Welcome to the annual report of Oxford University Computing Services for 2006-2007. In keeping with previous formats we have attempted to write a report that is informative and approachable to allow our users to get a comprehensive glimpse of OUCS’s performance over the period. We have divided the report into three main sections. First, in an attempt to synthesize issues which have arisen, we have produced a set of short essays on current ‘perspectives’; namely topics which have come to the fore over the last year. We then present a set of service reports which show the increasing levels of demand on OUCS. This year, where possible, we have also attempted to show the level of use of OUCS’s services by the Divisions. Finally, we include a series of reports from the Research Projects OUCS has led or been part of over the year. This aspect of OUCS is fundamental to our taking services forward for the University, and we attract over £1m per annum from external funding agencies.
As well as undertaking major initiatives to develop our services in line with the demands of our users (e.g. the upgrade to Herald), 2006-7 witnessed some important strategic changes for OUCS. First, the University’s ICT Strategy was finalised and the first steps have been taken to introduce a new governance structure. The University’s ICT Committee was disbanded to be replaced by the PRAC ICTC sub-committee (to meet for the first time in Michaelmas Term 2007); and a new professional group for the IT Support Staff across the University, whose invaluable work we all rely on, was set up. More importantly, the Office for the Director of IT has been established, looking at strategic IT initiatives across the University. Throughout this period OUCS has continued to develop but the lengthy period of time taken to ratify the ICT strategy has not been without consequences, with several senior managers being asked to ‘act-up’ during the prolonged period.
Equally important has been the setting up of the Services Funding Working Group (SFWG). This was a central committee with divisional representation charged with looking at the funding of central services – including OUCS. We liaised with this committee throughout 2006-2007 and have now started to implement its recommendations. For the first time the budget of OUCS will be set to meet the increasing demands of the divisions, and anomalies in our funding (which over the years has led to a mounting deficit) are being tackled. Long-term planning and funding of key services will be addressed, and future capital projects properly resourced. The SFWG also revealed that although OUCS is solely funded by the Infrastructure charge levied on the Divisions (in effect to provide services to c. 26,000 students and staff) we are actually supporting over 35,000 users across the collegiate University.
OUCS has also made major strides to meet its users and to get feedback from them on our services. We have a series of OUCS Reps who are linked to colleges or departments. These provide a direct route for feedback to us primarily from the Academic staff in the departments, faculties, and colleges to supplement our existing communication network with IT Support Staff. OUCS staff also sit on all the major Divisional IT Committees. In keeping with the times we are now using Web 2.0 technologies to facilitate communication, including an in-house developed news feed service (OxITEMS which now facilitates Podcasts), Facebook groups, and blogs and wikis.
Finally, it should be noted that this Annual Report forms only part of the information OUCS provides. Here we attempt to indicate how we have performed over the year; but we also produce a five-year strategy looking forward (revised each January). Furthermore, this year we have produced for the first time a complete set of Service Level Descriptions providing information on all the services we provide. All of these are available from the OUCS web site (http://www.oucs.ox.ac.uk).
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.
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 2006-07. 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.
Project FroDo, which aims to bring the University backbone into each University building and college, is nearing its end. FroDo has been successfully deployed in 156 departmental and college units. Progress will now continue at a less rapid pace as the remaining sites, largely the problematic ones and new University buildings, are completed. Already complete is the deployment of the basic Secure Network Infrastructure; a parallel project undertaken to address the need to provide security, telephony and other similar services for the University.
The backbone continues to operate reliably and traffic levels are still rising (156% 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 71,000 connections.
The last year has seen an unprecedented rise in external traffic with high utilisation of our JANET link. We are investigating the possibilities for increasing our external bandwidth allocation so as to be in a position to cope with future increases.
There continues to be increasing demand for wireless networking (OWL – Oxford Wireless LAN) across the University and there are now around 68 sites offering these services. The Visitor network saw 3,096 accounts being used over the year.
The anti-spam measures that have been implemented continue to be generally effective. Our anti-spam software analyses each email and adds a 'spam score' to each email. This score can then be used to filter email before they reach users inboxes. Generally scores above 5 are likely to be spam emails. Of the messages received from outside of the University, 80% are now rejected, 15% are delivered with a spam score of less than 5, and 5% are delivered with a spam score greater than, or equal to, 5.
|Period||Messages per day||Data volume per day (GB)|
The Herald system provides mail storage for more than 35,000 users, with access via POP, IMAP, and Webmail. This year, after a sustained education campaign, we were able to enforce the use of secure authentication mechanisms. Login mechanisms that exposed a user's password on the network were disabled on 3rd July 2007. This measure helps to protect the integrity of the Oxford Account passwords, which many services besides Herald depend on for their security.
During this reporting year a new project to increase the disk storage available to Herald users was initiated. This will increase users space from their relatively low levels (typically 100-300 MB per user) to a standard 1 GB, with discretionary increases available to high-volume users. This project involves a change to the IMAP server software and complete replacement of the back-end storage and server hardware. As well as increased capacity, we expect the new system to provide improved reliability and availability. The work will continue into 2007-8.
The new system consists of six Sun Fire servers, each with two 16-bay serial-attached SCSI (SAS) disk enclosures. These are populated with a total of 192 146GB SAS disks configured as multiple RAID 6 arrays. This configuration provides good capacity whilst protecting against data loss in the event of multiple disk failures. We have almost 20 TB of user visible disk storage, and the 192 spindles ensure good performance for the demanding workload of an interactive IMAP service.
We use the same type of SAS enclosures for disk-to-disk backups with high-capacity SATA disks (again in a RAID 6 configuration) providing 20 TB of holding space. These on-disk backups are currently written to tape for longer term storage. We plan to increase the capacity of the disk-to-disk backup system and replicate all of the backup data to an off-site mirror, eliminating the need for tapes all together.
The Herald IMAP service handles approximately 900,000 logins per day during term time. The table below shows the login activity of email clients on a typical day in term compared with data from the previous year:
Some users (and the client software that they employ) are far more active in logging in than others. Note that users' primary affiliations have been used to label these data, and therefore is possibly misleading where users have multiple affiliations. People who are not associated with a division are presented within the chart with their status alone. Another indicator of Herald usage is the mail stored on disk. The next chart also shows disk usage for each division.
Undergraduates cannot be associated with a division within these data. However, their use of the email facilities is on a very high scale. For example, in the same 24 hour period, there were 9951 active users who were undergraduates and this category of users accounts for 444 GB of mail stored on disk.
