages and providing training for staff and students in IT literacy skills across the whole University (all OUCS training has been consolidated within the LTG). The 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, and is provided in formats suitable for the subject and the audience.
The 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.
The demand for OUCS courses continues to grow, witnessed by a 38% increase in numbers attending during 2002-2003 over the previous year. Development work also continues under the Academic Computing Development Team (ACDT), and the LTG was also instrumental in the procurement of a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) pilot for Oxford, using the Bodington system.
The Information and Support Group’s (ISG) primary goal is to bring together and harmonize parts of OUCS concerned with support services and information provision at all levels. It comprises the following sections:-
- Help Centre: providing a single location and point of contact for all of OUCS's support services;
- IT Support Staff Services: offering specialist support and consultancy for distributed IT support officers across the University;
- Information Services: developing and maintaining a coherent publication strategy for OUCS, in particular the management of web sites;
- Registration and Database Services: providing infrastructural and technical support for registration, the key to all OUCS services;
- Research Technologies Service: providing a centre of expertise for the development, implementation and support of leading open source technologies with a focus on support of research, within which the OUCS e-Science activities are based.
OUCS is playing a full part in the development of the e-Science centre, in particular coordinating authentication, authorisation and issues related to security, managing key central Grid services, and developing a comprehensive set of web pages.
The Administration Group, which comprises the areas of Finance, Personnel, Building Maintenance, Secretarial Support and Reception, has been responsible for the successful completion of new building works, the introduction of new University compliant personnel procedures and laying down the Department's foundations for the forthcoming OSIRIS project. The Appraisal System ran for the second time, with 99% of staff participating.
There is considerable 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. Over the last year members of OUCS have worked with the Medical Sciences Division to help define an IT in Teaching and Learning Strategy, with the Social Sciences Division to help prepare the IT infrastructure in the new St Cross building, with the Said Business School to review their IT requirements and with the Engineering Department to advise on their implementation of IT. The Network Systems Management Service (NSMS) and ACDT work widely as consultants across the University.
As the following graphs show, in Figures 1 and 2, the demand for network bandwidth grows inexorably. However, there has been no need for increases in the Janet access speed during this period, and the Janet connection has coped well with the demands on it.
The number of nodes connected via the subnetworks continues to rise, as shown in Figure 3. The basic configuration of the backbone network, a double star network consisting of two central switches and 10 edge switches, connecting to about 190 departmental and college subnetworks, remains unchanged. Figure 4 shows the geographical areas of Oxford covered by the network, and Figure 5 is a schematic of the connections within Oxford and to the Janet network. New applications, in particular those related to the Grid, are expected to bring even greater demands. As the present network is coping well with demand, the planned upgrade of the backbone to 10Gb/second has been deferred until the summer of 2004. The equipment needed has only recently come onto the market, and without an urgent need in Oxford it is better to let this become more established before it is deployed. The gigabit Ethernet backbone, installed in 2000-1, has proved extremely reliable in operation, and has accommodated the growth in demand, as illustrated in Figure 6.
The vital importance of the network, not only to the teaching and research of the University, but increasingly to its business model, is well understood, and is being quantified as part of the current Risk Assessment exercise. OUCS has always striven to build resilience into its network provision and network services. For the backbone network, the “double-star”, with each edge-node connected to both of the central nodes (situated at OUCS and the Museum Lodge telecommunications building) provides resilience against failure of either central node, although the failure of an edge-node will result in loss of connection to units connected to that node. Major fibre connections (eg the link to the Headington hospital departments) are duplicated, but individual cable damage in central Oxford would again result in loss of connectivity to some units. Standby arrangements with cable contractors are in place to ensure speedy repair. Within units, responsibility for provision of IT and communications facilities is devolved.
Although all central equipment is protected from short power interruptions by a UPS, the network connections, and indeed all functions of the University, are vulnerable to external events such as power failure, or civil incidents.
It is becoming increasingly necessary for the University to assess the level of service that it considers essential for it to function, and consider the funding implications of ensuring that level of service. This is not only, or even predominantly, an issue for OUCS: the issues of delivery of administration, teaching and research functions to University members encompass all the central support bodies, as well as those in departments and colleges.
Although the dial-up service continues to be popular and heavily used, the fall in usage noted last year has continued this year as shown in Figure 7 . This is probably because of the increased availability of broadband connection to the home, and the use of VPN through outside ISPs. The service will be kept under review, and line capacity reduced if appropriate.
Apart from the basic functions of the network described in the section above, a wide variety of key infrastructural network services are also provided by OUCS. These are used by all sectors of the University, some consciously but others unconsciously in the background. These services include:-
- Domain Name Server (DNS)
- Email relay server
- Network time server
- Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP) service
- Web cache
- Web servers
- Email POP and IMAP servers
- Network News server
- Mailing List server
- File backup and archive server (Hierarchical File Store) (HFS)
- Windows Internet name server
- Novell Directory Services (NDS) tree server
- Virtual Private Network (VPN) server
Most are based on PC equipment running the Linux operating system, with a few using SUN equipment running Solaris. The choice is determined by the requirements of the application software, though the PC/Linux solution is preferred (for cost and supplier-independence reasons) where feasible. Typically, all require and exhibit very high reliability.
