Welcome to the annual report for Oxford University Computing Services, outlining our activities during the year 2005-2006. In keeping with the format adopted last year we have attempted to present this in a digestible manner, beginning with a brief overview of the trends in IT we have witnessed across the University, and finishing with a set of short reports on some of the research projects we have been undertaking. In between these two, we report on the demand for our existing services.
What can we draw from all of these? First, the service reports clearly demonstrate the ever increasing demand for IT. Across the board we can see an almost universal growth in the number of users, the amount of use, and the amount of data being stored, accessed, and exchanged. Moreover, OUCS is continually being asked for new services, reflecting, in our view, the ubiquitous nature of IT now in all aspects of modern life, and the extraordinary rate of change in users' sophistication and expectations. At the beginning of the period covered by this report YouTube was merely a nice experiment. By the end it had ballooned into a multi-million dollar service. OUCS is faced with the challenge of keeping its own services up to date, but at the same time against the background of a static budget.
However, in keeping with our track record, OUCS has risen to this challenge. This year we have rolled out new services such as OXITEMS, a free newsfeed service for the University (now in use by many departments including ours and powering the main University web pages new service). We have refurbished two of our lecture theatres to become state-of-the-art e-Learning facilities available for academic staff to use. We have launched a new back-up and reinstall service in our Help Centre, co-ordinated the roll-out of the FroDO project, produced guidelines to assist departments in implementing wireless, and produced the visitor wireless service. All of this, it must be remembered, went hand-in-hand with the running and (where possible) expansion of our existing services. Notably, OUCS has drawn on its reserves to fund long-needed hardware upgrades for the Herald email service and the Hierarchical File Server.
In addition OUCS has continued to build Oxford's profile in leading research into areas such as e-Research, e-Learning, and underlying emerging technologies. The projects at the end of the report demonstrate this clearly, but what is not shown is that OUCS managed to attract around £1m in external grants to take forward these projects, and has assisted many departments and faculties in successful bids. These research projects have been extremely useful in taking forward key areas of development needed by the University.
2005-2006 has also seen two major strategic initiatives: the ICT Strategy Programme and the Enhanced Computing Environment Project (ECE). For the former, OUCS's current Director, Professor Paul Jeffreys, was seconded to lead this cross-University activity, and I was asked to be Acting Director. OUCS also contributed considerably to all of the working groups of the ICT Strategy Programme, and in effect contributed over 1 FTE to supporting the initiative in terms of running working groups, maintaining the web site for the strategy, organising workshops, and drafting versions of the final report. All of this placed a considerable load on the department. However, so important is the exercise that OUCS felt it was essential to provide any assistance it could.
In addition to this, January saw the formation of the ICT Support Team which is charged with leading the development of the ECE. This is a separate unit from OUCS and is made up of the desktop support staff from Central Administration, Oxford University Library Services, and OUCS. In effect five members of staff were transferred out of the department to this team, plus the associated budget. Again OUCS recognises the importance of this initiative and has assisted wherever it can in meetings, technical advice and support, administrative support (e.g. recruitment), and housing the team.
Despite these pressures on the department, and the increase in the demand for our services, OUCS has ensured that all the services it offers remain first-rate, we hope that the following will demonstrate how effectively OUCS operates, and how efficiently it manages itself.
In this section we attempt to present short essays on emerging trends and technologies that OUCS has been involved in over the year. We have built up links with departments and colleges and constantly look to investigate technologies in answer to our users' needs. The following sections highlight some of the areas we have been focusing on.
Can information technology be used to reduce the administrative burden imposed on large numbers of University staff? This was the question the Learning Technologies Group (LTG) set out to answer during the spring of 2006.
The initiative began with an email sent to people signed up to receive OUCS course announcements that simply asked: would you like to explore how technology can be used to relieve the administrative burden? Within one hour we had over 40 people expressing an interest.
The next step was to go and visit a selected group of our respondents in order to interview them about how they currently approached administrative tasks. All were frustrated at how long it took doing simple tasks such as organising meetings, creating documentation and doing project management. However, from these interviews we also found that a limited number of tools and practices were already being used to relieve their own administrative burdens and generally to support staff projects. Summaries of these interviews can be found on the OUCS Client Relations Team wiki at http://wiki.oucs.ox.ac.uk/ltg-public/CRT.Interview_Summaries.
The information we gathered at the interviews was collated to create a generic story or scenario of administrative burdens faced by staff on a daily basis. The scenario was then used to design the workshop and provided the context for using IT tools. This subsequently helped the workshop participants understand how these tools could be used in their own projects. We chose 12 tools that we believed could have a positive impact on reducing the administrative burden for staff. These were:
- mailing lists;
- online calendars;
- room booking;
- instant messaging;
- internet telephones;
- news feeds;
- online surveys; and
At the workshop we gave the attendees lots of information, as well as practical hands-on experience of the 12 tools. Feedback received after the event indicated participants enjoyed the workshop and found the tools demonstrated to be very useful for coping with their administration duties.
The final conclusion from the pilot workshop was that members of the University felt strongly about the problem of their administrative load. The information technology tools demonstrated can be used to alleviate some of the time and effort staff spend on administration but embedding tools within the wide range of environments in which members of the University work, remains a complex problem. To use a tool effectively users must:
- make sure they select the right tool for a given task;
- make sure they use the tool effectively;
- make sure their working environment is not causing unnecessary administration e.g. look at existing practice and policies.
The LTG will continue to investigate the area of administrative burden with the view to improving and developing new OUCS services for members of Oxford University. We also intend to broaden the scope of this work to examine the administration processes associated with teaching and research. To find out more about this work please visit the project wiki website at https://wiki.oucs.ox.ac.uk/ltg-oxford/AdminBurdenProject.
- this term's music events in Balliol College;
- the latest news from Computing Services;
- a list of seminars in the History department;
- studentships available in the Zoology department;
- job vacancies in the Materials department.
The web page http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/ provides links to some of the BBC's newsfeeds.
- First, you tell a newsfeed reader which newsfeeds you want to read (by giving the reader the URL of each newsfeed).
- Then the newsfeed reader will do the hard work of getting the items of the newsfeeds and delivering the information to you.
From time to time, the newsfeed reader will get new items. Although newsfeed readers work in different ways, the crucial idea is that when you wish to see the latest news, you do not have to visit each of the original websites to get it.
- there are web sites where you can subscribe to a newsfeed, e.g., Google, Bloglines, and Yahoo!;
- some email clients (e.g., Opera Mail and Thunderbird) allow you to get the items of a newsfeed delivered into the email client like ordinary messages;
- you can install a feedreader program, e.g., Awasu, NewsGator, and NewzCrawler;
- if you use WebLearn, you can set up a resource in WebLearn that displays the contents of a newsfeed;
- if you know how to create web pages, you could provide one that displays the contents of a newsfeed.
For more information about reading newsfeeds see http://www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/rss/.
During 2005-06, OUCS developed a local newsfeed system (called OXITEMS) which allows authorised users to create newsfeeds. Once the newsfeed has been set up, other authorised users can add news items to a newsfeed. There is also a sandbox newsfeed where you can try out the system before making a live feed for yourself.
So if you are involved in compiling information about departmental news, events, job vacancies, project news, … OXITEMS provides you with a simple non-technical system for keying in a news item once and yet having this item able to be picked up by websites and browsers across the University and elsewhere.
The University's Press Office uses OXITEMS as a way of presenting news on the University's home page. So you can see it in action by looking at the top right of http://www.ox.ac.uk/.
The image below is taken from http://www.ox.ac.uk/news/. It shows the output of three news items from the newsfeed used by the Press Office.
Some other examples of departments/colleges using OXITEMS are described at http://www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/oxitems/realuses/.
Besides ordinary newsfeeds, OXITEMS has events newsfeeds that are much better at handling events for your web site, than static lists usually seen. You can tailor the output using special templates and even link the event to iCalendar or Google Calendar for the site visitor. The following image shows the part of Philosophy's home page which is using OXITEMS to output the details of an event:
A podcast is a multimedia file that has been made available on the web which can automatically be downloaded to a software player, such as Apple's iTunes, and then perhaps moved to a portable device such as an MP3 player. You might use a podcast to record a talk, to record an interview with a visitor, to record supporting material for a lecture etc.