The following chart shows what happens to the email the University receives over a typical term day. Although Herald offers spam filtering facilities to users, most users have not activated this, so the number of messages discarded or saved to users' junk-mail folders is lower than might be expected.
The volume of email data stored by Herald has grown steadily over the last few years. We are seeing continued growth in the use of email, and are anticipating an increase in the rate of growth following the implementation of larger user mail store quotas. The following chart shows the growth in mail stored over the last academic year.
OUCS provides a secure single sign-on facility that enables service providers across the University to authenticate users against a central, trusted third-party authentication system. Networked services providing a Kerberos or GSSAPI authentication mechanism can make use of this natively. We also provide a web gateway to the Kerberos authentication system; this provides a central authentication service, WebAuth, to providers of web-based services.
The Herald POP/IMAP service and the GNU/Linux interactive shell service already offer GSSAPI-authenticated access, and we expect more OUCS services to offer this in the future. Several units outside of OUCS are experimenting with Microsoft Active Directory in a cross-realm trust relationship, with the central systems providing an authoritative authentication service. The use of WebAuth by service providers outside of OUCS is increasing steadily:
OUCS offers a central web hosting service, with basic provision for static content and limited CGI applications. This is currently used by more than 130 units across the University, including a number of colleges, departments and research groups.
The Hierarchical File Server (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.
The following graph shows the growth in terms of files and TB data for the year covering all aspects of the service. The number of files saved has increased from approximately 775 million files to just over 1 billion with the corresponding increase in data held growing from approximately 190TB to 280TB.
The following graph shows the growth in terms of files and TB data since 1996. The HFS backup service holds backups for about 3,200 desktop systems and 1,100 departmental or college servers. In a typical week, the HFS takes in over 40 million new or changed files amounting to almost 20TB – approximately twice as much as in the previous year.
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 included completion of phase two of the tape drive enhancement program, and the simultaneous migration of data to fully utilize the higher capacity and higher performance media.
The security team (Oxford Computer Emergency Response Team or OxCERT) has seen several changes over the past year. One member has left, while two new members have joined the team, restoring it to three full-time staff.
A number of hardware changes are underway in order to improve resilience and our ability to detect security incidents, and to cope with the ever-increasing network traffic levels, including forthcoming increases in the speed of the University's external network connectivity.
- systems compromised through brute-force; accounts with weak passwords (dictionary words, otherwise guessable or non-existent) are at particular risk and users must be educated of the need for strong passwords;
- exploitation of newly-discovered vulnerabilities. Where possible the team have attempted to identify systems at risk before the vulnerabilities can be exploited;
- webserver compromises, generally through coding errors in dynamic applications;
- insecure wireless networks providing access to the University network for unauthorised infected systems;
- exploitation of vulnerabilities where a fix has been available for sometime but has not been applied;
- vulnerabilities in software versions no longer supported by the vendor.
Compromised systems frequently participate in "botnets": widely-dispersed networks of compromised machines under the control of third parties. These may be used for activities such as sending unsolicited emails, sharing of illegal content, denial-of-service attacks on targeted external systems, or searching for further vulnerable hosts.
The University frequently receives notification of copyright violations, which generally relate to students sharing content over peer-to-peer file-sharing networks, despite the University regulations banning such activity. The security team now work in conjunction with the ITS3 team in handling the notifications, tracing the users responsible, promptly curtailing their network access and passing on details to colleges and departments. Local IT support staff are then responsible for liaison with the users and ensuring that they do not re-offend. Indeed many IT officers have taken pro-active measures to prevent such abuse. A handful of networks are now responsible for a substantial proportion of the notifications.
An additional project the team has taken on is a pilot project to enable examination papers in preparation (and other sensitive information) to be distributed securely by electronic means. A full working trial is expected to begin in Michaelmas 2007.
The past year saw the formation of a workgroup, led by the Help Centre managers to review OUCS’s ‘front of house’ services. The workgroup investigated the potential for improving and streamlining some of the services through consolidation, with the main focus on the Help Centre itself, the OUCS Shop, and the Operations team. The work group concluded with a recommendation to physically move the 3 services into the same room in order to provide a more joined-up service. This work started in July 2007 with a complete refurbishment of the Help Centre including the creation of a joint Shop and Job Reception counter with staff office space to the rear.
Another project during the year was the reorganisation of the Hardware Repair and Upgrade Service in order to provide a clearer and more consistent service for users. Starting in May 2007, changes include a new web-based enquiry form and a price-list for the most common jobs undertaken. The pricing now includes a non-refundable minimum labour charge of £20 which covers diagnostic work. We feel confident that this will bring OUCS better returns for the service in the long term. More details on the service are provided in the Hardware Service section.
In reviewing the usage of the Help Centre over the past year, it is becoming increasingly difficult to analyse the data based on the addresses of emailed queries. The number of messages which could not be attributed, largely due to the increased use of external addresses, rose by 50% over last year, making it impossible to compare absolute figures:
Fortunately the use of our web form has now risen to the point where it provides significant figures and with the barcode of the enquirer we can make more accurate evaluations of their affiliation. The following table shows the break-down of enquiries via the help form by division. The figures from previous years are less reliable as they represent a smaller percentage of total email queries and are more prone to inaccuracy due to affiliation changes over time. Nevertheless they show that there is not a large variance in percentage rankings and that the colleges and divisions together have taken up the top 5 ranks in help desk usage over the last 3 financial years.
The most notable change in the types of queries the help desk handles is that general software problems have now overtaken VPN-related questions which are now in third place. Help Centre login issues and queries about OUCS dial-up have dropped so that queries about Athens, with a 1% rise, have overtaken both in the rankings.
This year has been an eventful one in Hardware Repairs and Upgrades with extra resources being made available to cater for increased demand and the introduction of a new web-based system for easy registration of new jobs.
A team has been setup to handle data recovery and system re-installs. This is proving increasingly popular in cases of severe corruption of operating system software and hardware failures. The web registration provides the requester with a prompt reply and initial advice followed by an invitation to bring in the machine in need of repair.