Details of all these services can be found on the OUCS Web pages at www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/network/ . Several of these services are discussed in more detail below.
The email relay service handles the vast majority of the University's incoming and outgoing email, and inter-system email within the University. It directs email to the appropriate email server, performs address checks and rewrites addresses to the standard form (where requested by the relevant department to do so), handles distribution of multiple-recipient email, "spools" email intended for non-responding recipient systems, etc. The number of messages handled during the year averaged more than 260,000/day as shown in Figure 8, with the volume of traffic amounting to over 5,600 MB/day on average as shown in Figure 9. Both the volume of messages and the size of each message rise markedly every year, and will continue to do so as the size and complexity of email attachments increases.
The central email server, Herald, which has been running since 1998, offers a mail-store facility to all University members. The mail can be accessed by desktop mail clients using IMAP or POP, or by a dedicated web interface, WING. Nearly all new undergraduates are pre-registered with accounts on Herald. Demand on this service, as on every email service, increases inexorably, and the servers have been regularly upgraded and expanded to meet this demand. The discrete model chosen has been proved to be as scaleable as planned. It now supports more than 30,000 users, and regularly has a concurrency of over 3,000 users.
The central web servers hold the University's top-level pages, the OUCS web pages, many departmental and college pages, and those for many individual users. In all they support about 150 domain hierarchies, and pages for about 4,000 individuals. In total that amounts to about 700,000 files, occupying some 25 GB. The number of web accesses, the ‘hit rate’, now exceeds 1 million per day. Response time remains excellent.
The Hierarchical File Server (HFS) service started in 1995 to provide large scale central filestore services to the University community. The HFS runs IBM software named the Tivoli Storage Manager. The main services provided by the HFS are a) Desktop and Departmental/College Server backup service and b) long term data repository service for university digital assets.
Since the original procurement of the HFS computer systems, a rolling programme of upgrades of the principal hardware components has kept system capacity in pace with demand. In this period, significant funding has been made available from the HEFCE Capital programme (supplemented by University funding) to enable a major upgrade to be made to the server, storage and network infrastructure of the HFS system. During the latter half of 2002 planning began, investigating disk, tape, server and SAN switch technologies. The upgrade to the systems was planned in four main stages to take place throughout 2003, going out to tender for the first stage just before Christmas 2002. The goals were to move to a switched, fibre channel (FC) infrastructure, to consolidate disk storage, to increase tape storage capacity and provide the basis for a scalable, storage architecture with overall higher performance levels.
At the heart of the new storage architecture is the same, extended, IBM 3494 tape library, connected via a small private LAN to the servers, switches and disk storage servers. The 3590E drives have all been upgraded to Fibre Channel-connected 3590Hs (with the addition of two new drives); with a combination of 384 tracks and extended length cartridges, the 3590 tape capacity is now 60GB uncompressed (90GB compressed). Two FAStT900 disk servers have been installed, one with 70 36GB, 15k rpm disks and the other with 56 73GB, 15k rpm disks. Two IBM P650 systems have been installed to take over the hosting of the TSM servers and to make provision for additional servers. All TSM related disk storage - database, logs and storage pools - are to be held on the FAStT900s.
By the end of 2002-3 the first three stages of hardware installation were complete, and much work had been done on configuring and optimising the new systems. The next stage will be the installation of IBM 3592 tape drives, for which OUCS will take part in an early-release programme. These can be used to write tapes of up to 300GB (uncompressed) capacity, and will enable maximum use to be made of the University major investment in the tape robot library.
Figure 10 shows almost 50% growth in the desktop backup service over the year, measured in TB of data held on the server, and is broken down by division. Figure 11 shows nearly 70% growth for server backup data, and is similarly broken down by division.
Figures 12 and 13 give an indication of overall growth for the combined archive and backup services detailing the amount of data (in TB) and files (in millions). These are indicative of the substantial rates of growth of the facility. Figure 14 gives a proportional breakdown of HFS data into the three types. Figure 15 gives an end of year divisional breakdown of HFS data held overall. Figures 16 and 17 give a snapshot breakdown for the Desktop and Server backup service clients by operating system type. These breakdowns are an indicator of overall platform take-up across the university.
In conclusion, the site-wide HFS service has coped well with rapidly increasing demand, continues to offer a highly reliable and available facility with great convenience and simplicity to the end user, and is undergoing a major upgrade that will enable this expansion to be sustained.
The remaining central Unix server, Ermine, was closed down in February. This was preceded by a major exercise to transfer remaining email accounts to Herald, which went without hitch. A new Linux-based system has been provided for those with a special need for this type of service. The service is available to any University member who has a Herald account, and is accessed using Herald username and password on a secure login to linux.ox.ac.uk. This means that there is no extra administration required for registration functions, and so the cost of running the service is minimal. A wide range of software is provided, but does not include any commercial programs. There is no mail delivery to the system, but mail clients can be used to talk to Herald.
The computer room operations staff are responsible for all operational duties associated with substantial computing and network equipment housed there, especially the Hierarchical Fileserver and its robot tape library. In addition, OUCS houses various major computers belonging to other University departments, including the main OLIS library server and the parallel computer complex run by the Oxford Supercomputing Centre. The computer room equipment is protected by a large Uninterruptible Power Supply, and multiple air-conditioning systems.