The term podcast was derived in 2004 from the words iPod and broadcast, but you do not have to have an iPod to listen to/watch these files. Anyone with appropriate software on a computer will be able to listen to/watch a podcast. And, if the file is an MP3 file, you could copy the file to an MP3 player.
OXITEMS can also be used to publish a podcast. For more details, see http://www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/oxitems/podcasts/.
Introductory material about OXITEMS is available at http://www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/oxitems/. You can access OXITEMS by going to https://rss.oucs.ox.ac.uk/oxonly/oxitems/. Full documentation is available once you have logged in.
As a central service which supports individuals and groups who wish to bring technology into their teaching and research, the Academic Computing Development Team (ACDT) has been in a unique position to monitor changes in IT technology use at the University in recent years. The ACDT receives formal requests for assistance at its bi-annual call for project suggestions but also fields a steady stream of requests for advice throughout the year.
The most noticeable (though somewhat unsurprising) change in recent years has been the increasing levels of sophistication in the resources requested by users of our service. While it is tempting to assume that this steady increase in expectation has been driven by the increasingly sophisticated resources seen across the Internet at large, there are also internal forces at work here. The University has steadily increased its investment in IT support in recent years and it is increasingly common for departments and divisions to have some level of in-house expertise in web development. This has provided a much improved infrastructure for the long-term support of online projects and has meant that the skills of the ACDT are increasingly required for implementing those problems that require specialist technical skills, and for those projects intended for reuse across the whole University.
For academic staff involved in teaching, the ease with which they can bring elements of e-Learning into their teaching has been revolutionised by the implementation of and constant improvements to WebLearn, Oxford's Virtual Learning Environment. A variety of tools such as online quizzes, discussion forums and file sharing are now centrally available, can be access controlled and require very little technical expertise to set up and manage. This has massively reduced the number of requests that the ACDT receives for these kinds of reusable tools and has freed up the development time to concentrate on more innovative and subject-based projects. Of course a ‘one size fits all’ teaching package does not exist nor would this be desirable. The ACDT is still on hand to step in when a tool in WebLearn is unsuitable for a particular situation. A recent example of this is the provision of online assessment facilities for language teaching in Classics. This project developed an assessment tool which had the specific requirement to support ancient Greek.
Students are another great driver of e-Learning at the University and constantly push for better e-Learning resources and for more content to be made available online. While the jury may be out on the educational merits of some of the resources requested by students, we do know that if we do not provide these resources ourselves students are now highly capable of forming their own online learning communities, from which it can become increasingly difficult to entice them back to use centralised provisions.
The value of publishing large collections of research data on-line has been appreciated for some time now with the advantages that instant access, searching and sorting can provide to the end user. Fears about the impact of online availability on paper publication sales have faded and a second generation of research sites is now thinking beyond the provision of search interface, seeking to engage the user and also to further the publisher's own research. The recently published Roman Provincial Coinage web site (http://rpc.ashmus.ox.ac.uk/) is a good example of this; in addition to combining ten of the most important coin collections in the world, the site allows private collectors to submit previously undiscovered coin types and for corrections to be submitted in advance of the final print publication. The interface itself provides a step-up from previous numismatic sites with a ‘purse’ facility to gather and hold interesting search results during a session and the provision of interactive maps to enhance the understanding of coinage across the regions and cities.
Over the past year OUCS has focused on relieving the burden on University staff caused by administrative tasks. Requests to the ACDT for help show a shift from viewing the Internet as a means for passively sharing information to a pervasive platform for collaboration and communication. The expectations for on-line tools to save time and effort are high and happily there is now an increasing willingness to tackle the organisational and cultural shifts needed before such technology can be usefully implemented.
Much of the e-Learning and e-Research work at the University is supported by key pieces of central IT infrastructure. For example the facility to Webauth-enable web sites ensures that increasingly only one username and password is needed to access a wealth of resources across the University. It is now clear that continued development of central infrastructure must also be a priority if our online and research resources are to keep up with the expectations of both our students and our research communities.
Information Technology is continually evolving and presenting new opportunities to enhance the experience of the learner. The Thames Suite of lecture rooms at OUCS has taken the opportunity to explore some of these technologies and provide a flexible learning space - both for the IT Learning Programme and also for wider use within the university.
Careful consideration of how learners actually learn has shown that often interaction and discussion forms a major role, rather than the simple transmission of information through lecture formats followed by coursework. By arranging teaching facilities in such a manner as to allow greater student interaction, learning becomes personalised and internalised. For this to happen the range of furniture and layout needs to be flexible. Group work must be possible without major moving of furniture allied with increased student interaction through the use of technology.
All rooms in the Thames Suite are equipped with interactive whiteboards. In addition to showing the usage of applications more easily (by the presenter touching the relevant part of the screen), the screen can also be annotated to show the various menu commands etc. Any notes or annotations made can be saved for future recall or printing with delivery enabled through the use of file upload to WebLearn. In addition the board can still be used as a standard whiteboard with dry-wipe markers. To complement the interactive whiteboard all rooms have at least one other projector to allow delivery of a presentation or notes at the same time as demonstration of the application.
In smaller scale learning environments it is possible for the learner to interact fully with the teacher using the interactive whiteboard, but in larger classes the logistics of people moving around becomes problematic. In this scenario an interactive slate uses wireless technology so that it can be passed easily between students and displayed on the screen from up to 20m away. This is also an enabling technology for students with mobility problems as they do not need to move to the screen to participate.
Participation is the main criteria in the redesign of the rooms as this reinforces learning. In the Isis room special oval tables allow retraction of the computer screens to allow group work to take place, and in the Windrush room computers are placed on small tables to enable a more relaxed atmosphere for lecturing and group interaction.
Continuing the philosophy of building accessible teaching spaces, all rooms have full-height adjustable desks with a computer, and integrated hearing loops, while easily accessible network and mains sockets in the Windrush and Isis rooms enable personal laptops to be used.
The teaching spaces are heavily used by the IT Learning Programme, but are also used to demonstrate the new technologies and can be booked by other departments wanting to make use of the specific tools offered. For more information contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
‘Dr Mary White captures a high-resolution image of a manuscript folio with her networked PDA and sends it to her institution's digital repository. Colleagues in other institutions add annotations, some of which Mary reads on the bus home.’
‘John Martin, a postgraduate research student participates in a graduate-led research seminar with colleagues in Berlin and New York, from his desktop uses personal Access Grid video conferencing and which he records for later playback on his multimedia player.’
‘Professor Wilson records his mathematical workings with pen and paper and carefully files them in his drawer, as he's always done. The pen transmits the shapes and figures it has recorded to a secure database for the benefit of others within his research team.’
Today's networked technologies have the potential to enable each of these scenarios. Over the past year Oxford has been leading, or participating in, projects funded by the JISC which have been defining and, in some cases, piloting the use of advanced ICT for researchers. The three projects are funded under the JISC's Virtual Research Environments Programme and are:
- Integrative Biology VRE (IBVRE), led by the Computing Laboratory (http://www.vre.ox.ac.uk/ibvre/);
- Building a VRE for the Humanities (BVREH), led by the Humanities Division (http://bvreh.humanities.ox.ac.uk/);
- Sakai VRE Demonstrator (Sakai VRE), led by Lancaster University (http://wiki.oss-watch.ac.uk/SakaiVre/).
OUCS' Research Technologies Service is involved in each of these projects, as co-investigator and/or with the allocation of staff, and has a played a coordinating role for the development and testing of VREs within Oxford. Links to all three projects and key deliverables can be found at http://www.vre.ox.ac.uk/.
The JISC defines a VRE as ‘a set of online tools and other network resources and technologies interoperating with each other to facilitate or enhance the processes of research practitioners within and across disciplinary and institutional boundaries.’ (See Virtual Research Environments programme: Phase 2 roadmap, http://www.jisc.ac.uk/publications/publications/pub_vreroadmap.aspx For an overview article on VREs see, Michael Fraser, ‘Virtual Research Environments: Overview and Activity’. Ariadne 44 (2005), http://eprints.ouls.ox.ac.uk/archive/00001072/.) A VRE is primarily an online environment in which research is done, especially collaborative, interdisciplinary activities. VRE projects encompass different subject areas, methodologies or research cultures. Each of the three projects in which Oxford is involved serves different requirements. The IBVRE project, for example, serves the entire research life cycle of a large, global research consortium (Integrative Biology) whilst the BVREH project has focussed on defining the requirements of researchers working in a broad, almost disparate, set of subjects under the banner of the humanities. The Sakai VRE project is different in nature again, primarily concerned with evaluating the technical potential of the Sakai collaborative learning environment to serve as an interface for a research environment.