A total of 271 machines were handled this year, a record number. Of these, 179 were repaired or upgraded and 92 had software remedies applied. The 163 laptops dominated both repairs and upgrades while the 16 desktops and towers continued their yearly decline in numbers. Interestingly, if these machines reflect recent purchasing trends, there is little interest in the compact cube designs despite being economical on space. Although there are a relatively small number of 16 Apple computers handled compared with 163 PCs, there is a definite upward trend in Apples requiring attention, with the first out of warranty Macbooks making an appearance. A small number of flash memory and external drive enclosures were also repaired. Some designs of the latter seem particularly prone to early failure due to their miniature sealed construction which inhibits heat dissipation. As these are often relied upon for backup purposes, they are a cause for concern.
- Enable account management to be devolved to the users themselves or, if that is not appropriate, then to their ITSS;
- To automate as many processes as possible.
Where we need manual intervention, we aim for a fast efficient response to queries. We are aiming to reduce the number of queries we get year-on-year and have made significant progress in this over the last 12 months.
|Reporting Year||No of RT Tickets|
A total of 38,933 Single Sign-On (SSO) accounts are being maintained (88 percent of which have been activated). An SSO account gives access to many applications such as Weblearn, software downloads, OxCort tutorial reporting, etc. (see also above Authentication Services).
A division is assigned to a user based on the Department specified on their University Card. Undergraduates cannot be assigned to a department and are listed under colleges irrespective of who runs their course.
- to include new software downloads;
- a new category of status, Virtual Access, has been introduced. This status allows non-Oxford users to access certain WebAuth protected facilities. This new category of access was piloted using the OxCORT tutorial reporting system;
- a new facility for IT support staff (ITSS) to change existing generic routings and set their own staff's individual routings has been released;
- a new utility to allow ITSS to set activation or rescue codes for Single Sign-on accounts was introduced during the year;
- we actively worked with many units to stop re-writing their mail to long form in advance of the January 2008 target;
- we have removed @anat and @physiol email in favour of @dpag; @edstud in favour of @education;
- we extended the project times for all postgraduate applicants so their accounts did not expire on 31st August, saving many ad hoc requests for account extensions;
- we worked with the Sports Federation to help with the new requirement for all clubs to have a web site with a Health and Safety policy;
- University web addresses were authorised (by contacting departmental heads) for 18 new sub-departments and Centres. Work was needed in a few other cases arising from University reorganisation.
Information Services manages the OUCS website and a number of related sites (e.g. WelcomeToIT, ICT, and those of the OeRC and e-Horizons). 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.
We have also taken on a new role in investigating and prototyping potential new services; this has included work on project management and collaborative writing systems. It also involved considering how Google Applications could be used by the University, and we are now using it internally for calendaring.
At the start of 2007, we successfully bid for a short project funded by JISC to look at the use of XCRI for course descriptions, and worked with the Careers Service and Continuing Education on the delivery of sample feeds of data.
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).
During this period the RTS obtained funding from the JISC for the e-Infrastructure Use Cases and Service Usage Models (eIUS) and the Bridging the Interoperability Divide (BID) projects. The former is developing a set of narrative use cases relating to the usage of e-infrastructure within the UK academic research domain, whilst the latter is establishing interoperability between three discrete repository systems in Oxford: the OULS Fedora system; the OeRC Storage Resource Broker; and the OUCS ASK/Sakai e-learning repository. The British National Corpus also launched its new BNC XML edition in this period. These and other projects are further described in the project reports.
The RTS successfully completed contributions to the first round of JISC Virtual Research Environment (VRE) projects (Sakai VRE, Integrative Biology VRE, and the Building a VRE for the Humanities),and the Shibboleth-aware Portals and Information Environments (SPIE) project. The Humanities Division, with input from the RTS, was successful in a funding bid to the JISC for a subsequent phase for the Humanities VRE project (VRE for the Study of Documents and Manuscripts).
- Working with the Oxford e-Research Centre (OeRC) through membership of the Directorate;
- Establishment of a 0.5 FTE OUCS-OeRC liaison post to maintain excellent communication between each department;
- Various collaborative projects relating to shibboleth deployment, digital repositories, language resources, and e-infrastructure usage.
Staff changes over the last year included: the resignation of Randy Metcalfe from OSS Watch and the appointment of Ross Gardler as OSS watch Service Manager; and the appointment of James Wilson as Intute Arts and Humanities Service Manager.
The past year has seen a continued growth in WebLearn both in terms of accesses and in the numbers of resources available. WebLearn's public visibility has been enhanced both by allowing Google access and via podcasts accessed using iTunes. These factors have contributed to a four fold increase in total bandwidth used in Week 1 of Trinity 2007 compared with Trinity 2006.
|October 2004||November 2005||July 2006||July 2007|
|No. Floors in Academic Units||46||56||63||69|
|No. Floors in Colleges||4||9||14||19|
The following table shows that just over three quarters of accesses to WebLearn are originating from Oxford. Even though it is now over a year since the Google search engine was allowed access, the majority of WebLearn users are still the staff and students of the University. Even so, we have observed a major increase in the number of distinct search words resulting in WebLearn accesses and this indicates the breadth of resources available has widened considerably.
Starting in Michaelmas 2006, every new member of staff at Oxford University has been invited to our new termly event: Breakfast at the OUCS. Over croissants and coffee, we introduce new members to many important services at OUCS; give them a tour of our Help Centre and the Thames Suite of lecture rooms; and introduce them to the IT Learning Programme and its innovative educational technology.
We continue working in collaboration with other university services such as Careers and the Library Services. In Trinity 2007 we began a new collaborative initiative in line with the Roberts recommendations for transferable skills training for research students. The Skills Toolkit for Research Students is a free, one-day workshop, which will run once a term and offer a variety of interactive sessions which give insight into the use of familiar tools as well as introducing some novel approaches to streamlining research activities.
The ITLP team has contributed to a number of the OUCS events including Tools for Teaching, the annual OxTalent Awards, and the Shock and Beyond national conferences. The Tools for Teaching event aimed to introduce Oxford academics to a wide range of technologies and discuss how these technologies could be used within their tutorials, lectures, assessment and administration. Guides describing these new technologies can be accessed at http://www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/crt/resources.xml along with an area in WebLearn (http://weblearn.ox.ac.uk/site/asuc/oucs/tools4teach/) that further illustrates how technologies can be used to support teaching at Oxford.
We continue to work collaboratively with the Library Services in organising lunchtime byte-sized WISER sessions on subject-specific electronic resources and most of our teaching resources can be freely accessed online through the University’s WebLearn VLE at http://weblearn.ox.ac.uk/site/asuc/oucs/itlp/materials/.
