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.
The University of Oxford has set up an Environment Panel to advise on the environmental implications of University policies and activities and to encourage the proper consideration of environmental factors in the University’s decision-making processes. One of the factors the Panel advises on is the reduction of energy consumption within the University. This obviously has an impact on the way we currently use ICT and will influence future plans, but more information is needed about how and why changes can be made.
Since October 2007, OUCS has been working on a JISC-funded project entitled Low Carbon ICT. The purpose of this is to provide practical examples of how an institution can implement both the policies and the technologies to conserve energy used by desktop and server hardware with the minimum of disruption to users and system administrators. This will provide a important case study and forum for other organisations looking to adopt similar strategic goals. The project will feed directly back into the University's environmental panel to further enhance University environmental policies.
By using new technology and changing computer management regimes, it should be possible to significantly reduce the University of Oxford’s ICT carbon footprint. Potentially Oxford’s annual power use could be reduced by a minimum of 2GWh, saving c. £200k, and preventing the production of over 1,100 tonnes of carbon dioxide each year.
It is important to take a holistic approach to develop an environmentally sustainable ICT strategy because savings in one area can have a negative effect in another. For example, poorly designed energy saving measures could compromise security through interrupting essential software updates. It is also important that the core strategic goals of the University are not unduly impacted, namely to conduct research and teaching. It is essential to bring together technical, research, communications, and training skills from across the University to ensure this necessary broad perspective is adopted.
For end users, WoL technologies allow people to switch off their desktop machines when away from them for lengthy periods, whether overnight, at weekends, on holiday, at a conference, or even when in a meeting or laboratory all afternoon; but restart them locally or remotely if needed. With normal switching off, someone has to press a button on the machine itself to restart.
For system administrators, WoL facilities will enable them to switch clusters of machines on and off depending on the department's energy saving policy and requirements to update system software on desktop machines. For example, an administrator may switch off a teaching cluster of machines over the weekend then switch them on to install a security patch.
Recent data from one University department shows that their energy use shows only moderate daytime peaks. This is indicative of a building with its computers on 24 hours a day. The figure below shows the current demand pattern compared with the lower demand pattern that might be expected were the computers to be switched off overnight. The overall electrical savings could be up to 20%. With machines being switched off at weekends, and other planned absences, the possible savings are even greater.
The NSMS section of OUCS has recently introduced a virtualisation service that enables system administrators to consolidate their existing servers onto centrally managed machines. By exploiting virtualisation technology, it is possible to support 10-15 servers (Windows, Linux, or Netware) on two physical servers. This can save on capital costs for hardware and also provide enhanced management options that can significantly increase the resilience to failure of the IT set up.
As far as the Low Carbon Project is concerned, the benefits of this approach come through minimizing procurement, which reduces the environmental impact caused by the manufacturing and transport of new server machines. The project will monitor the procurement practice of units throughout the university to measure the corresponding reductions on the environmental pressure due to less manufacturing and transport. Fewer physical servers will also mean lower demand for specialist air-conditioned rooms, which consume large amounts of energy.
In the dim and distant past (e.g. thirty years ago) OUCS was the sole provider of computing services to the University. In the recent past (e.g. fifteen years ago), other parts of the University began to provide their own computing services of various kinds. Now we are moving into a third age in which computing services of various kinds are available to the University from many different providers. A department, college, or other unit, might decide to use authentication services provided by OUCS, but to run its own mail server, and to host its websites with an external service provider unaffiliated to the University. Increasingly, major IT services such as web hosting, distributed filestore, digital archiving, groupware solutions, and many niche software applications are being provided as commodity services, using a variety of business models. A unit might, for example, decide to manage its projects with a tool such as Basecamp, to share documents amongst its members using Google Docs, to archive digital images using Flickr, or even to recommend Hotmail to its students. This richness and diversity of choice makes this a good time to be a user of such services, but also provide challenges for those responsible for the University's strategic direction and long term interests.
As a small contribution to that strategic thinking, OUCS has prepared a check list of considerations which we recommend should be taken into account when evaluating ways of supplying any IT-related service, in particular where that service might be “contracted out” to a supplier outside the University.