The reorganisation of OUCS frontdesk service provision allows operations staff to play a much greater role in user support, and OUCS continues to move towards greater integration of all its user-facing activities.
The danger to the University of attack on its computers and network facilities continued to grow this year, with many major events affecting the internet. The threat of denial-of-service attacks, aimed at the internet as a whole or specifically at our networks, has received wide publicity, as has the damage caused by the computer infections usually known as viruses, but encompassing many specialist forms of attack. The defence usually adopted in the commercial world, of a very restrictive firewall policy, is not available in a University whose lifeblood is the range of communications it has to support with outsiders, and with its own members working from elsewhere, and so the firewall that OUCS runs on the external network connection has to be far more permissive than is desirable for tight security. The problem is greatly exacerbated by the wide range of computers connected to the network, and the differing support standards of these computers. Regardless of firewall precautions, infections are increasingly being brought into the University on portable machines, carrying viruses or worms they have picked up elsewhere. These then spread to other internal machines which have not been maintained with the latest security patches, and this can have very serious effects on the internal networks
The security team at OUCS is responsible for monitoring the networks for indication of compromise and for taking action as soon as a compromise is detected. It also has a general pre-emptive role in trying to be aware of and blocking routes for potential attack, and educating the vast number of systems administrators and systems owners around the University of the need for security precautions on their own computers. It has proved very successful at this, and our large and complex computer network, and the computers connected to it, have suffered little disruption. However, every new exploit that comes to light reveals computers on the Oxford network that have not kept up with security precautions. Often the only way of safeguarding the whole University network is to block subnetworks until the machines on the subnetwork have been fixed. This is an area where lack of resources in one department can have very serious affects on everyone.
OUCS is assisted by the OxCERT security team, a group of systems experts from OUCS and other departments, which provides advice and assistance on issues relating to computer security. The OxCERT team has achieved standing and recognition within the international community, and is a full member of FIRST, the Forum of Incident Response and Security Teams.
- Desktop Services Development
- Network Systems Management Services
- Shop and Media Services
- Software Licence Management
- Printing Services
- Provide web-based documentation relating to Windows and Macintosh desktop facilities and services that are provided by OUCS.
- Provide consultancy services, relating to personal computer usage, to members of the University.
- Maintain high level of expertise with Windows 2000 Active Directory, providing a technical lead to the University when required.
- Support Netware users throughout the University.
- Support Mac users.
- Provide access to extended support services for Netware, Windows 2000 and Exchange 2000 administrators throughout the University.
- Support, maintain and develop the Personal Computer Maintenance Service.
- Provide a hardware consultancy, upgrade and repair service.
- Support, maintain and develop University-wide central services based on Windows 2000 and/or Netware. This includes the WINS service.
- Support, maintain and develop anti-virus services.
- Support and maintain the PC and Mac client facilities for the VPN service.
- Support and maintain the RIPs for the specialist printers.
- Support, maintain and develop the specialist printing services available to the University.
- Maintain a high level of expertise to help achieve a status of ‘equal to the best’ in the areas of specialty.
- Support, maintain and develop the in-house services that support the Help Centre facilities, teaching services and staff facilities at OUCS.
- Support and maintain the department’s administration services.
In February this year a major upgrade exercise was started for the provision of in-house services which support computers in the Lectures Rooms, Help Centre and Staff Offices. It was decided to support the new services on IBM X series servers, supporting Windows and Netware services. The upgrade to the Lecture Room and Help Centre facilities is expected to be completed during September 2003.
This service is intended for dealing with complex problems such as recovery of files, diagnosis of failing software, recovery following a virus attack, diagnosis and repair of networking problems on PCs, etc. The service is not intended to replace the IT support services provided to students and staff in Colleges, but to support these services where they need more expert assistance.
Increasingly, advice is consolidated and placed on the Web. In addition, special attention is given to advising and helping IT support staff in other departments and colleges, so that they are better equipped to deal with queries from users locally. This includes the preparation of web material, individual advice, delivering seminars, responding to queries on mailing lists and via that medium reporting on new initiatives, information and guidance of a general nature.
Viruses (of all forms) continue to proliferate and increase in sophistication, and only constant vigilance can prevent massive outbreaks and damage. Consequently a significant effort is devoted to support. The service provided includes:
- monitoring the latest information sources for new viruses,
- ensuring the latest protection tools are acquired and distributed,
- keeping documentation and advice up to date,
- constantly endeavouring to raise the level of awareness of the need for vigilance,
- responding to outbreaks (sometimes by personal attendance),
- installing the latest virus detection and eradication tools in all OUCS computers and, on request, in departmental and college computer clusters,
- recovering infected computers where necessary.
OUCS has negotiated extremely favourable terms with a national company that undertakes maintenance and repair of all brands and types of personal computer equipment. There are approximately 7515 items covered by this scheme. Figure 18 shows the type of equipment registered. OUCS monitors callouts and reports of unsatisfactory service, and for the most part service has been exemplary.