At the beginning of Michaelmas Term 2006 the ITLP became an early adopter of Ostrakon software for student-teacher evaluation. Ostrakon is a powerful tool that helps us to recognize and encourage quality and to determine areas that require attention. Feedback is provided instantly (by web interface or email), without the need to collect and digitize paper questionnaires.
Learning Technologies Group (LTG) Services provides the backbone to
many LTG activities, offering advice on and expertise in the use of
technology for learning and teaching to departments around the
University. We have particular expertise in multimedia, learning
design, systems interoperability, and gathering user requirements.
Collaborative work has included the digital image management
project, OxCLIC, with a university wide group of departments; and a
new training series to help relieve the administrative burden
through the use of ICT. LTG services is involved in several national
ICT projects funded by JISC. Funding was received for the section
staff to work on Thema (
a longitudinal study exploring the experiences of students in
technology rich environments at Oxford. We are also collaborating
with TALL at Continuing Education on ISTHUMUS, linking user-owned
technologies to institutional activities and the Design 4 Learning
Pedagogic Planner project. Through these projects (described more
fully under Project Reports) OUCS's work
on good practice in the effective use of IT in teaching and learning
The LTG Services plays a dissemination role for learning and teaching best practices. This is achieved through the projects listed above and via activities such as: running a weekly series of IT seminars — Digital Projects in Oxford, occasional workshops, the annual ‘Show and Tell’ OxTALENT event, and a series of Digital Video workshops.
LTG Services also runs two annual conferences. This year's Shock of the Old conference focused on Web 2.0 social technologies and the Beyond the Search Engine conference looked at combating plagiarism in an increasingly connected world. Finally LTG Services lent its expertise to teach on and helped support the new Master's degree course in e-Learning at the Department of Educational Studies.
- Feedback gets results (Medical Sciences)
This project allows the retention of student results until after they have given feedback online, thus ensuring virtually 100% feedback on a course.
- Turkish for self study (Humanities)
This project, produced in collaboration with the Oriental institute, is a unique multimedia resource to support the teaching of Turkish language and culture. The project produced a number of interactive learning objects, re-purposed existing tools and provided a portal to other interactive learning resources in this area.
- Development of a flexible online annotation tool
Here we investigated the possibility of integrating an existing online annotation tool into WebLearn.
- OxClic (Humanities Division)
Many images are stored in a widespread manner, and this project allows resources to be pulled together into a searchable image management database for reuse.
- Research discovery project (Medical Sciences)
The ACDT collaborated with the medical division to design a Research Discovery service, which would facilitate the recording and discovery of research activity within the medical division (and ultimately across the University).
- WebLearn use cases (cross-divisional)
In order to produce some sites which could be used as examples of 'best practice' ideas were requested from the academic community. Those projects chosen used WebLearn as the core, along with various external and internally linked resources, to provide interesting real-life teaching examples.
OxCORT (Oxford Colleges Online Reports for Tutorials) continued to be developed during the year and was rolled out as a pilot across the university. This required considerable user training and documentation. Discussions were ongoing towards the end of the year for Central Administration to take over the production service.
In June 2007 our latest call for proposals was issued, based on the suggestion box system. This has resulted in 13 full proposals, seven of which were chosen as having potential for development, dependant upon the funding regimes and feasibility studies. These are:
Work has continued on setting up ACDT's VMWare server ‘farm’. A number of Virtual Machines for different uses have now been set up for both internal (development Virtual Machines, internal knowledge bases, etc.) and external consumption (demonstration boxes, projects database, etc.). Effort was also input to OUCS branding issues and a redesign of the ACDT website which is still ongoing.
During the last academic year several staff changes have occurred in the ACDT. Joseph Talbot spent a year volunteering at an institution in Cameroon, and tele-worked with design advice for various projects. Upon his return, he initiated discussions for the formation of the new OUCS Web Design Consultancy service. In February 2007, Sophie Clarke resigned as section head to pursue other interests, and Paul Groves took over leadership.
The Computing Services 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. In January 2007, the shop counter service was augmented by the addition of an online shop. Although the current version of the online shop is very basic, this additional service allows customers to place orders and collect goods outside of normal shop opening times.
The product lines available from the shop continue to diversify and expand to reflect changing trends and customers’ computing requirements, particularly wireless networking and memory storage products. Among the many items added this year are firewire cables and adapters, digital media cards, notebook carry cases and card readers as well as larger capacity memory sticks and new printer and toner cartridge ranges. Software product ranges available from the Shop have also risen with a number of new products available from Adobe (Creative Suite range) and Microsoft (Campus Work at Home products).
OUCS administers a number of software agreements for commonly requested software packages for personal computers. The University is thus able to make considerable savings against the individual purchase cost. A total of 24,443 software licenses were issued in this year.
A Campus agreement enables us to rent the most popular Microsoft products, for example, Windows upgrades and Office Professional. Work-at-home rights are also included in this agreement. A total of 5,380 licenses were added during the year; the rental charge was £278,788.
OUCS also administers various software contracts on behalf of groups of departments to assist in gaining more favourable pricing; this year £62,612 worth of software was purchased and subsequently paid for by contributing departments.
The Computer Hardware Breakdown Service offers a very economically priced breakdown service for personal computers and their peripherals such as printers. It is available to University institutions, colleges and associated institutions. It is also available to University members, including students, on a personal basis for their privately owned equipment. In essence, for a modest fixed fee, the service provides for an engineer to visit on-site, any where on mainland UK, by the next business day from a fault being reported and the fault should be fixed within a further 8 working hours, or an equivalent item of equipment will be offered as a loan until the repair is completed.
OUCS monitors call-outs and reports of unsatisfactory service, and the service (offered by an external company) has been extremely good. The number of items registered has fallen over recent years, caused by a general trend in the industry of providing 3 year warranties as standard. However, there is scope for encouraging a greater student and staff uptake for their personally owned machines as there is evidence that this group is unlikely to have alternative breakdown cover and is often critically inconvenienced by hardware failure. A marketing program for the service has been put in place to encourage use of the service.