The difficulty with VREs is that, unlike for example a virtual learning environment (VLE), it is not possible to purchase or download one in a box. Indeed, part of the intention of the JISC VRE programme was to test the definition of a VRE and explore just how analogous a VRE might be to a VLE (and what relationship one might have to the other). For any given research area, it is important to establish in some detail what research processes occur, how they inter-relate with other activities, and on what data, tools, and people they depend. The VRE, whilst focussing on the online environment, has to be integrated with the entire research environment which will include libraries, laboratories, fieldwork, equipment and other objects in the physical world. It is a complex world for which there is no off-the-shelf solution. Indeed, for some research communities the recording and defining of how they do research is a novelty.
Both the BVREH and IBVRE projects began, therefore, with an analysis of the ‘day in the life of’ a researcher through interviews and observation (with a particular emphasis on recording points of collaboration), and it is from these initial reports that the priorities for VRE development were derived. For the humanities it was tools to assist in finding resources and people; communication; and collaborative document editing. For IBVRE the priorities were a secure repository for in silico experiment data; visualisation tools which could be used collaboratively; alerting tools to remain up-to-date with research publications; and a means to integrate the paper-based process with the digital. The key to the development of any VRE is to involve the research community (the end-users) at frequent points in the development process. It may seem obvious that researchers are more likely to use a system if they have been closely involved in its design but actually implementing a technical development culture which includes, for example, storyboarding, observation, prototyping, and evaluation, can be complex and resource-intensive to manage. The experiences from the IBVRE project in drawing on ‘agile’ development techniques will inform the projects to be funded under the second phase of the JISC VRE programme.
IBVRE has deployed a portal framework (uPortal) to contain tools or access to infrastructure, and to provide a set of user interfaces which match the workflows used by the researchers. The VRE is extended beyond the Web browser interface, however, by the innovative use of Anoto digital pen and paper technology which enables the mathematical biologists, for example, to continue to use pen and paper to formulate new models whilst ensuring that a digital copy is also captured, uploaded and converted to other convenient formats. (See further Management of Paper: Anoto Digital Pen and Paper Evaluation, http://www.vre.ox.ac.uk/ibvre/index.xml?ID=digitalpaper). Pen and paper is frequently used by researchers in the humanities. The BVREH Project includes, as one of its demonstrators, an evaluation of the same technology (though those in the humanities who work within archives might have to await the digital pencil). The BVREH Project is also evaluating the use of desktop Access Grid technology for multi-site video-conferencing. The need to share, discuss or annotate the same visual experience is common to both the BVREH and IBVRE projects. The IBVRE project is evaluating the Vannotea collaborative movie annotation and analysis tool, whilst the BVREH project has additional funding to develop a virtual workspace for the study of ancient documents.
Any serious VRE will have to integrate with already existing (as well as planned) research infrastructure. E-infrastructure comprises the distributed network, tools, and support operations which facilitate the research community's discovery of, and access to research resources, analysis tools, and advanced communication technologies. Since VREs often cross institutional as well as subject boundaries, the range and location of e-infrastructure is broad and includes, for example, institutional repositories, national data archives, high performance computing resources (local and international), and integrated access management systems. The Sakai VRE Demonstrator project is testing the integration of the Shibboleth access management protocol with the Sakai portal. Shibboleth facilitates single sign-on access to remote online resources without the user having to remember more than their local username/password. OUCS is also evaluating technologies to enable the simultaneous searching of multiple, distributed databases from a single point within the Sakai portal.
The three VRE projects demonstrate that the VRE is not a wholly abstract concept. The next phase of the national VRE programme is the funding of projects to deploy pilot VREs (along the lines of the methods employed by the IBVRE project). At the time of writing Oxford had submitted bids to pilot a VRE for the study of documents and manuscripts, and another to develop a VRE to support material scientists. Sustainability of VRE activities, however, will partly depend on institutional, as well as domain, support for the deployment of VREs. The via media between a series of discrete VREs for every research group and a generic VRE to serve (perhaps not very well) the bulk of the institution might well be to agree a VRE framework with a combination of institutional, domain, and shared components; which begins with the research requirements but takes advantage of existing and planned e-infrastructure (wherever it may be found); and encourages the sharing and reuse of tools, data and expertise. The scoping of an institutional VRE framework, in continued collaboration with academic departments, is a project which OUCS intends to seek funding for over the next 12 months.
(Some of this text is derived from introductory information available from the VMware web site at http://www.vmware.com/)
Modern computing systems are typically overpowered for a lot of the work for which they are used. When running standard operating systems such as Linux or Windows, especially as servers, the utilisation of available processing power is frequently 10% or less of the maximum available. Virtualisation is a process by which much greater utilisation of a computing system's processing power can be achieved by providing a mechanism that enables multiple heterogeneous operating systems to run simultaneously on the same hardware, achieving 80% or more processor utilisation.
The virtualisation process is achieved by using a virtualisation operating system which provides an abstraction layer that decouples the physical hardware from the operating system allowing a number of operating systems to run concurrently on the same hardware without one operating system interfering with another. These different instantiations of operating systems are referred to as Virtual Machines (VMs). Each VM has its own set of virtual hardware (RAM, CPU, Network, Storage) upon which an operating system (e.g. Windows, Linux, Netware) and applications are loaded. The operating system sees a consistent, normalized set of hardware regardless of the actual physical hardware components.
For each VM, the resources available to it are treated as if they are dedicated to it. However, the administrator of the entire virtual infrastructure manages and optimizes resources across the entire set of VMs. Available CPU and disc space is managed by the virtualisation software in real-time ensuring the most efficient use of available resources and offering a solution to the under-utlisation of hardware.
Virtual infrastructure provides an opportunity to lower IT cost through increased efficiency, flexibility and responsiveness. We can provide new services and change the amount of resources dedicated to a software service very quickly.
NSMS is using virtualisation on an IBM Blade Centre that is currently supporting 11 blades (each blade is a dual processor server with 6GB of RAM) and shared storage via a Fibre Channel Storage Area Network. The Blade Centre is currently supporting a total of 49 VMs with capacity for more as and when required. The entire Blade Centre can be treated as a single pool of processing, storage and networking power. The virtual infrastructure allows for the automatic optimization of server utilization for the entire set of VMs (load balancing) by dynamically, in real time and without any down time, allocating VMs to Blades in a manner that maximizes the availability of CPU and RAM resources.
- lower cost of ownership as multiple servers may be consolidated onto far fewer machines;
- more efficient use of available CPU and memory resources. These may be shared in real-time using load-balancing between multiple servers;
- greater ease of management. Servers may be stopped, started, moved between different hardware, rolled back to a previous state in a matter of minutes;
- high availability;
- faster disaster recovery; and
- faster implementation of new services through the use of pre-built server templates.
This technology is used by NSMS to support key IT services to a variety of University Departments, Colleges and associated Institutions. For example, all of the servers used to manage the University's telecommunications group run on virtual machines. This includes all the servers responsible for call logging and subsequent billing.
One area where OUCS sees great potential for growth in the use of virtual infrastructure is for research groups who need to meet FEC accounting requirements. Virtualisation makes it easy to provide IT services for a discrete hourly, weekly, monthly or annual fee. Large amounts of processing power, memory and disc storage can be made available quickly and managed for a fixed annual fee. Interested parties should contact email@example.com.
One of the interesting consequences of using a virtual infrastructure is the simplification of the long term management and charging for services. When the time comes for the replacement of the Blade Centre, the current VMs will not have to be rebuilt. Once the virtual operating system has been installed on the new hardware, the VMs can be transferred unchanged to the new hardware and started up. The transfer of a VM from one machine to another is simply a matter of ensuring that the file containing the VM is accessible to the new hardware (shared storage makes that trivial). With only a small amount of extra effort, the transfer of a VM to new hardware can be achieved without any down time.