The cost is currently subsidised from the central grant, so that humanities faculties (plus a few others) receive the service free of charge, whilst other University departments and units receive a 50% subsidy. Colleges, associated institutions and private users pay the full price. Following the introduction of Divisions at the University, the full subsidy will cease at the end of the financial year 2002-2003, at which time all departments of the University will receive the approximate 50% subsidy. The subsidy helps to assure the proper protection of expensive and vulnerable computer equipment.
OUCS offers a personal computer upgrade and repair service. Advice is given on the best means of increasing the performance or functionality of PCs and Macs, as often substantial improvements can be made with minimal investment, for example, RAM upgrades. Where requested, upgrades can be undertaken by OUCS in-house, on a cost-recovery basis. Similarly, some repairs for unmaintained equipment can be undertaken in-house, again on a cost-recovery basis. However, OUCS would recommend the maintenance service (see above) as a more effective solution to the personal computer breakdown risk; in the event of a breakdown, the costs will be less and the response faster. Usage has remained stable as shown in Figure 19.
This section provides a range of chargeable, cost-effective IT support services to University departments, Colleges and Associated Institutions that either have no existing formal IT arrangements or that require them to be supplemented in some way. The charges are intended only to recover the salary, hardware and training costs of the service and are modest by commercial standards.
- Security is the first priority; all services are maintained to the latest stable patch levels, configured to the maximum security level commensurate with the required functionality, and backed up on a daily basis.
- Resilience is provided through overlapping of staff skills, suitable hardware specification standards that the NSMS attempts to encourage amongst all its customers, and an effective, rigorous security policy.
- Windows NT/2000 server installation and management, including Exchange.
- Netware server installation and management.
- Unix server installation and management, both Solaris and Linux.
- Web server management based on Apache or Windows 2000 IIS.
- Workstation installation and management, both Windows and Macintosh.
- Fixed price workstation management service.
- Automatic anti-virus software update service.
- Conference web registration service.
- Firewall installation and management.
- Holiday cover for IT support staff.
- Turnkey IT support package for research groups.
- General IT consultancy.
This service is steadily expanding. This year we recruited two additional staff, bringing the current complement for the team to nine members of staff. It currently has service agreements with 48 (34) departments and 21 (16) colleges and associated institutions, involving the support of 50 (36) servers and over 500 workstations. These facilities are helping to support a staff and student population of approximately 5,000 (last year’s figures in parentheses).
The NSMS Web server facility provides a flexible, securely managed server offering both a Windows 2000 IIS and a Unix Apache Web server environment. It provides a very full range of facilities for the presentation of Web pages, supporting full CGI scripting, Active Server Pages technology and database support, amongst many other things. It is therefore a valuable complement to the more limited services of the free Web server service provided by OUCS. The number of sites that are currently supported is steadily growing and was 24 (17) at the end of the period of this report.
- A sales outlet for computers, printers and other peripherals, consumables, software and other products. The scale of activity is shown in Figure 20.
- An over-the-counter service for accepting cash, cheques and credit card payments for any chargeable service.
- An over-the-counter registration outlet for software licences.
- A media copying service for shop stock and other purposes.
The Shop takes advantage of the special pricing negotiated as national deals for the HE sector. In addition, it has been possible to negotiate improvements on these deals from some suppliers. The Shop also provides the vehicle for making available all the site-licensed and bulk-purchased software, with most of it on CD-ROM: media copying, for the most part, is undertaken in-house by the Media Services section. Details of all items for sale through the Shop, together with price lists, are available on the department’s web pages (http://www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/shop/).
The Computing Services undertake a variety of activities designed to make the acquisition of software (primarily) for personal computers more straightforward and less costly. The various arrangements it has made have saved the University over five million pounds in this financial year. Over 19,000 software licences were issued during the year, nearly 6,000 for Microsoft products and 13,000 other products.
The Microsoft Campus Agreement, version 2.0, was renewed for the fourth year. This is a form of site licence, whose cost is determined by the number of staff on the University’s payroll. It covers the Office products, Operating System Upgrades, Visual Studio, and Core Client licences, and is renewable annually. It allows unlimited copies of these software items to be installed on University- and College-owned computers, and also on some staff-owned computers. It is only a rental agreement, so there is some risk that the University may become locked into these products. The savings on the Campus agreement have been significant: if all copies that have been registered with OUCS were to be paid for at Select rates, the cost would be over 30% more. In addition, there is the very real saving in staff time administering the agreement and distributing the licences and media. The new Microsoft Campus 3.1 agreement will start from 1st September 2003.
The second arrangement, which has been in place now for about eight years, uses a special grant made to OUCS to purchase site licences for various appropriate software products. A committee appointed by the ICT Committee oversees this expenditure, to ensure that it matches academic needs, that it continues to represent good value for money and that the benefit is experienced by all disciplines within the University. It too has been a most successful scheme, and small increments in the amount of funding have, in the past, allowed more and more software to be acquired this way, though requests still continue to outstrip funding. The various site licence schemes purchased with a budget of £116k have saved the University approximately five million pounds in this financial year. This figure is based on the equivalent education cost of licences if purchased outside the site licence agreements, and it takes into account the cost of staff salaries. There have been a number of new software products added to the scheme this year, including a site licence for Sophos anti-virus software, Deployment Solution disk imaging software, and Xmetal XML authoring software.