High precision phototypesetting / imagesetting service. The service uses a Monotype Panther Pro Imagesetter. 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;
To enhance the offset-litho printing, we took advantage of an opportunity in August 2006 to purchase a second-hand Ryobi 512H two colour printing press which was in very good condition and at a very attractive price. This press represents a significant improvement over the aging, single colour Thompson press that had, nonetheless, given very good service for a number of years. The new Ryobi press provides a four-fold increase, at least, in productivity for our offset-litho printing service, printing two colours simultaneously, at twice the speed of the Thompson. The ability to use modern ink technologies has improved the final quality of the output beyond what was possible with the old press and helped to reduce turnaround of work even more. This has allowed the service to take on more work for other departments and colleges.
The Operations Team is also responsible for the Oxprint poster printing service. During this period nearly 1,600 posters submitted by University members were printed, an increase of 23% over last year, with the majority relating to the dissemination of scientific research. Staff have continued to develop expertise in printing from a variety of packages and provide advice and support to users. The turnaround time for printing is usually under 24 hours from submission. The service also supports the production of OUCS publications. The Team continued to support an image-setting service for high resolution printing as well as A4/A3 colour laser printing and photocopying.
Towards the end of this period, the Operations Supervisor retired from OUCS. The overall management of the Computer Room is being reviewed in 07/08. OUCS is also undertaking a feasibility study, in collaboration with other parts of the University, to investigate the options for alternative computer room facilities for the collegiate University.
We have continued to invest in improvements to our virtual machine infrastructure. The IBM Blade centre, purchased nearly three years ago, was reaching capacity, running 57 production virtual servers (Windows, Linux, Netware) with two blades set aside for development and testing work. Consequently a fully populated Dell 1955 Blade system with 6TB of EMC storage was purchased in July 2007 with two blades and a section of storage allocated to the ICT Support Team for their exclusive use. The processor specification for the new equipment provides a significant increase in capacity over the old system with each blade running dual quad core Xeon processors, giving the system the potential capacity for supporting 400 or more typical servers.
Two members of NSMS have achieved the VMware Certified Professional qualification demonstrating the high level of expertise in our team. Three new services have been started, based on the team's virtualisation expertise (http://www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/nsms/services/vm.xml). These are VM for Rent, VMware Consultancy, and VMware Infrastructure Management.
The VM for Rent service provides almost immediate access to a virtual machine running a server OS which can be any one of Linux (Red Hat, SUSE, or Debian), Windows 2003 Server or NetWare 6.5. The rental arrangement can be short, medium or long term (one month to many years).
The VMware Consultancy Service offers comprehensive and expert advice on installation, configuration, and ongoing administration of VMware solutions. Over the last six months the team has been providing consultancy to four colleges and departments that have started down the VMware road. The team has already been involved in advising seven colleges and departments.
The VMware Infrastructure Management service provides for the management of the VMware infrastructure of a server, independently of the virtual servers that may be running within this environment. With there being an ever stronger case for running most servers in a virtual environment, this service allows departments and colleges to embark on a virtual infrastructure without the difficulties and delays of a steep learning curve with the new technologies involved and the risks that adopting new technology can bring are considerably reduced.
On the storage management front, the NSMS team have been experimenting with storage virtualisation and have used a pilot implementation of SAN Melody, from DataCore to support the VM for Rent service as it has the potential to provide considerable flexibility to the storage provision of this service as it expands.
IT Support Staff Services (ITS3) has had another busy and productive year. Approximately 60 new IT Staff joined the IT Support Staff register during the year, bringing the total number of ITSS in the collegiate University to around 600. In the period covered by this report ITS3 ran three new IT Staff induction seminars and one pre-Michaelmas term roundup of news and plans from key OUCS service providers. ITS3 now has a service level description available linked from its website.
The principal events organised during the year were the IT Suppliers’ Exhibition in December 2006 and the 12th Annual IT Support Staff Conference in June 2007 (in conjunction with the IT Support Staff Group). We run several social events such as the monthly lunchtime surgery — often attracting 10-20 attendees and the drinks/games evenings at the University Club frequently attracting more. The ITSS Summer Barbecue in July, held at the Institute of Anthropology, was a huge success as it was run for the first time on a bring-your-own-food-and-drink basis.
ITS3, OUCS Staff, and IT Suppliers gave 21 separate presentations and eight separate training courses were delivered; some bought in from external suppliers. The total number of hours of presentation or training given was 167 and there were a total of 941 attendees. In total ITS3 was responsible for just over 4,000 person-hours of training or presentations during the year.
The ITSS wiki (https://wiki.oucs.ox.ac.uk/itss) has seen wide use and now contains a vast array of information of use to, and provided by, both central and distributed ITSS. ITSS in Oxford have also embraced Facebook in a group containing over 100 members. Many ITSS events and photos thereof are now advertised and hosted on that social networking website.
New developments this year include devolving more registration tasks to ITSS. They can now make rescue and activation codes and change mail routings for both generic and personal addresses in their units. ITS3 now handles copyright infringement notices on behalf of the University and acts as a broker for the UKERNA SSL server certificate service. To date around 100 certificates have been issued saving Oxford in the order of £10,000.
The Head of ITS3 has joined the UCISA Staff Development Group (SDG) and its subgroup for distributed IT Support Staff, being actively involved in the organisation of the UCISA Distributed IT Support Staff Symposium in June. The Head of ITS3 has also been a key player in the formation of the new University ICT Strategy and is now a member of the Enhanced Computing Environment (ECE) consultative group.
The new ITS3 administrator, Steve Pierce, has proven to be a successful appointment and he adds much value to the help desk operation as well as to ITS3. The addition of one of the registration staff to the ITS3 office is proving to be an excellent symbiosis with resulting improved services both from Registration and ITS3 for distributed IT Support Staff.
The ICTST is not formally part of OUCS, but is responsible for the Active Directory, WINS, and Antivirus services delivered by OUCS. The ICTST is also responsible for desktop IT services for the three central departments of the University (OUCS, Central Admin, and OULS) and the Enhanced Computing Environment (ECE) project.
The Active Directory and WINS service has seen no significant change over the last year apart from collaboration between NSMS and the ICTST delivering a workshop on integration of Windows Active Directory with the Oxford Kerberos Single Sign-on infrastructure.
As part of the OUCS Antivirus Service, the ICTST released a program to install and configure the latest release (version 7) of Sophos Anti-Virus for Windows, which was made available for the start of the academic year of 2007-8. This incorporates a number of features designed to assist with installation on Vista systems. A similar install wrapper developed for the HFS (Hierarchical File Server) Backup and Restore client was handed over to the HFS team. The ICTST also helped to deliver seminars and training information to the ITSS community relating to Sophos Antivirus.