OUCS offers a range of services to the University. In the following sections we take the opportunity to report on each of these individually, discussing any changes or developments that have taken place during 2005-06. The most striking factor to emerge is the continued increase in demand for almost all the services, which reflects, in our opinion, the mission critical importance of IT to the University.
This year has seen the start of project FroDo which aims to bring the University backbone into each University building and college by providing on-site equipment that provides a standard, secured, set of interfaces to multiple services. Initial uses, such as for multiple occupancy buildings, wireless services and college annex connections, are proving particularly welcome. The backbone continues to operate reliably and traffic levels are still rising (59% increase over previous year). This upward trend shows no sign of abating. Similarly, the number of registered hosts connected to the network increases each year and has now exceeded 66,000 connections.
For the first time, the total volume of traffic on our external link to JANET has not risen in comparison with previous years. Whilst the volume of data received has been relatively stable for the past few years, the volume of data sent to other sites had previously been rising steadily.This also now appears to be leveling out.
Access through the dial-up service continues to decline as broadband connectivity becomes available in ever more locations. This is expected to drop further in future but there is clearly still a demand for the service.
Usage of the Virtual Private Network (VPN) service has dropped slightly over the previous year which is commensurate with the general leveling off of traffic that we have seen on our external connection.
Use of wireless networking (OWL - Oxford Wireless LAN) continues to grow and there are now around 30 sites offering this services. Interest continues to be high and it is expected that the number of sites where OWL is available will continue to rise.
Last year's enhancements to our junk-mail filtering have had a very significant impact on the rejection of unwanted email with around 70% of messages arriving at the email relays now being rejected immediately. The relays dealt with approximately 1.4 million messages per day on average. Although the total number of accepted messages has decreased in the past year, more large messages are now being transferred and the total volume of data has increased as shown in the graph below.
Improvements have been made to processes by which 'spam' email is detected and marked - the result seen by users should be a substantial drop in 'spam' email with a low detection score, enabling far more to be filtered and discarded.
Insecure login methods (as represented by the plain IMAP and POP rows above) are planned to be phased out over time. Users are encouraged to enable SSL encryption in their email clients for greater security. Regrettably, only about 3.5% of users have switched to secure login methods since last year. This small percentage of users represents nearly 10% of the insecure logins made per day, however, which is a substantial improvement.
During 2006, OUCS drew on its reserves to provide much needed investment in the storage and server infrastructure behind the Herald email system. A large scale hardware replacement programme was undertaken in order for us to have the necessary capacity needed for the completion of phase 1 of the programme - to increase mail quotas for all during Michaelmas 2006.
The HFS service provides large scale central filestore services to the University community. The HFS runs IBM's Tivoli Storage Manager (TSM) software and supports both a backup service for desktops or departmental and college servers, and a long-term data repository service for the university's digital assets.
There has been approximately 50% growth in the desktop backup service over the year, measured in TB of data held on the server; the following graph shows this broken down by University divisional unit.
The following graph shows the growth in terms of files and TB data since 1996. The HFS backup service holds backups for about 3,000 desktop systems and 900 departmental/college servers. In a typical week, the HFS takes in over 20 million new or changed files amounting to about 10TB.
Major activities for the HFS team this year focused on keeping up with the higher demands due to service growth and expanding the overall service capacity. This has included the elimination of legacy servers and tape drives, and simultaneously migrating the data to higher capacity/performance media:
- phasing out the 3590 tape drives (originally installed in 1995) and installing 3592s; over 10,000 tapes were converted to the new format which can hold up to 1TB per tape (versus 50GB on the old media), all held in the same automated tape library;
- phasing out legacy servers and installation of new servers, principally to take over the departmental and college backups.
- an increasing number of compromised web servers have been found locally and these have often been recruited into 'botnets' (a collection of compromised machines running programs, usually referred to as worms, Trojan horses, or backdoors, under a common command and control infrastructure);
- a steady stream of new viruses has been encountered prior to their detection by antivirus software;
- several major vulnerabilities have been discovered over the past 12 months (sendmail, RealVNC, several Microsoft vulnerabilities), however pro-active actions were taken and these vulnerabilities have had a limited impact on the University hosts.
The past year has also witnessed major changes in the systems used by the network security team. Most production systems have been upgraded and new software solutions have been developed. This has resulted in a better detection of incidents and a more efficient response to any problem encountered.
The OUCS Help Centre has expanded over the past year into the area of machine repairs, covering both hardware- and software-related issues. The hardware upgrade and repair service has moved in the OUCS internal structure and now reports to the Help Centre managers. In addition, January 2006 saw the opening of the Help Centre's backup/re-install service. This was in response to the growing reality that many virus/spyware infections can only be reliably removed through the time-consuming process of backing up all data and completely re-installing the operating system. At a price of £40 + VAT for a data backup or system re-install and £60 + VAT for both services together, this provides excellent value for money. 43 machines have been checked in for the service between January and July 2006.
Overall help desk usage continues to rise with a 2.5 % increase in email volume over last year but a slight drop in appointment booking of around 8%. The biggest increase in email queries comes from staff and senior members with a combined rise of 20.5%. Registration issues (account opening, extending etc.), email queries and VPN problems continue to make up the bulk of the in-person and phone enquiries.
The distribution of query types is similar to last year with the exception of an increase in the percentage of account issues from 28% to 35%. The help desk created a total of 4,912 rescue and activation codes to help people set up Oxford accounts and reset their passwords. This does not include the activation codes issued automatically on University Card creation and is a marked increase over the 2,405 codes issued the previous year. The increase is partly explained by WebLearn and the Self-Registration pages moving to the single sign-on system and thus increasing the number of people using their Oxford account. The latter move has also brought a reduction in password change requests to the help desk with the number of remote access and Athens password changes dropping to 96 and 65 respectively once people were able to change their own passwords. The previous year the figures were around 400 and 300 during the same time period (April to July).
During the past year a welcome addition to the team has been Darren Rochford who has joined Hardware Support, working part-time. Reflecting the increased sales of Apple computers in both our shop and elsewhere, we can now offer repairs and upgrades for these machines. We have expanded our data recovery and operating system install service for PCs and this will also shortly be available for Apple machines.
A total of 219 devices were repaired or upgraded. Of these 175 were laptop computers and 39 were desktop computers. These were mainly PCs but 5 Apple machines were also repaired. There were 5 other devices also needing attention.
We also offer advice on machine purchase and on how to provide optimum care for computers for maximum reliability and longevity. If required, we are able to advise on and implement substantial upgrades for desktops and towers to customer specifications.
While the scope for economically repairing laptops is somewhat limited owing to the high cost of spare parts, desktops provide greater opportunities for more substantial repairs and upgrades that are financially worthwhile. However laptops are much the more favoured type of machine as is indicated by the above figures. The portability and convenience being especially liked by students.
The most significant development was the roll out of extended Webauthed self-service facilities for users which enabled the former Oxford-only access restrictions to be removed. University members can now request and set passwords for Athens, remote access accounts, register machines for TSM backup, change TSM passwords, download software (e.g. Sophos), check their mail routings, etc., from anywhere in the world via the self-registration web pages (https://register.it.ox.ac.uk/self/index/).
- we provided the mapping of the old student record system uid to card ids so that the OSS could match their records in the University Card database;
- we liaised with OSS to make course and other data available to projects such as WebLearn and OxCORT;
- we liaised with OSS for them to get email addresses and usernames to load into OSS;
- in order to give postgraduate departmental email addresses, we had to map the new OSS course codes to departments;
- in order to give appropriate information to departments, we had to register the new OSS course codes to departments that had an interest in that course.