The check list is reproduced below and can also be accessed online at: http://www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/internal/3rdparty/checklist.xml
What guarantees are provided about support or level or service? Are they adequate for the intended use? For example, if the service is unavailable for an extended period of time, how seriously would this affect the unit's activities?
Is there any agreement concerning continuity of the service? How serious is the risk that the service might change its policies, or prices, or go out of business? For example, does the unit care if a free service becomes a paying one, or one subsidized by advertising? Does the unit have an alternative or exit strategy in such an eventuality?
What level of support activity will be needed? Is the service widely used by comparable units outside Oxford? What is its public perception? Is there a strong community of existing users who can provide peer support, or will the unit need to seek or provide specialist training? Does the service provide (e.g.) a hotline for academic or technical support issues beyond the run of the mill? Is it likely that existing IT support networks (for example OUCS Help desk) would be able to provide first line support?
If the proposed service overlaps wholly or in part with a service already used by the unit, what will the support costs be in moving existing users? Is migration without loss of information simple, technically feasible, or impossible? Does the proposed new service have all the functionality of the existing one (for example, does it provide the same or enhanced levels of security, backup, etc.)?
Will introduction of the new service affect other existing services, for example by reducing or increasing their importance or requiring changes in them? Is there a risk that the service would increase for example network traffic or spam beyond currently acceptable thresholds?
Is the service (or something analogous) already being used by some other unit? If so, is there scope for co-operation for example in licensing or in pooling of support activities? Alternatively, is there a risk of confusion or lack of data integrity if the same service is provided under different brandings within the University?
How well does the new service conform to established University strategic priorities or practice? For example, can it take advantage of current university-wide authentication and identification systems? Is it equally usable in all hardware and software environments of importance to the unit? Does the new service open the unit to possible additional risk with respect to its legal obligations, such as privacy legislation, or contracts (JANET regulations)? Is the service provided under terms specified by an enforceable contract between the service provider and the University?
Are the terms and conditions appropriate for the intended use? For example, if the service will store or manage material in which the unit has rights, do the terms and conditions adequately protect those rights?
Are the terms and conditions adequate for the intended use? For example, who may access the unit's data and in what circumstances? Is usage of the service auditable by the unit (for example, to track any alleged abuse)?
What are the cost-benefit implications of using the new service? What is the total cost (or saving), taking into account all the above considerations, of using this service as opposed to expanding (or continuing with) an existing internal service or doing without? How will that cost be met?
We believe this checklist provides a good basis for the evaluation of 3rd party IT solutions, and have applied it ourselves when considering an externally-provided groupware solution for use within OUCS.
We often hear about the future being mobile, secure, ‘anywhere anytime’ computing but do we have really know what technology our university students are currently using in their day-to-day lives? Over the last four years OUCS has conducted annual surveys of new students at the Freshers’ Fair in order to ascertain their IT ownership and ICT skills. This data gives information on trends among the incoming student population to help inform future service provision.
Laptop ownership far outweighs ownership of desktop computers and almost all students have a mobile phone. Memory sticks, MP3 players, and digital cameras have seen steady increases over the four years of the survey.
Of these computers, PC/Windows machines are still the most widely used platform but are at their lowest level since the survey started in 2004. Mac and Linux machines are increasing and account for 15% (from 8% in 2004) and 3% respectively.
In terms of ICT training, the most popular requests were for training in databases, graphics programs, and programming. Graphics programs are the only category to show a consistent increase, possibly due to the rise in digital camera ownership.
When asked what they use the internet for, most fresher students said e-mail communication (more than 90%), followed by those who use it for general surfing websites and chat (both over 70%). The most dramatic increases are in the use of chat and sharing photos.
A question on the use of social networking sites was added this year, and the results show the Facebook service has reached almost universal coverage (96% usage) and obviously is now as popular out of University social circles as within.
Email and Messengers are the two preferred communication channels between students. A significant increase has occurred in the use of internet telephony services such as Skype conferencing software and the (possibly related) ownership of webcams.
With their laptops, mobile phones and MP3 players, coupled with easy access to wireless facilities, students are ready for ‘anywhere anytime’ computing. OUCS needs to maintain and enhance its facilities, training, and advice relating to podcasts, e-learning, and web pages suitable for accessing by small screen devices. More wireless access points and easy authentication to University services are required.