The printing service provides a high quality offset-litho printing service, including full colour printing, to OUCS and other departments. The printing jobs range from leaflets, forms and stationery up to books. An interesting trend is the greater use of multiple colours in text documents. Altogether, over 625,000 impressions were made during the year.
The Learning Technologies Group (LTG) was formed in April 2002 carrying on a 12-year tradition at OUCS of being one of the major centres for IT in teaching and learning at Oxford. The LTG covers all the training and teaching activities, develops e-learning projects with academics, and researches into recent developments in the use of ICT and teaching and learning.
The LTG now consists of 21 members of staff. Most importantly it is now able to cover all the areas one would associate with a major e-Learning centre, providing expertise to the University, and raising Oxford's profile in e-Learning on the national and international stage.
- 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;
- Providing all training for staff and students in IT literacy skills offered by OUCS, plus courses on how to use C&IT in teaching and research effectively;
- Disseminating information about the use of C&IT via its website publications, workshops and conferences, and acting as OUCS's formal liaison and point of contact in such matters;
- Providing user facilities for staff and students to work on projects;
- Providing access to specialized learning and teaching applications, especially multimedia equipment;
- Providing tools and materials for staff adoption and use.
It seeks to do this also by working in collaboration with other groups in the University, notably the IT Officers, the Institute for the Advancement of University Learning (IAUL), the Director of Online and Distance Learning (DODL), Technology Assisted Lifelong Learning (TALL), the Oxford Internet Institute (OII), and the Oxford Digital Library (ODL); see below.
To reflect the objectives above, the LTG has four sections: the Academic Computing Development Team, the IT Learning Programme, the Learning Technologies Services Section, and Administrative Support. Each section has a specific role:
The Academic Computing Development Team undertakes projects in collaboration with an academic department, college, or individual, with mutually agreed deliverables and timescales. The academic member of the collaborative team has authorial control over the academic content of the resource. The Development Team supplies consultancy about the technical methodology adopted for the development of the resource, and provides the technical input needed for the development of the project.
The LT Services section undertakes the main research and advice activities of the group. The focus is on working with individual academics and units within the University (such as the Institute for the Advancement of University Learning) to explore and foster best practice in the use of C&IT in teaching and learning. The LT Services section also provides specific expertise in the development and use of multimedia in teaching and research covering a range of subjects: image digitization, authoring, multimedia tools for the web, and digital video.
Another major section within the LTG is the IT Learning Programme. This covers all courses offered by OUCS ranging from introductory sessions, through training graduates in information skills, right up to advanced courses for lecturers on how to integrate C&IT into their teaching.
LTG staff have been heavily involved in furthering University strategy with relation to e-learning, and responding to it. In response to recommendations from the EPSC/ICTC Report on IT in Teaching and Learning the LTG has launched a series of initiatives to deal with IT literacy, including a set of online tests, and a survey of computer literacy levels amongst students. More importantly the LTG has been taking forward the VLE pilot project (see below).
Since April 2002 the whole of the IT Learning section came under the wing of the LTG. This presented an opportunity to streamline the booking for courses, create a cohesiveness to the whole programme, and plan for new courses to directly meet the needs of the faculties and departments.
Compared with 2001-2002 this shows an increase in the numbers attending by 2,946; 92 extra courses; but at the same time a reduction in the number of hours teaching by 291. This demonstrates that the courses are more targeted, matching the needs of academics and students, and above all are being taught more efficiently. Working on the figures available attendance by Division can be broken down as follows (in terms of percentage of the number of attendees):-
Considerable effort has also been given to developing the European Computer Driving Licence courses (ECDL). This allows staff and students to obtain an internationally recognised qualification in basic IT literacy skills. OUCS is now seen as a national centre of expertise in this and runs weekly drop-in sessions and intensive training weeks. In particular the ECDL staff have been involved in:
This year the ACDT has issued one call for projects, rather than the usual two. This was a repercussion from the huge demand during the 2001/2002 period, where it was decided to take on as many of the best proposals as possible, rather than turn away projects rated highly by our Project Review Group. Over the period since the last report in 2002, there have been 48 expressions of interest in the services (emails, phone calls, letters). This resulted in 16 proposals, of which 5 were undertaken, and a remaining 3 were offered substantial help and support from other arms of the LTG (i.e. 50% of all projects proposed were offered some sort of help). For many of the remainder, it has been possible to pass them on to other useful groups, contacts and consultants through other parts of OUCS, and partly through the spread of people in the review group.
The LTG provided input into the preparations for the Institutional Audit. This has involved detailing the actions arising from the EPSC/ICTC report into IT and Teaching and Learning, and feeding into the Revised Teaching and Learning Strategy. In addition the LTG is supervising an ASUC funded survey into IT literacy amongst the student body which will be conducted in Michaelmas Term 2003, reporting back in Hilary Term 2004.
The LTG has been continuing its work in researching into, and disseminating information on the latest developments in e-learning. A series of reports have been mounted on the LTG web site, and a range of talks, workshops, and conferences have been conducted throughout the year.