- extensive changes to Webreg (the application used internally by Help Centre and front line Registration staff) to enable more people to manage user accounts;
- pilot application for ITSS to set mailer routings for their users and see the other routings their users have;
- web-based WebAuthed application for OUCS Registration and a pilot group of ITSS to update unit generic email addresses;
several discussion papers on various topics of general interest were
http://www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/registration/discussion_papers.xml- out of date);
- preparatory work on the data issues for the new Telephone Directory project including setting up mailing list of departments and college telephone administrators and conducting a survey;
- increase in bulk emailing for various university departments;
- increases in providing data for ITSS, tailored to their individual unit needs;
- managing the email address creation of new units and the wind down of old units;
- front line registration, in addition to managing users accounts, now create and manage mailing lists, ITSS registration, club and society accounts;
- despite the automation of many registration processes, the number of questions answered by email to registration still remains high.
Information Services manages the OUCS website and a number of related sites (e.g. e-Science, WelcomeToIT, ICT, etc.). The OUCS site caters for staff, students, and IT support staff in the University. It covers subjects as diverse as how to set up an email client to finding out about our courses or even the technicalities of the University network itself. The most popular pages, apart from the homepage, are the course booking system pages.
One of our major projects during the last year has been the development of a new news feed generator and management facility called OXITEMS which can be accessed via https://rss.oucs.ox.ac.uk/oxonly/oxitems/. This system allows units in the University to create and manage RSS newsfeeds and have them appear on their web sites. This new system has been widely deployed since its introduction in December 2005 and can be seen in action on many University web sites including OUCS and the University home page (see section 2.2. Using OXITEMS to Publish News, Events, and Podcasts for more information).
- redesign of the OUCS home page and work to improve site usability;
- development and deployment of OXITEMS, the RSS feed generator;
- redesign of content for Welcome to IT;
- delivery of course management data in XCRI format.
An evaluation of Content Management Systems was undertaken in Hilary and Trinity terms, and an experimental implementation of OpenCMS was set up to deliver Welcome to IT (http://welcometoit.ox.ac.uk/), which is one of our major web sites for newly arrived staff and students.
The Research Technologies Service (RTS) provides a centre of expertise supporting the development of research e-infrastructure, which it primarily undertakes through grant-funded projects and services (described more fully within the Project Reports).
- the renewal and increase in funding for OSS Watch, the JISC-funded open source software advisory service;
- transition of the Humbul Humanities Hub to leading the new Intute Arts and Humanities resource discovery service (in partnership with Manchester Metropolitan University);
- bringing the ESP-Grid project to successful completion;
- marking thirty years of operating the Oxford Text Archive.
Staff from the RTS continued to contribute to the development of digital repository services in Oxford, including the publication of an internal report on the development of a research repository; co-authoring a JISC report on revision control within repositories; and providing advice on the development of the Medical Science Divisions Research Discovery Service.
The Oxford e-Research Centre (OeRC) was formally established in this period. The National Grid Service project, which enters its second phase, will migrate to the OeRC in due course. The RTS Coordinator was invited to become a member of the OeRC Directorate and further collaborations between the RTS and the OeRC are being developed (e.g. in the areas of access management and virtual research environments).
Finally, there were some staff changes within the RTS in this period. Matthew Dovey left to become the JISC Programme Director for e-Research; Francisco Pinto resigned from the SPIE Project; Graham Klyne was appointed as one of the Sakai VRE projects developers.
Since the introduction of WebLearn as a production service in May 2004, usage has continued to grow steadily. Examining year-on-year figures, the number of WebLearn accesses has more than doubled in the last two years and over 50% up on the same period last year.
The following table shows growth in resource creation is still strong; with most departments now having a floor. One of the most noticeable developments this year is the recent use of WebLearn in the Colleges.
- Life and Environmental Sciences
- Maths and Physical Sciences
- Med. Sci.
- Medical Sciences
- Social Sciences
- Continuing Education
- Academic Services and University Collections
Analysis of our web logs shows that about 80% of accesses are from the Oxford domain. This proportion has decreased from 90% following the opening up of access to the Google search engine. Google has now indexed thousands of resources that allow public viewing. Opening access to Google has also produced a large rise in search terms used to access the site. Rising from less than 100 to over 2,900 during Trinity Term 2006, i.e. WebLearn is now much more visible to the public.
The IT Learning Programme (ITLP) is part of the Learning Technologies Group (LTG) of the Oxford University Computing Services (OUCS). Each term we deliver over 100 courses and deal with over 11,000 course bookings per year in our four lecture rooms.
For over 6 years we have been a leader in the field of higher education in the promotion of the European Computer Driving Licence (ECDL) to staff and students. We have hosted national ECDL forums and been directly involved with the ECDL Foundation in the continued development of the qualification. We have recently been successful in a joint proposal with the Medical Sciences Division in attracting HEFCE funding to make the ECDL testing and training materials free to all University members. The ECDL training materials are entirely web-based and participants can schedule their own learning in preparation for the formal testing that we run under the auspices of the British Computing Society. Our core teaching modules use the ECDL syllabus as a foundation.
Apart from its extensive range of IT courses, the ITLP provides other related services to support members of Oxford University in developing their IT skills. We have incorporated new technology into the learning environment and were an early adopter of interactive whiteboards for use in our teaching. Our lecture rooms are fitted to a high standard; each has a dual projection system with matrix-switching equipment to direct the required images to the correct screens, sound systems, high specification computers, hearing loops and good accessibility. We take every opportunity to share our experience of Educational Technology and software application with other interested parties, running regular training sessions on the use of interactive whiteboards, audience response systems, and wireless classroom technology.
We have recently collaborated on a University-wide seminar on plagiarism and a workshop on reducing academic administrative burdens through the use of new technologies. We also work collaboratively with the Oxford University Library Services in organising lunchtime byte-sized WISER sessions on subject-specific electronic resources.
LTG services provides the backbone to many LTG activities, and also works closely with departments offering advice on the use of technology in learning and teaching with particular expertise in multimedia, learning design, systems interoperability and gathering user requirements. Collaborative work has included the Sutherland Collection project with the Ashmolean museum; the digital image management project, OxCLIC, with a university wide group of departments; and a series of initiatives to help relieve the administrative burden through the use of ICT. LTG services is also involved in several national ICT projects funded by JISC.
LTG Services is taking forward OUCS's work on interoperability
standards, reading list creation, federated searching, and tools
integration. Funding was received from JISC for the section staff to
complete the national image collection scoping study, CLIC (
http://clic.oucs.ox.ac.uk/"), the Learning Design project, the
ASK repository project and the Design 4 Learning Pedagogic Planner
project. Through these projects (described more fully in separate
entries) OUCS's work on interoperability standards and e-Learning
technologies was advanced.
The LTG Services is also responsible for many dissemination activities including running a weekly series of seminars - Digital Projects in Oxford, occasional workshops such as the Administrative burden workshop, the annual 'Show and Tell' OxTALENT event and a series of Digital Video workshops. The section was also involved in teaching and supporting a new Master's degree course in e-Learning at the Department of Educational Studies. This new course covers a wide range of ICT in teaching issues from a local and international perspective. It has provided an opportunity to broaden the teaching expertise of the LTG services staff, and also to explore and document the issues involved in e-Learning and to construct a framework to support the teaching of these issues.
Michaelmas Term 2005 saw the ACDT staff administer the HEFCE e-Learning Innovation Fund Call for Projects in place of the usual ACDT project proposal process. The fund awarded £275,000 across the divisions for e-Learning projects and equipment and a number of the projects were also granted assistance from the ACDT. This was followed by a two-stage ACDT proposal process in Trinity Term 2006 whereby suggestions for new projects were elicited and the most promising suggestions received were then invited to submit a full application. Over 80 suggestions were received and further refinements to the process resulted in a much higher percentage of suggestions relevant to the core ACDT remit to support teaching and research.
During the course of the year the ACDT completed the nine projects listed below, as well as advising on numerous others. Those projects marked (HEFCE) were funded by the HEFCE e-Learning Innovation Fund in December 2005 and as part of the award were also given free technical assistance from the ACDT. Note that the projects listed varied significantly in ACDT time commitment and duration.