As part of a regular refresh the ICTST managed the replacement of over 100 desktop computers running Windows XP in the Thames Suite, in support of the IT Learning Programme. Similarly, the Windows desktops in the Help Centre were replaced, and new OS X systems installed.
The ECE project delivered significant benefits to the staff of the three central departments. These included a complete refresh of desktop computers in Central Administration and the migration of OULS staff to a Microsoft Exchange email system. At the heart of the ECE is a set of Altiris desktop management tools and last year also saw the implementation of an Altiris Notification Server system and the deployment of a new Altiris Helpdesk to OULS and the Estates Directorate. The ICTST has been responsible for some Altiris training for the ITSS community to help them benefit from these excellent tools.
As the use of Apple computers amongst staff and students has continued to increase steadily it has become clear that a properly organised support infrastructure for Apple hardware and software is now essential. The Apple Supported Desktop Service (ASDS) was set up this year with the intention of putting the management of Apple computers on a similar footing to that already in place for Windows PCs. The core component of the ASDS is The Casper Suite – an imaging, application deployment and inventory solution from JAMFSoftware. The OUCS Help Centre and Lecture Room Macs are now fully managed by Casper, as are the majority of new Macs coming in to OUCS. A project is now underway to bring existing OUCS staff machines under Casper management, as well as an increasing number of Macs in several other departments in the University. Talks on how we are using Casper have been given at OUCS and at the ITSS Conference this year and there is considerable interest from Colleges and Departments where Mac use is also growing rapidly. The ASDS has also been involved with the deployment of Apple server infrastructure both within OUCS and externally. Another development has been the training and Apple certification of members of the OUCS Help Centre staff so that we can now offer a much improved Apple hardware support service. All the indications are that the ASDS will play an important role in support for Apple users across the University.
The OUCS Marketing section has been hard at work ensuring that OUCS promotes and advertises its existing, new, and upgraded services to all members of the University, whilst recognising the excellent service provided by distributed IT Support Staff. Regular adverts have been placed in Blueprint to promote new and updated services including increases in Herald email quota, the opening of the new online shop and national conferences run by OUCS. OUCS News continues to be produced once a term and distributed to all colleges and departments. Free pens and pencils are available and help people to keep the address of the OUCS home page to hand.
Much work has been done on the development of the OUCS brand and use of the OUCS logo on printed materials. Usage guidelines, power point templates, sample graphics and more have been provided via internal web pages. These pages also provide information to OUCS staff on advertising opportunities and communication mechanisms to promote their services to various sectors or the whole University.
A major event this year was the 50th Anniversary of Computing at Oxford. This marks 50 years since the first staff were appointed to the new Computing Laboratory. Their computer didn't arrive until the following year! An exhibition charting the changes in buildings, computers, services offered, support for humanities computing and more was opened with a ceremony, re-union and cake in June. The exhibition will remain on display in the public areas of OUCS until the end of 2007. Both textual and photographic information from the exhibition is being added to the History of OUCS web site to provide a longer term resource. Following requests from former members of staff, an OUCS — Past and Present group has been set up on Facebook which current and former associates of OUCS can join.
Future plans include updating and improving the content and impact of visual information provided to visitors to OUCS and investigating ways of assessing effectiveness of current promotional channels.
This period has seen the change over of all University contracts to a single spine pay system which took place on 1st August 2006. Most members of staff were transferred to the new scales with a slightly beneficial outcome, although there were a handful for whom this had the opposite effect.
During the year there were 17 recruitment events, 15 academic-related and two for support staff. These resulted in 15 appointments, two of which were promotion opportunities for existing staff members and one gave us the opportunity to redeploy a member of staff whose short term contract was coming to an end. So we welcomed nine new members of staff to OUCS and three to the ICT Support Team.
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 2006-2007 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.
The JISC-funded Accessing and Storing Knowledge (ASK) project was completed in April 2007. The project successfully created a pilot repository system that demonstrates the integration of open standards within the repository domain. The system allows students, tutors, and librarians to create and share reading lists using federated library searches, as well as store files that can be accessed through the Internet.
We have secured further funding for a follow-up project called Bridging the Interoperability Divide (BID). The new funding will allow the project team to work with Oxford eResearch Centre (OeRC) and Systems and e-Research Service (SERS) to continue implementing interoperability specifications between learning, library and e-science technologies.
The Bridging the Interoperability Divide (BID) project received funding from April 2007. The project, led by OULS in partnership with OUCS and OeRC, is building interoperability between three digital repository systems: Fedora (OULS), Storage Resource Broker (SRB) (OeRC), and ASK/Sakai (OUCS). The creation of a joined-up set of repository applications will support workflows between e-science research, academic publishing, and learning support. The project is focussing on a selection of repository services including:
The British National Corpus (BNC) is a major linguistic resource, developed at OUCS and still widely used by language learners and teachers worldwide, as a unique snapshot of British English at the end of the 20th century. This year we completed a complete revision of the corpus, converting it from SGML to XML, reviewing and revising several aspects of its encoding, and correcting some long standing errors. Production of this new edition was carried out by Lou Burnard and Ylva Berglund, with input from many BNC users worldwide.
http://dfl.cetis.ac.uk/wiki/index.php/Constructing2Learn Constructing2Learn is a project funded by the JISC Designs for Learning Programme. The 18-month project began in May 2006. The project has built and is evaluating software and learning designs to enable university students to build computer simulations and games within their field of expertise. Oxford University academics in Zoology and the Said Business School have collaborated with us as domain experts and are testing our software with their students. We have developed student handouts that provide detailed instructions for building models of artificial societies and the spread of infectious diseases.
A component that generates and runs NetLogo models (http://ccl.northwestern.edu/netlogo/);
An interface to LAMS 2.0 (Learning Activity Management System — http://www.lamsinternational.com/) to support the creation and execution of learning designs involving scientific model creation.
The e-Infrastructure Use Cases and Service Usage Models (eIUS) project aims to gather and document concrete evidence of how e-infrastructure is, or is planned to be used as a facilitator of the research process across all major disciplines, in order to broaden participation in the use and future development of e-infrastructure services. The project's overall objectives are to:
contribute to the International e-Framework Initiative whose primary aim is to facilitate technical interoperability within and across education and research through improved strategic planning and implementation processes.