The LTG has been heavily involved in promoting the use of open standards in e-learning. This has arisen from its involvement with the ISIDORE project and has led to a series of reports on the standards that should be employed in Oxford's developing MLE. In July this year the LTG appointed its first Educational Interoperability Standards officer who will be leading these activities.
The Information and Support Group (ISG) is concerned with support services and information provision across OUCS and at all levels, ranging from the walk-in help service to detailed technical expertise in research technologies. The ISG has five sections, employing a total of over 30 staff. It is the largest of the five groups within OUCS, and its activities require maintenance of partnerships and collaborative activities across the whole of the department and beyond.
Evolving an overall strategy for the group is an ongoing process. All parts of the group share a common imperative of user-oriented support services, while needing to work directly with their respective user communities to develop local strategic objectives that respond to and pro-actively anticipate user demand. ISG's user communities are widely spread across the whole of the University, and beyond through its participation in leading national and international research support initiatives and services.
The RTS in particular has established a policy of attempting to converge its services, with staff sharing expertise across different projects. This environment underlies the commitment of the group to organic development of standardized services, with a preference for open source and collaborative solutions which maximize economies of scale, but where the highest priority is to ensure solutions meet the needs of the users.
- Help Centre
- provides on-demand support and consultancy for IT users across the university;
- IT Support Staff Services (ITS3)
- provides specialist support and consultancy for IT support staff across the University;
- Information Services
- responsible for all OUCS web and information services;
- Registration and Database Services
- provides infrastructural and technical support for all registration services at OUCS;
- Research Technologies Service
- hosts a number of research-oriented specialist services (notably Oxford e-Science activities, the Oxford Text Archive, Humbul, and the TEI) and offers advice upon new research technologies, ensuring the effective dissemination of best practice across the University.
From February to July 2003 the Information and Support Group organized and led a pilot project involving staff from all sections of OUCS in the implementation of a web portal, as an alternative or additional means of access to information resources in the University. The distinctive feature of portal technologies is their ability to aggregate and integrate disparate information sources into a single consistent interface, which can also be customized. Unlike a static web page or a page of links to such pages, a portal presents directly information fed to it by many different sources, using a small number of pre-defined standard interfaces.
- to gain more experience of portals, web services and associated standards;
- to investigate the extent to which existing services can be streamlined and integrated to offer a user-focussed view of OUCS information;
- to encourage the migration of OUCS internal office processes to the digital information age;
- to disseminate our experience using this technology, and that of others, to other information providers within the University.
The portal was successfully implemented using the open source uPortal framework, with a range of channels of information from OUCS and library sources. In addition, a series of seminars about portals was organised for the university's IT community. It is intended to take the portal to a production standard during 2003/2004.
The OUCS Help Centre provides a single location and point of contact for all of OUCS's support services. Based in the former Help Area at 13 Banbury Road, the new Help Centre brings together the face-to-face services formerly provided by the User Registration Desk, the Advisory Desk, the Learning and Resource Centre (LaRC), the Data Centre, the Centre for Humanities Computing (CHC), and the PC Consultancy drop-in surgery sessions.
The Help Centre extends the access hours for all of these services with opening hours of 08:30 - 20:30 Monday to Friday. As well as providing a walk-in service, the Help Centre is the initial contact point for support requests received by telephone and email, covering a wide range of issues such as problems and questions relating to:-
- Accounts, passwords, file storage quotas etc. on central systems;
- Connection to and use of the local network and services;
- Software and hardware installation, configuration, and troubleshooting.
The Help Centre has a variety of resources including computers (both PC and Macintosh) running a wide range of software, scanners, printers, CD-writers, digital video editing and video playback equipment, as well as an extensive library of self-teach and reference materials. There are also internet-café-style quick-access terminals for email and internet access. Over the summer, a major upgrade of all user-accessible equipment was carried out.
The Help Centre is designed to complement the support already provided by departmental and college IT support officers, by simplifying access to OUCS specialist services for them and their clientele. A crucial part of this is an automated request tracker system used to monitor calls and other activity both by the Help Centre and most other OUCS services.
Staff from elsewhere in OUCS contribute to the success of the Help Centre, whether as second-line support for Help Centre staff, or by dealing with the very large number of queries now sent and dealt with by email. During the period covered by this report, it became apparent that staffing the help desk would also require recruitment and training of part time demonstrators, and this process was initiated. Substantial effort has also been put into preparation of training materials and web-based documentation tackling commonly encountered problems.
Figures 21 and 22 give some indication of the take-up of the Help Service during this initial period, subdivided by status and affiliation of enquirer, in so far as these can be determined. In the two-thirds of enquiries for which status is known, the majority are University staff and senior members, suggesting that the service is playing a useful role in complementing departmental support efforts.
The mission of ITS3 (IT Support Staff Services) is to address the needs of distributed IT support staff by provision of central resources and organisation, and to work with senior OUCS and other University staff in order to ensure that the interests of IT support staff are taken into account.
ITS3 provides a forum for the sharing of knowledge and the pooling of benefits amongst all college and departmental IT support staff. Figure 23 shows the breakdown of registered IT support staff by affiliation. The section’s advocacy role and its provision of networking opportunities are important to staff who might otherwise work in isolation. Its aim is to maximise centralized benefits while encouraging the diversity of excellence which characterises the business of teaching and learning at the University.