- Galactica: Greek and Latin Accidence Consolidation Training Internet-centred Assessment (HEFCE)
- Online Reading List Tool
- Social Sciences DataCat
- Roman Provincial Coinage of the Antonine Period
- Structured Problems in Molecular Biology Data Handling
- A Multi-media Introduction to the Dynamics of Rotating Fluids
- A Learning Object Repository for Oxford Pilot Study
- Information Literacy Skills Development for Oxford University: A Scoping of the Possibilities Offered by e-Learning (HEFCE)
- OxCort: Oxford Colleges On-line Reports for Tutorials
Of particular priority this year has been OxCORT, a web application for the University-wide collection and processing of tutorial reports for undergraduate teaching. OxCORT is based on the Cambridge University system CamCORS and the ACDT are working with the original CamCORS developers to adapt the system for Oxford use. The system will be made available for pilot in the 2006 - 2007 academic year and is expected to be fully operational from Michaelmas Term 2007.
The shop offers a range of computers, printers, consumables, software, and related IT products. In addition the Shop accepts payments for chargeable services offered elsewhere within Computing Services. During the latter part of the reporting year, online shop software was investigated with the long term view to upgrade the current shop web site from the current static site to a fully functional online shop.
The ranges offered by the shop continue to diversify and expand. New items include wireless network products, memory sticks with increasingly higher capacities, dual layer DVDs, bulk packs of CDs, new laser toners, and inkjet cartridges from Hewlett Packard.
The beginning of Michaelmas Term 2005 again witnessed the anticipated high volume of business. In general counter sales of all goods available from the Shop remained buoyant, however, static or falling prices continue to betray the volume of sales actually made.
OUCS manages a number of software agreements for commonly requested software packages used on personal computers. The University is thus able to make considerable savings against the individual purchase cost. A total of 15,346 software licenses were issued in this year.
The Microsoft Campus agreement covers the annual rental of the most popular products, for example, Windows upgrades and Office Professional. Work-at-home rights are also included in this agreement. A total of 2,525 Campus Agreement licenses were added this year; the rental charge was £253,783.
The Microsoft Select agreement, which is administered via the Computing Services Shop allows for the purchase of other Microsoft products. A total of 1,465 Select Agreement licenses were recorded this year.
OUCS also manages a number of software contracts on behalf of groups of departments in order to gain more favourable pricing; this year £45,267 worth of software was purchased and subsequently paid for by contributing departments.
The maintenance service which provides breakdown cover for a small annual fee, continued to provide a valuable service to the University. OUCS monitored call-outs and reports of unsatisfactory service, and for the most part, the service (offered by an external company) has been exemplary. There are approximately 3,800 items of equipment currently registered.
- Self-service A3 and A4 colour and black and white printing is available via the Help Centre;
- HP DesignJet 5000: This device produces high quality A0 and A1 posters for display purposes;
- Monotype Panther Pro Imagesetter (http://www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/typesetting/): This device supports a high precision phototypesetting / imagesetting service. It outputs on film and, as well as its traditional use for high quality typesetting, it is suitable for generating precision masks and circuit diagrams for physics and engineering applications;
- OUCS also runs a high quality offset-litho printing service, including full colour printing. The printing jobs range from leaflets, forms and stationery up to books. A total of 655,905 impressions were made during the year.
Having had a successful year running the Konica Minolta C350, we have now replaced this with an upgraded printer. Providing the same facilities as the previous model, the C352 also enables us to print directly, in duplex, onto thick paper stock. It is anticipated that this will facilitate the use of direct print runs of smaller batches, instead of the offset litho process.
The success of the poster printing service (OXPRINT) continues again for a fifth consecutive year with over 1300 posters printed up to A0 size on Matt and Satin media. Offering a 24-hour turnaround for most jobs, our experienced staff use their wide expertise to solve most problems from, mainly, PowerPoint slides.
We also offer an image-setting service for high resolution printing. Design and typesetting many of the in-house publications continues, including marketing posters, courses literature, and various OUCS advertising materials. The section continues to supply backup support for the HFS team, and Help Centre.
We continued to invest in improvements to our virtual machine infrastructure. We added 3 additional Blade servers and upgraded the existing ones. Each Blade now has 6GB of RAM with faster Front-Side Bus, faster local discs, and larger CPU caches.
On the Storage Area Network we added additional storage of around 1.4TB. The major software upgrade has been the move to VMWare ESX3 from VMWare ESX 2.5. This has provided us with automatic fail-over in case of hardware failure and automated load balancing of Virtual Machines across our host cluster. Already excellent Virtual Machine performance has been improved, as has the already short time it takes to set up Virtual Machines. This year NSMS provided Virtual Infrastructure to the ICT support team, a service which is expanding.
ITS3 has had another busy and productive year. Approximately 50 new IT Staff joined the IT Support Staff register during the year, bringing total numbers of ITSS in the collegiate University to around 600. New IT Staff induction seminars were run by ITS3 in September 2005 and January 2006.
Thirteen separate presentations were given by various OUCS staff and IT Suppliers and eleven separate training courses were provided; some bought in from external suppliers and some given by OUCS experts. The total number of hours of presentation or training given was 217 and there were a total of 725 attendees. ITS3 delivered a total of just over 4,500 person-hours of training during the year.
New developments this year include better access to the registration database by IT Support Staff and a trial of allowing some units' ITSS to change their own unit's mail routings. Malcolm Austen has been developing a wiki (https://wiki.oucs.ox.ac.uk/itss) for the use of IT Support Staff, the usage of which is steadily growing.
We have also had various staff changes during the last year. Our Administrator left us in November 2005 to take up employment with UCISA. Steve Pierce, from Cardiff University, was appointed to the post of ITS3 Administrator and Support assistant in June 2006. Jane Littlehales returned to OUCS from maternity leave in February 2006 to become the OUCS Head of Marketing and Tony Brett became the Head of IT Support Staff Services.
- develop central PC purchasing for the three departments;
- increase in the number of IT support staff available in Central Administration;
- identify services for consolidation across the three departments;
- conduct requirements analysis for the ECE project with the assistance of Gartner Consultants;
- plan the delivery of the ECE project in seven distinct stages;
- successfully bid for ECE Project funding;
- upgrade of the Central Administration file and print servers;
- begin the migration of OULS staff to an Exchange 2003 email system;
- installation and configuration of Altiris Notification Server.
The OUCS Marketing section has been hard at work ensuring that OUCS remains at the forefront of people's minds when facing IT queries, problems or requirements. Regular adverts have been placed in Blueprint to promote new and updated services including free ECDL testing and the launch of the OXITEMS service. OUCS News continues to be produced once a term and distributed to all colleges and departments. A new guide to OUCS services called "OUCS - What can it do for you?" has been published for academics and the number of OUCS staff linked with colleges has increased, while free OUCS pencils and pens continue to be popular. A Marketing Consultation Exercise was commissioned and brought new insight to potential marketing opportunities. This inspired a more service-driven approach to the OUCS home page, a dynamic poster campaign, and future work on a consistent OUCS style for printed documents.
During the year OUCS has had an influx of staff from other sections of the University. The University Telecommunications staff have been transferred from Central Administration to the OUCS Infrastructure Group, and OUCS has also carried the administrative responsibility for the 24 staff of the newly formed ICT Support Team as well as the six staff of the Oxford e-Research Centre.
In addition we have a pool of 101 part-time staff in the paid-as-claimed category who work on an ‘as-needed’ basis to demonstrate for our courses, staff the Help Centre during the day and the evening, contribute to some of the externally funded projects, and act as cataloguers for Intute.
We have completed 33 recruitment exercises for various groups in OUCS. From these 30 new appointments were made. In several cases two appointments were made from one job advertisement, but significantly four posts had to be re-advertised a second or third time as no suitable candidates applied. These were all in the Infrastructure Group where it is getting harder to find people with the skills and experience needed.
OUCS staff make extensive use of open source software to deliver services, and take advantage of the freedom to examine the source code, fix it, and enhance it. The department recognizes that participation in community open source development is valuable for both staff development and enhancement of the University's reputation, as well as improving the software itself for the benefit of all. However, the copyright in code created during this process by University staff typically belongs to the University, and is not distributed outside the institution without due permission.
Staff who wish to contribute to open source projects seek the permission of the Director before doing so. Requests are normally approved if the software is relevant to departmental work, and the Director is satisfied that the University is free to contribute the software in question. A catalogue of open source involvement approved in 2005-2006 is listed below.