The project received funding from the JISC in April 2007 and, during this period, has developed a methodology for the gathering of usage data and the construction of narrative use cases. The project is led by OUCS in collaboration with the e-Horizons Institute and National Centre for e-Social Science (NCeSS — University of Manchester).
This was achieved by integrating Friend of a Friend (FOAF) capabilities into WebLearn, and making use of the eProfile toolkit developed by the University of Essex. A graphical interface is provided to allow easy navigation and creation of linked users as a social network. User profiles are stored in a separate database and accessed via web services, allowing the potential for other applications to re-use the profiles.
The project was funded by JISC as a toolkit demonstrator project in the e-Learning frameworks and tools programme, and additional funding was granted to allow the enhancement of the original toolkit to accommodate our requirements.
The OeRC is a major initiative to stimulate and support new forms of research across the whole of Oxford University, by enabling the use and development of innovative computational and information technology in multidisciplinary collaborations. The Centre is strongly linked to the UK's national e-Science programme, and national and international collaborations ensure that activities here at Oxford are aligned with e-infrastructure developments nationwide and abroad. The OeRC works closely with OUCS to develop new computing facilities, projects and collaborations. OUCS and the OeRC participate jointly in the eIUS and BIDS projects.
OSS Watch is the JISC funded project providing advice and guidance to UK Further and Higher education wishing to engage with open source software. OSS Watch has been hosted by OUCS since its inception in 2003.
We have published 27 documents on the OSS Watch website during the year ranging from briefing notes to conference reports and case studies. These publications have covered issues such as sustainable open source development and effective engagement with open source projects.
- Project development — 25 face to face project consultations, over 50 telephone and / or email consultations, running a community development workshop held in Oxford, attendance at numerous external events;
- Knowledge transfer — engaged with 18 institutions directly (including Oxford) plus engagement with services such as JISC legal and ISIS Innovation.
Other significant activity has been the study of development practices within JISC projects with reference to the JISC open source policy and our first automated study of software (in this case inbound mail servers) deployed within HE and FE. Such studies, alongside our bi-annual national survey, inform our future support efforts.
Events within Oxford such as Isis Innovation workshops, Online and Offline Survey Methods, Copyright and Online Resources, Choosing a Linux Distribution, Open Source for the Keen Photographer, Single Source Publishing with Apache Forrest;
The Oxford Text Archive celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2006,
and in September held a one day conference on the history and future
of electronic text archives and the state of humanities computing at
OUCS. The conference combined celebration of past achievements, a
touch of nostalgia, a critical appraisal of the current landscape,
and a lively discussion of future possibilities. Presentations can
be found online at
http://ota.ox.ac.uk/OTA30/ (out of date).
New accessions to the collections of electronic resources this year displaid an enormous variety from a revised version of the Corpus of Sumerian, a new edition of Chaucer's Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, the Lancaster Newsbooks Corpus (of fascinating 17th century news pamphlets), and corpora of modern language data, including a corpus of French research articles, and one of academic spoken English. Among numerous outreach activities, the OTA participated in workshops at the annual PALA conference in Kansai Gaidai Japan, and at the Corpus Linguistics 2007 conference in Birmingham, to promote the use of electronic resources in literary studies, and ran a workshop on electronic text encoding at the International Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
These courses have a range of learning methods (entirely online, assisted by online resources and face to face), and a range of learning outcomes (technical training, continuing professional development, diplomas, degrees and postgraduate degrees).
We found little difficulty in automatically encoding course overviews in CAP and sending these to JISC's trial web server. The OXCRI project has recommended significant improvements to the trial CAP schema. We have enhanced the CAP schema with Schematron rules to implement business logic, and demonstrated how nested elements drawn from different schemas (CAP, Dublin Core, XHTML) can be validated using the recent ISO NVDL (Namespace-based Validation Dispatching Language). Since Continuing Education runs courses across Oxfordshire, we have also mapped CAP data to the KML format of Google Earth and Google Maps to enable prospective students to quickly find which courses are available where.
OUCS has deployed a production Shibboleth service which will enable Oxford users to access, amongst other things, resources currently protected by the external Athens service. Shibboleth is an international access management protocol based on a federation of trust model and designed to enable the use of institutional single sign-on systems to access online resources managed by other organisations within the same federation.
From August 2008, Shibboleth will replace Athens as the preferred route to JISC-licensed resources (though Athens will continue as a subscription-based service for those institutions who desire it). Shibboleth is increasingly the protocol of choice within the e-science domain and for national access management regimes (e.g. Switzerland).
The OUCS production service, for which the technical implementation was completed in the last quarter of this period, built on the experience OUCS had gained through a number of JISC-funded Shibboleth projects. The implementation was undertaken in consultation with OULS and is expected to be formally rolled out to users from January 2008, though it is now possible to use an Oxford username to access most Athens-protected resources. The second phase of the project will focus on providing support for Oxford resource providers who wish to enable access to users based at other institutions.
Phoebe is a collaboration between the Learning Technologies Group and Technology-Assisted Lifelong Learning (Department of Continuing Education). Its brief is to build a tool to guide practitioners working in post-compulsory learning (FE, HE and ACL) in designing effective and pedagogically sound learning activities. The key objectives are to:
Phase 1 (May 2006-February 2007) focused on developing a proof-of-concept prototype. In phase 2 (March 2007-February 2008) we are working on a more full-featured tool for evaluation with practitioners.
The First World War Poetry Digital Archive (FPDA) project commenced in April 2007. The FPDA will contain primary source material from some of the major British poets from the First World War. This will consist predominantly of manuscripts and letters from five poets, plus contextual information such as images, video and audio. It will also innovatively show how these can be embedded in teaching, include facilities to help researchers and lecturers personalise their interactions with the site, and open the archive up for remote deposit via its Community Collection. So far the project has focused on:
The project has also established links with various other individuals, groups and institutions to help in the promotion of the project, in particular the community collection. Podcasts have been made of a number of relevant lectures, events and interviews with public figures and made available on the project website and iTunes.
The project is working closely with researchers, teachers and lecturers of First World War Literature to design supporting educational resources and tools, ensuring that the archive is firmly embedded within practice. During the coming year we will be running a workshop entitled 'Teaching WW1 Literature' to discuss various aspects of teaching practice in the genre, including the use of digital resources.
This project builds on the Virtual Seminars for Teaching Literature Project which was funded by the JISC under the JTAP scheme for (1996-98) and is widely used in schools, FE colleges, and for University teaching and research. The new archive will be launched on the 90th anniversary of the Armistice on the 11th November 2008.