During the period of this report, ITS3 organised many formal and informal training events, courses, seminars, briefings, supplier demonstrations and maintained, increased or initiated links with other event organisers and training providers. These include other universities, UCISA, UKERNA, the BCS (local and national), Netskills, the Oxford Internet Institute, Oxford Linux User Group, Oxford eScience, local and/or specialist IT training companies like WellHouse Consultants and SkillSolve, and manufacturers such as Sun, Veritas, Dell, Apple, etc.
The ITS3 web pages include dynamic status indicators for key services, news items, commonly required support links, a growing collection of resource links and dynamic current virus listings. A key feature of the pages to promote and publicize events is the ITS3 Calendar. During the period, this has been enhanced to include archive listings, termly or weekly listings with Previous and Next options, local and distant event indicators with the option to list either or both and dynamic today/tomorrow/soon listings.
ITSS Induction Workshops have continued to be popular and run regularly. This year’s IT Suppliers Exhibition in December was extended to two days with IT personnel from local schools and public sector organisations invited as well as University staff. Collaboration with commercial training companies has seen many training courses run at Oxford for ITSS allowing them to benefit from reduced costs, customised courses and minimal travel expenses. The ITSS Annual Conference was held at Keble College and attracted over 200 attendees to enjoy three major presentations from external speakers, question sessions with senior managers, reports from local committees, fourteen workshops and a social evening. Figure 24 shows the distribution of conference attendees through the University by affiliation.
- management of public web sites for OUCS;
- management of internal web sites for OUCS;
- processes for creating printed documentation;
- provision of information in accessible formats, including Braille;
- production of leaflets and newsletters as needed;
- provision of in-house teaching and support for publication systems;
- liaison with similar University-wide initiatives.
In almost all cases, the priority is delivering information on the web, using XML and the standards defined by the Text Encoding Initiative. During the year, the section has continued to refine and develop the course booking system, and to deliver even more material via the web. Major activities have been:
- checking web sites for accessibility;
- developing a system for automatic on-demand conversion of web pages to PDF for printing;
- converting information sources for delivery via the experimental uPortal framework as well as conventional web servers;
- investigation of more friendly systems for authoring in XML.
Registration is the key to all OUCS services. Until completion of a full information system for the University, the Registration Database is likely to remain a unique source of data about all university students, staff, and academics. It combines and checks data from the University Card registry, the Payroll data, and the various lists of Members of Congregation, Departments and Colleges. Using this database, OUCS allocates and maintains individual e-mail accounts for all new members of the University.
Keeping these accounts valid is a major exercise which is an essential part of the e-mail service on which the University increasingly depends for internal and external communication, at all levels. Registration and Database sections handle over 1000 enquiries of various kinds every month.
Registration staff work closely with the Help Centre and provide a major part of the software on which its services depend. They also contribute to the development of new management information systems in the University.
The RTS aims to provide a centre of expertise for the development, implementation and support of leading open source technologies within digital environments with a particular focus on research and research- support. Its goal is to build on and expand the reputation of OUCS as an effective centre for e-research activities locally, nationally and internationally.
IT is a rapidly moving field, where today's leading-edge research is tomorrow's standard practice. Effective provision of IT services in support of the conduct, dissemination, and preservation of research and research findings therefore requires a ‘research focus’ at the same time as maintaining the service focus which characterizes all ISG sections. In this respect, the RTS also complements OUCS activities in support of teaching and learning, provided by the Learning Technologies Group.
Excluding e-Science projects, RTS activities bring into the University research funding in excess of £400,000 annually; e-Science funding is typically shared with other departments but is orders of magnitude larger. The RTS also generates significant income to offset its overhead costs, both from external grants and by sales of goods or services. OUCS contributes a total of 1.5 FTE effort to the coordination and management of RTS services. Established components of the RTS are the Oxford e-Science Centre, the Oxford Text Archive, and the Humbul Humanities Hub, brief reports on each of which follow. During this year, the RTS also successfully bid for and established two new JISC-funded projects, one on the use of Digital Certificates, and the other on Open Source Software.
e-Science activity at Oxford continued to expand during 2002-03. The Oxford e-Science Centre, which is predominately shared between OUCS and the Computing Laboratory (Comlab), began recruiting staff to work on five DTI-funded projects. In addition, successful applications for more than a dozen e-Science projects were made by a range of scientific and engineering departments throughout the University.
The Oxford e-Science Centre has played a full and active part in the national e-Science programme, working with the seven other regional centres to develop a nationwide e-Science grid. This year the basic infrastructure was put in place to support the sharing of resources between sites, to be known as the ‘Level-1 Grid’, and planning has already begun for the creation of a ‘Level-2 Grid’ to provide a stable, robust e-Science grid for a number of test applications. Staff from the OeSC also entered into negotiations with prospective partners (both academic and commercial) for a number of other major e-Science proposals which, if successful, should see a dramatic increase in the size and scale of e-Science activity at Oxford during the coming months.