Email communication is vital to these students. OUCS is continually monitoring and upgrading the Herald and Webmail systems and researching and evaluating alternative options as they are developed. The OUCS backbone network provides all the internet connectivity for the University and OUCS will strive to ensure its future reliability and availability is as impressive in the future as it has been in the past. The OWL and Frodo projects are examples of how access to the internet has been made even more available and secure to University members.
The 2007 survey reported a dramatic emergence of the institutional-wide use of social software, such as the commercial service Facebook. Over 90% of incoming students are already familiar with this social networking service. How this affects other more traditional means of communication and how it can be used in an academic environment is the topic of several research activities within OUCS. The new generation of ‘digital native’ students are likely to have higher expectations of supported services than the previous cohorts, and may have already formed models for their information environment based on third-party services. As always it will be a challenge to keep up with the ever-changing technological world we live in.
Open source software (OSS) is licensed and distributed in such a way as to allow anyone to adapt and improve it and legally release the results of their work to the world. Examples of open source software are the operating system Linux, the web browser Firefox, the web server Apache, and the office suite Open Office.
Since 2003, OUCS has hosted OSS Watch, a JISC-funded advisory service for Higher and Further Education institutions in the UK. OSS Watch promotes awareness and understanding of the legal, social, technical, and economic issues that arise when educational institutions engage with free and open source software. It does this by providing unbiased advice and guidance to UK higher and further education.
From the beginning OSS Watch has dealt with many queries from academics about how they can make software they have written available under an open source licence. There is an affinity between the freedom to adapt and improve software that these licences provide and the principles of academic freedom. This is not surprising, given that originators of the OSS licensing model were themselves academics and motivated by a desire to research and teach better programming techniques and functionality through the widespread availability of adaptable, improvable code.
Despite this affinity, the necessity of capturing value in intellectual property generated with the UK educational community, and managing the attendant liabilities, can make OSS release difficult. Administrative mechanisms for due diligence and examination for commercial potential are necessarily complex and time-consuming, and as a result OSS Watch found that, nationally, many academics and other institutional staff were simply avoiding them and placing their software on a globally viewable web page for download, nominally under an OSS licence. This was bad news for all concerned. Those who downloaded it were likely to be unknowingly infringing the institution's copyright, and the institution itself could be unknowingly assuming liability for the operation of the software.
In OSS Watch's second round of funding, we therefore added research support, legal support and knowledge transfer staff to our list of stakeholders. Over the last decade, European and UK policy has increasingly stressed innovation as a core component of a modern economy. Clearly the education sector has a large role to play here, and funding bodies like HEFCE have responded by creating funding opportunities for institutions to build their expertise in realising value from their activities. Funding streams like the Higher Education Innovation Fund have helped institutions build expertise in creating 'spin-out' companies, forging collaborations with business and providing services to innovation-led industries. In addition, there has been a parallel policy drive to develop greater links between institutions and external communities, both academic and non-academic, local and global.
OSS Watch aims to introduce institutional staff undertaking these 'Business and Community Engagement' (BCE) activities to the range of possible routes to intellectual property exploitation and community building that open source software release can enable. In line with our non-advocacy role, we do not attempt to promote this form of licensing over others, only to add it to the list of possible approaches available to BCE staff. We are also happy to advise on the potential risks that this approach may entail.
It is a common misconception that, because OSS licences grant a right to distribute to all recipients, there can be no business advantage for the software's authors and therefore no way of making any money from open source. In reality, this is not the case, and large companies like Red Hat and Novell make considerable amounts of money selling open source software augmented with support, warranties and intellectual property indemnifications. Other companies like MySQL make two versions of their software available, one under an open source licence and another under a commercial closed source licence. Smaller companies release open source software and provide associated premium services like consultancy and bespoke adaptation. It is perhaps in this latter area that open source exploitation meshes best with more traditional institutional consultancy-based business models.
Open source software release can bring many advantages to an institution if the risks are well understood and the internal administrative processes can be adapted to accommodate it. The rewards can be greater academic interaction and collaboration, as well as novel methods of exploiting intellectual property that would – in many cases – otherwise remain unexploited.