OUCS attracts around £1m in external grants each year from bodies such as the JISC and Research Councils. These allow us to pursue important development and research projects of key importance to the future direction of the University, which we otherwise would not have had the funding to do. We also offer assistance to faculties and departments who wish to pursue funding applications with a considerable IT element. In this final section we present short reports on some of the projects we have led.
Accessing and Storing Knowledge (ASK) is a JISC-funded project due to be delivered in May 2007. The ASK project will develop a pilot repository service allowing users to store digital resources, e.g. reading lists and PowerPoint slides, in their own private area or 'briefcase'. By using this briefcase, users are able to finely control how they share each resource. For instance, an academic will be able to publish a discussion paper for anyone to find using Internet search engines (e.g. Google), whereas only a small number of peers are able to gain access to other resources, such as scientific data sets stored in the same briefcase. Interoperability is a key necessity of software development, as any new services must work with existing university repositories.
- delivered the federated search service;
- delivered the Shibboleth-compliant authentication service;
- delivered the authorisation service;
- delivered the group service;
- delivered the reading-list management service.
- building compliance with the federated search 'SRW' interoperability specification;
- building compliance with the open archives 'OAI' interoperability specification;
- build the user interface (CSS, JSP and Struts model);
- linking the Shibboleth authentication service with the ASK Authorization and Group services;
- demonstrate the finalised repository system to members of the University;
- publicise the project findings through appropriate academic journals.
The BNC is an internationally famous 100-million word language corpus, representing the state of the English language as of the end of the twentieth century. OUCS has been responsible for its maintenance and distribution since 1994.
Work on converting the corpus from its original SGML format to a more up-to-date XML format was completed this year, and enabled us to undertake a substantial amount of work on correcting significant errors in the corpus, and on introducing additional linguistic markup to improve its usability. This work was largely completed by July, and we are now testing the new version of the corpus with a view to a complete new release by the start of 2007.
- overview of current community image collections;
- selection of community image collections to use as case studies;
- survey of owners and users of community led image collections;
- A two-day conference at Oxford exploring issues;
- evaluation of the positioning of community collections relative to national and commercial alternatives;
- key recommendations for technical implementation infrastructure.
Constructing2Learn is a project funded by the JISC Designs for Learning Programme. The 18-month project began in May 2006. The project aims to build and evaluate software and learning designs to enable university students to build computer simulations and games within their field of expertise. Oxford University academics in the zoology and a sociology departments are collaborating with us as domain experts. The software prototype consists of:
- an interface for composing program fragments;
- a component that generates and runs NetLogo models (http://ccl.northwestern.edu/netlogo/);
- a code fragment browser component;
- an interface to the forthcoming version of LAMS (Learning Activity; Management System http://www.lamsinternational.com/) to support the creation and execution of learning designs involving scientific model creation.
The goal of e-Research is to facilitate better, faster, different research using a new type of computing infrastructure, often known as the grid. Grid middleware enables distributed computing resources to be linked and shared securely. The Oxford e-Science Centre was formed in 2001 and evolved into the Oxford e-Research Centre (OeRC) in 2006. The OeRC is a new unit within the Mathematics and Physical Life Sciences Division. The University funded the posts of Executive Director and Campus Grid Manager and began the construction of a dedicated building. The 2000 m2 'e-Science Laboratory' will be completed in December 2006, and will house the OeRC and other e-Science related activities.
The OeRC is one of four dedicated nodes within the UK core
e-Science programme's production National Grid Service (http://www.grid-support.ac.uk/). A campus grid has been
created which uses spare compute cycles from up to 1000 PCs across the
University. This has become an important resource for some researchers
within the University. Information is available at:
http://www.oerc.ox.ac.uk/facilities/oxgrid.xml (out of date).
The OeRC has teamed up with the Oxford Internet Institute to create an exciting new centre within the James Martin 21st Century School - the e-Horizons Institute. Information is available at: http://www.e-horizons.ox.ac.uk/.
The Evaluation of Shibboleth and PKI for Grids (ESP-GRID) project is funded by JISC to investigate whether and how Shibboleth offers solutions to issues of grid authentication, authorization and security. A further general aim is to investigate the requirements of grid security and whether (and how) the acceptance of Shibboleth assertions for access controls could be used within existing PKI based grids. Another focus is whether Shibboleth can contribute towards an interface between existing information environments and grid computing environments. The project began in August 2004 and is due to complete most of its work by June 2006.
The project began by analysing future requirements for grid computing with respect to security and access management. The project attempted to capture previously documented requirements and draw up a newer set, bearing in mind the need to expand the use or benefits of grid computing wider than highly technical computer scientists. A short thesis was written on the merits of Shibboleth and PKI for Grids. We also looked at virtual organisations (VOs) and reviewed the technologies available for (access) policy management in grids and in the information environment. The project out sourced the development of the Shibboleth-enabled grid demonstrator to the National e-Science Centre at Glasgow and this work was completed successfully. The project will report in Autumn 2006 and in January 2007. During the Autumn of 2006, there will be a mini-project conceived as a follow up to the main project and utilising some of the main project's under-spend. This will look at usability issues for grids and the types of new users who may become involved.
After over 20 years of operation Humbul has regenerated itself once more and, together with Artifact, is now fully assimilated into Intute: Arts and Humanities. Intute, a new free national online service, was launched in July 2006, reflecting a complete overhaul and reorganisation of the Resource Discovery Network (RDN), of which Humbul was a part. The core business of Intute, like the RDN, is to facilitate access to the best of the web for education and research.
Intute: Arts and Humanities, is a national service which employs a distributed network of subject specialists to find and review websites suitable for research and study within the arts and humanities. Intute is funded by the JISC and Intute: Arts and Humanities also receives funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).
- celebrating the twentieth anniversary of Humbul, (started December 1985);
- establishing a 'virtual team' for Intute: Arts and Humanities, led by the the Research Technologies Service, Oxford University Computing Services (OUCS) in partnership with Manchester Metropolitan University Library;
- achieving more than 11,600 publicly available reviews of humanities websites by May 2006. We continue to concentrate on the quality of our collection through review, prioritization, and ensuring we highlight the 'best of the web' for each subject area;
- improving our collection by the revision of existing catalogue records of online resources (especially in subject areas such as archaeology, literature, languages, area studies, philosophy, religion and theology);
- revising five Virtual Training Suite tutorials on the Internet for Philosophers, for Religion and Theology (merging these two tutorials), for Historians, and for Modern Languages. A new tutorial for Archaeology was published during the summer of 2006;
- publishing four booklets which highlight key websites for English, History, Modern Languages, and Archaeology. Print-runs of 3,000 each have been distributed and we also published online versions;
- receiving positive feedback from users, not least in response to the replies to helpdesk queries and the distribution of subject booklets;
- leading a cross-Intute study to discover how the service can better support research. This work has been very successful with good response to the initial user survey, and work towards a requirements report progressed at the end of the period;
- developing the MyIntute service based around social/informal/collaborative principles and technology sometimes referred to as ‘Web 2.0’;
- highlighting freely available peer-reviewed online journals across the humanities and the websites of AHRC-funded projects through the publication of two discrete collections.
Two JISC-funded LTG projects which were started during 2005 reached completion in Spring 2006: a study of lecturers' use of generic tools in authoring learning activities, and an investigation of the use of LAMS and Moodle to design and disseminate support for study skills in East London schools (jointly with the University of Greenwich). The first of these has fed directly into the new JISC Design for Learning Programme, in which the LTG is actively involved in two projects. These are: Constructing2Learn (see separate section) and the design and development of a practitioner-focused pedagogic planner tool intended to guide teaching staff in designing effective technology-mediated learning activities (joint project with TALL).
Following the transition of the Oxford e-Science Centre into the Oxford e-Research Centre (OeRC), the National Grid Service (NGS) is now operating as part of the OeRC. This enables the service to work more closely with OxGrid, the University Campus Grid, and with OSC, the Oxford Supercomputing Centre. The Oxford NGS cluster is accessible via OxGrid interfaces which provide University of Oxford users with a single interface to OxGrid resources across the University and to wider NGS resources across the UK. The number of NGS users has doubled (206 users in July 2005, 402 users in July 2006). A total of 134400 jobs have been run over the year (Aug 2005 to Jul 2006), consuming 913,633 CPU hours. This represents 81% utilisation for the 128 CPUs in the cluster. The National Grid Service partner integration activity has continued with other institutions donating resources to the Grid. In the past year, two additional sites have joined. There has also been discussion with partners who have different types of service offerings including dynamic service hosting, visualisation, access to data sources and repositories.