In the course of this year, the OTA gained additional funding to work specifically on linguistics resources, and made a number of significant accessions in that area. The number of resources acquired by the Archive remained low, but the quality of its cataloguing increased considerably with over 500 records enhanced significantly. Use of the OTA's online holding continued to increase, with the number of catalogue queries (205,789), online deliveries (41,312), and other web site hits (254,470) all more than double the corresponding figures for the previous year.
OTA staff also continued to play a major advisory role for scholars within and beyond the University, both by supplying informal advice and consultancy, and by carrying out formal technical assessment of research proposals submitted to the Arts and Humanities Research Board. More than a hundred such proposals were assessed during the year, representing about a third of all those submitted to the AHRB, and a 10% increase over the previous year.
More details of the OTA's activities are to be included in the AHDS annual report (see ahds.ac.uk/public.htm ).
Humbul has continued to expand its contribution to the national Resource Discovery Network (RDN), in both quantitative and qualitative terms. As a result of its active pursuit of partnerships in subject-specific domains, both academic and commercial, Humbul has been able to increase its coverage dramatically, with over 2000 new resource descriptions being added during the year, and more than twice that number reviewed for inclusion. Its web site received over 5 million accesses, with over 83,000 focussed searches being satisfactorily performed. User feedback indicates a high level of satisfaction with the service, across all sectors of the academic community and the general public.
In November, the first of a series of new customization facilities was introduced, allowing registered users to customize their use of the Hub's resources in a number of different ways. Over 500 users signed up for this facility during the course of the year, and the technical developments required have proved invaluable in extending the expertise of Humbul staff to support further strategic developments in the areas of portalisation and authentication. Humbul also played a major part in the development of the RDN's Subject Portal Project during this period.
During the year, Humbul staff published a range of documentary and other materials for use by cataloguers, as well as running several well-attended training sessions at both local and national levels, aimed mainly at subject specialists and information professionals.
In July 2003 the Research Technologies Service started a nationally funded Advisory Service on Open Source Software. Its goal is to provide the UK further and higher education community with neutral and authoritative guidance about open source software, and about related open standards. Specifically, it provides:
- A web-based clearing-house
- conferences and workshops;
- focussed assistance for institutions and software projects considering open source;
- investigative reports.
The goal of the DCOCE project is to investigate the use of digital certificate technology as a means of providing access management in a complex information environment. In the course of this year, the project plan was finalised, and a stakeholder/advisory group set up. Despite delays in recruitment, the project made good progress in 2002/2003. Several sites with experience of digital certificates and public key infrastructure (PKI) both in the UK and abroad have been contacted to provide context for the project's work in designing a PKI architecture for Oxford. Initial development work has been to implement and evaluate the Leeds University Certificate Issuing Engine and to survey other implementations worldwide, while also gaining better familiarity with Oxford's own IT infrastructure.
OUCS has long been an active member of the international Text Encoding Initiative (TEI), a major international effort to define and support standards for encoding of scholarly textual data. RTS staff are very active in the working groups of the TEI, including:
- Revision of the TEI framework to work with schema languages, and to interact better with W3C standards
- Guidelines for conversion of legacy SGML documents to XML
- Extending the use of the TEI for authoring new documents as well as describing existing texts
- Technical training, and presentations about the TEI, was given in Oxford and at a number of international conferences.
The Administration Group comprises the Finance, Personnel, Buildings Maintenance, Secretarial Support and Reception functions. The team of 13 FTE’s has remained largely unchanged and continues to provide the important support services which keep OUCS running on a day to day basis.
This year has seen the completion of a new lecture theatre, two new conference/meeting rooms, an extension to the Help Centre and a new staff area. These works have been completed to a very high standard, within budget and on time. This upgrade of facilities has been complemented by the provision of more extensive conference catering services.
OUCS continues to take a very active role in assisting the timely implementation of the new University wide Finance system. Additional finance services provided this year include administering the finances of the TSM Symposium including processing the credit card payments.
The Personnel Section has been very busy handling 33 vacancies this year. It was good to see some OUCS staff being successfully recruited into posts with more responsibility, but inevitably this left more vacancies to fill. 20 posts filled were replacements, and the remainder are new staff, mainly in the RTS section where grants from external bodies are successfully being won to fund areas of research. The pool of ‘casual’ staff at OUCS is constantly expanding to allow flexibility to match available staff expertise to the fluctuating demands of customers and business activities.
The Appraisal System continues to be run each year from January to March, with 99% of staff having discussions with their managers to review their job descriptions and discuss personal development plans for the coming year. Training requirements are being collated to build up a database of information on courses and their effectiveness.
The formal Merit Award System has been implemented for the second year, with 37% of OUCS staff receiving recognition for outstanding performances during the year. An in-house Staff Induction Programme has now been developed and fulfils the important information needs of new staff when they first arrive at the University and commence their employment at OUCS. This incorporates a checklist of information that all new staff need in their first few days, systems to allow their workplace to be set up before they arrive and a half-day Induction Seminar, which is run on a quarterly basis. The Seminar gives important information about working for the University as a whole as well as working for OUCS. A new Flexible Working Policy has been established which allows staff with carer responsibilities at home to investigate the possibility of working from home for some of their time. Among future projects for OUCS are to become registered and to carry out a risk assessment of OUCS jobs which may induce work-related stress.