This is a three-year project which aims to develop an ICT-based system for the assisted compilation and open distribution of European teenager's talk in the context of language education. The project will compile spoken corpora for seven European languages and make these available in text, sound, and video format, together with language learning exercises based on the corpora. A further aim of the project is to facilitate future creation and use of similar resources by making available the tools, methods, and techniques developed for the project.
The project is supported by the European Commission within the Socrates/Minerva scheme (http://ec.europa.eu/education/programmes/socrates/minerva/index_en.html) and brings together researchers from seven European institutions, led by University of Murcia, Spain.
This year, OUCS has produced the XML-schema that will be used for the corpora. We have also co-ordinated the collection of the English corpus material which is now being transcribed and annotated. The next phase sees the creation of a set of language learning exercises and dissemination of corpora and other resources.
Exploring the Experiences of Master's Students in Technologically-Rich Environments (Thema) project is part of JISC's Learner Experiences of E-learning programme. This project is investigating how Master’s students at Oxford University use digital technologies in their academic and social lives. We believe that students at this level are of interest because of their heterogeneity in terms of age, educational history and life situation. Starting from the assumption that they come to Oxford with an existing set of IT skills and technological tools at their disposal, we are investigating:
- Whether – and how – students’ use of such tools changes during their course, through contact with the tools provided by the University and tools which they find out about in other ways;
- Students’ perspective on the use of technology by teaching staff;
- The extent to which students are using ‘social software’ and whether they feel these tools might have a role to play in their studies;
- Whether it is possible to characterise the ‘effective’ use of technology to support learning, and how such knowledge might help students develop appropriate strategies.
The project is using online surveys to gather broad-brush quantitative data, triangulated by qualitative data in the form of 10-12 case studies. The case studies will be constructed from written contributions solicited from October 2007-May 2008 and follow-up interviews.
Our main role in the past year has working on the P5 version of the TEI Guidelines, with a confirmed release date of November 1st 2007. We have provided the main editorial input, maintenance of all the tools, and project management. The following staff from the RTS have worked on the TEI:
The VLE Development team are currently at the early stages of making long-term strategic improvements to WebLearn. The incumbent VLE is based on the Bodington System (http://bodington.org) but we intend to replace this with a new framework known as Sakai (http://sakaiproject.org). The rationale for the change is that Bodington usage and development in the UK is dwindling and we simply do not have the resources to maintain and develop the software on our own.
Sakai already has lots of features which match or better Bodington's current functionality. In addition, with the support of the international community, we are in the process of transferring the 'best bits' of Bodington into the Sakai framework; things like the hierarchy, groups service, and devolved administration. This means that over the last year resources have been moved away from developing WebLearn (Bodington) into developing a replacement Sakai service.
Some new facilities have been added to WebLearn including the provision of two new tools. The first is a peer marking tool which allows each member of a group to assign and moderate marks for each other. The second new tool provides a basic Collaborative Authoring Environment known as EasyWriter. This allows an HTML document to be generated by individuals or teams and provides locking and change tracking. A screen shot is shown below:
Other, smaller improvements include the merging of the quick link and external link tools; the streamlining of the process of resource creation including input validation; the networking of resources that share the same keywords; and the introduction of a high-class WYSIWYG HTML editor (FCK Edit) with image upload capabilities.
As indicated above, a lot of work has gone into the preparation of a Sakai service. Information regarding the future of WebLearn can be found via: http://www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/ltg/vle/; specifically there is a wiki (http://wiki.oucs.ox.ac.uk/weblearn/) which can be browsed by all interested parties. This includes links to our plans and the work currently being undertaken. A test implementation of Weblearn Beta is available for evaluation at http://beta.weblearn.ox.ac.uk/.
OUCS, through the Research Technologies Service, has been actively involved in a number of projects funded under the JISC Virtual Research Environments (VRE) Programme. The first phase of the Programme ended in this period, and OUCS completed its contributions to the Building a VRE for the Humanities (led by Professor Alan Bowman, Humanities Division); the development of a VRE for the Integrative Biology (IB) pilot e-Science project (led by Professor David Gavaghan, Computing Laboratory); and the SAKAI VRE Portal Demonstrator project (led by Professor Robert Crouchley, Centre for e-Science, University of Lancaster). The final report for the IB VRE project is available at http://www.vre.ox.ac.uk/ibvre/IBVRE-FinalReport-1a.pdf.
The Humanities Division, led by Alan Bowman, was successful in obtaining funding for a subsequent phase of the Building a VRE for the Humanities project, focusing on the development of a VRE for the study of documents and manuscripts (see http://bvreh.humanities.ox.ac.uk/), to which staff from OUCS continue to provide expertise.
UCISA is the Universities and Colleges Information Systems Association, and is hosted by OUCS. 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 eighteen events last year. These ranged from one day seminars covering subjects as diverse as Getting The Best From Customer Feedback (which was run at OUCS) to Service Oriented Architecture, to four multi-day conferences for directors of Information Services, heads of Corporate Information Services and advisory services and distributed IT support staff.
UCISA published the third edition of its Information Security Toolkit which provides template policies and procedures to help institutions comply with the international standard on information security (ISO27001:2005). In addition UCISA published the third edition of its Best Practice Guide on Exploiting and protecting the network.
UCISA represented the community in discussions with a number of Government departments and its agencies during 2006-7. Shared services was top of the agenda with the Cabinet Office actively promoting the introduction of such services right across the public sector. UCISA was also prominent in discussions with HESA, UCAS and the Student Loan Company on systems changes.
Finally, UCISA responded to a number of consultations on behalf of the community on various topics including the Commons Select Committee inquiry on the Bologna Process, student support regulations (DfES), procurement (HEFCE) and the European Credit System for Vocational Education and Training (DfES).
XAIRA is the name of the latest version of SARA, the text searching software originally developed at OUCS for use with the British National Corpus (BNC). This new version has been entirely re-written as a general purpose XML search engine, which will operate on any corpus of well-formed XML documents.
To accompany the BNC XML Edition we produced a new release of Xaira, with several new features designed to take advantage of the rich XML markup in the corpus. Like previous versions, this release (version 1.23) is distributed under an open source licence from the sourceforge site. Further enhancements, designed to improve the PHP interface, are expected to be completed later in the year as a part of the Clay Sanskrit Library project.