OSS Watch is a JISC-funded national advisory service on free and open source software. JISC's open source policy, to which OSS Watch made a substantial contribution in drafting, was published in September 2005. During 2005-6 the staff complement was 3.2 FTE.
In April, OSS Watch held a three-day international conference in Oxford on Open Source and Sustainability. OSS Watch also participated in numerous conferences and workshops, notably Online Educa Berlin, SocialSource, Open Source VLEs: The Next Generation, AoC Nilta Annual Technical Conference, RSC Northern Ireland annual conference, Institutional Web Managers Workshop, UKUUG spring conference, and the annual Oxford IT Support Staff conference.
In February and March, OSS Watch undertook fieldwork for the OSS Watch Survey 2006, the report from which was launched in July. During 2005-6, OSS Watch assisted OUCS in streamlining its procedure for staff contributing to open source projects. In August 2005, the OSS Watch website was substantially redesigned.
The OTA hosts AHDS Literature, Languages and Linguistics, one of the subject centres of the Arts and Humanities Data Service, and is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and JISC. In this capacity, the OTA plays a key national role in advising academics in literary and linguistics subject areas on the technologies and methods involved in creating electronic resources, and continues to build a digital repository of literary and linguistic resources.
AHDS Literature, Languages and Linguistics works in close collaboration with the AHRC, advising applicants to research grant schemes on technical aspects of their proposals, and assessing the applications. The AHDS offers its services as part of a coordinated provision for computing in the arts and humanities in the UK, in association with Intute Arts and Humanities, the AHRC ICT Methods Network, the Arts and Humanities e-Science Support Centre (AHESSC) and ARIA.
In the past year AHDS Literature, Languages and Linguistics ran a two-day conference 'Corpus Approaches to the Language of Literature' in Oxford, and a pre-conference workshop on the same topic at at the annual conference of the Poetics and Linguistics Association, in Joensuu in Finland. OTA staff participated in international academic conference, symposia and workshops around the world, promoting good practice in the creation and use of electronic resources in literary and linguistic research and teaching.
ShibGrid is one of the projects funded by JISC in 2006 as trials for Shibboleth-based access to the National Grid Service (NGS). It aims to develop a prototype system that will allow NGS users to access NGS facilities securely through the Shibboleth-enabled authentication mechanisms employed by their institutions. In addition to the existing 'medium assurance' access for current NGS users (via their 12 month e-Science certificate), 'lower assurance' certificate access and 'access not requiring certificates' will also be enabled by the project. It is expected that this project will provide a key component within the road map of security implementation within the JISC Infrastructure Programme and UK e-Science Core Programme.
The project is running in partnership with the Oxford e-Research Centre and the Council for the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils (CCLRC). Staff from the RTS is involved with the project planning and assisting with portal work and the setup of the local Shibboleth infrastructure.
To July 2005, the project had created tools for the upload and download of proxy certificates and had also developed Shibboleth-based access controls into the NGS portal. The next stages are to cover the rest of the expected user scenarios and develop systems for using temporary low-assurance certificates. The project needs to engage with communities of test users and to cycle code development so that the outputs (code and documentation) can enter production and be easily maintained. The project began in April 2006 and is due to finish in March 2007.
The SPIE project aims to demonstrate how and to what degree middleware standards such as Shibboleth and PERMIS (another authorisation system) can be used to secure web-based applications, with a focus on enhanced portals and portlets. This project has deployed Shibboleth at the University of Oxford as a 'real life' test-bed environment and investigated its potential to assist in facilitating access to resources on both local and remote services. In practice, this enables users from other universities to securely authenticate to Oxford resources without the need for a central access management system, as well as allowing Oxford's users seamless access to remote resources, making use of the existing Webauth single sign-on system.
Over the past year, SPIE has created reusable security components that allow tight integration between Shibboleth and Java applications, as well as tools that allow the management of privacy policies and to configure access controls. SPIE has collaborated with other related projects such as the Sakai VRE and Shibgrid projects (investigating secure research collaborations) or the WebLearn team. The outcomes from the project demonstrate the usefulness of a federated identity management system within Oxford, both for access to external resources (e.g. those currently protected by Athens) or even for secure access to on-line resources within the collegiate University.
Our main role in the past year has been to bring the TEI Guidelines closer to a release of P5 (the next release of the TEI Guidelines ), due at the end of 2006. We have continued to develop work flow tools, and contribute to provide substantial input to the sections on linking, names and dates and manuscript description. The following staff from the RTS have worked on the TEI:
- Lou Burnard (European editor of the TEI): Guidelines development and teaching
infrastructure tools, publication stylesheets, Roma schema
http://www.tei-c.org.uk/Roma/), and teaching
- James Cummings: teaching and the TEI wiki
A two-day course on the TEI was offered through the ITLP in February 2006, and staff offered papers and teaching at international workshops in Sofia, Wurzburg, Paris, Kyoto, Montreal, Forli and Besancon.
TReCX (Tracking and Reporting in e-Learning ConteXts) was a six-month JISC-funded project which started in March 2006 as part of the most recent round of 'Toolkits and Demonstrators'. Two major scenarios of tracking and reporting are to analyse how much a given resource is being used, and to assess an individual's use of a number of resources over time. In a world where people are increasingly utilizing loosely connected groups of tools (such as wikis, blogs, assessment tools, etc) in order to deliver a course there needs to be some way of recording the actions of users within those tools and making this information available. Such tools may maintain their own stores of tracking data or may not retain this information at all. This project was concerned with creating artifacts that cover a number of scenarios, including enabling applications that do not currently maintain their own tracking stores to publish events to an external store, and deriving interfaces for applications with their own store to be queryable by reporting applications.
UCISA is the Universities and Colleges Information Systems Association. UCISA represents those responsible for delivering information systems and technology services in universities, colleges and related institutions. UCISA's main aims are to promote best practice amongst its members through events, awards, publications and a network of contacts, and to represent the interests of its membership through lobbying, responding to consultations, relationships with other groups and taking part in appropriate working groups and committees.
UCISA ran sixteen events last year. These ranged from one day seminars covering subjects as diverse as voice over IP (VOIP), job evaluation and public relations, to three three-day conferences for Directors of Information Services, Heads of Corporate Information Services and User Support staff. UCISA published the second edition of its Information Security Toolkit which provides template policies and procedures to help institutions comply with the BS 7799 British Standard on Information Security.
UCISA represented the community in discussions with a number of Government departments over 2005-6. These covered the introduction of digital television, the Terrorism Act, and the introduction of Shared Services. In addition, UCISA responded to consultations on the HEFCE Strategy, the JANET Service Level Agreement, and a review of the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education. Finally, UCISA worked with the Leadership Foundation to develop a programme targeted at potential leaders of information services in order to fill these mission-critical positions within Higher Education institutions.
OUCS, through the RTS, is participating in three JISC-funded virtual research environment projects. The Integrative Biology VRE (IBVRE) and the Building a VRE for the Humanities (BVREH) projects have focused on establishing the requirements of the research communities they serve, and both published initial user requirements reports in November 2005. The IBVRE Project, which is led by Comlab with the project manager located within the RTS, is building a VRE to serve the needs of the cancer and heart modelers within the Integrative Biology consortium. The project has undertaken activities within two key strands: deploying the portal and project management infrastructure to support the Integrative Biology consortium and performing a deep analysis of the research process. As part of the latter process, workshops were held at Tulane, Washington and Lee universities to assist the design of an in silico experiment repository. The BVREH Project was successful in obtaining additional funding to develop a pilot virtual works place for the study of ancient documents. Matthew Mascord, the IBVRE Project Manager, is a co-investigator on this demonstrator project.
The RTS is also contributing the Sakai VRE Demonstrator project, led by Lancaster. During this period, the project has investigated: the integration of the Shibboleth access management protocol with the Sakai software; deployed a test installation of Sakai; and undertaken a requirements analysis for the federated searching and resource discovery within a Sakai-based VRE.