Welcome to the annual report of Oxford University Computing Services for 2007-2008. 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 last year. This is our way of reporting on our services, and how we have attempted to meet the demands of the collegiate University.
We have divided the report into three main sections. First, we have produced a set of short essays on current ‘perspectives’; namely topics that have come to the fore over the last year and merit special mention. Included in this we have a short piece by Pete Biggs, the first chair of the ICT Forum, presenting a retrospective look at how IT support has changed over the years.
We then present a set of service reports that show the increasing levels of demand on OUCS. Wherever possible we have also shown the level of use of OUCS’s services broken down under the Academic Divisions, OUDCE, College-only users, and other central units. 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. This brings in valuable extra revenue via FEC which goes towards the supporting infrastructure within the department.
A major undertaking this year has been the lead-up to and launch of the Groupware project. OUCS provided considerable expertise and support to the University panel that selected the new Groupware solution (based on Microsoft Exchange and Sharepoint) and will be working on implementing this over the next year. In addition to this, we have also been heavily involved in working through the new Governance structures, in particular the formation of the OUCS Management Sub-Committee (chaired by Professor William James) that reports directly to the PRAC ICTC Sub-Committee, and to continue to carry through the recommendations of the Services Funding Working Group. We are continuing to address the need for the long-term planning and funding of key services, and properly resourcing future developments. This also involved a series of lengthy meetings in which every service run by OUCS was analysed by a series of divisional meetings in terms of their Service Level Descriptions (http://www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/internal/sld/) and costs and recommendations made. It was as a result of this that it was agreed that due to changes in user demands and available applications, the Academic Computing Development Team should be phased out, though its contribution to the development of IT across the University for teaching and research over the past ten years was widely recognised. This, we believe, is but one example of how OUCS is responding to the changes in user demands, and a manifestation of the new Governance structure in action.
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).
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.
There has been a move this year in the Higher Education Academy (HEA) and HEFCE to return to the phrase ‘Enhancing Learning through Technology (ELT)’ in an attempt to link e-learning activity back to on-campus teaching. Last year the HEA published their framework for National Professional Standards in Teaching and Supporting Learning in Higher Education. They list as ‘core’ knowledge the use of appropriate learning technologies. The use of the word ‘appropriate’ allows considerable leeway for institutions to identify which, and how, technologies may be used in specific contexts. This offers an exciting and challenging opportunity for researchers and practitioners in learning technology in HE and particularly for those working in traditional universities.
Recent trends in e-learning research focus on the approaches teaching staff can take to ‘blended learning’. The integration of technology into practice requires a considered and reflective approach to course and curriculum design ensuring that learning needs and teaching aims are met. Blended learning means more than having some face-to-face and some online elements. It describes the extent to which these elements work together to give a cohesive learner experience and the choice of the best tools for the task. Litttlejohn (2007) suggests that the design and subsequent success of a blend is subject to three contexts: the technology context, the learner’s context, and the teacher’s context. The technology context includes: the technology available within the institution; the tools offered in the VLE; the other tools on campus and the availability of that technology, at work, at home and in the classroom. The learner’s context is shaped by their familiarity with e-learning tools and approaches; their opportunities for peer interaction; their opportunities for interaction with teachers; their level of study; previous knowledge; and their level of digital literacy. University teachers are currently working in an environment where the skills of students at admission vary widely and levels of competence, experience and expertise in use of technologies are ill defined. ‘Student expectations’ are often cited but are not consistent. The teacher’s own context for use of technology is equally diverse. Their starting point includes their familiarity with technology tools; the availability of e-resources in their discipline; the nature of the content being taught; the assessment criteria and mode; the support available; and their own digital literacy and skills.
A recent UCISA survey identifies that the main barrier to the take-up of new methods of teaching continues to be the time it takes to learn and use new tools, and how that fits with workload models. Once again they point to staff development and staff skills as the areas for attention. For technologists the challenge is to offer applications and tools so usable that the new learning required is minimal and to provide an ‘appropriate’ and appropriately supported technology context. Developing digital literacy skills to use in the context of higher education teaching, study, and research can be a challenging experience with steep learning curves. Staff and students struggle with expectations for collaborative working and managing information overload. With a changing demographic of staff working in higher education and new wide-ranging sets of skills amongst students, the training offered to each will shape the extent to which they succeed in a blended learning environment. The challenge for units which support, promote, and train in learning technologies has never been more real.
Back in the fledgling days of OUCS, user support consisted mainly of helping people load their punched cards into the reader or directing them to the output bins. There was, to all intents and purposes, a single computer with lots of wires coming out of it. Most users made the expedition into the computing service building to use the computer, or, if they were very lucky, booked their time on the terminal in their department.
This departmental connection is where the story of IT Support Staff really begins. Because the terminals and printers in the departments were remote from OUCS there was no one on hand to give the departmental users a helping hand; what there were, though, were enthusiastic, knowledgeable local people who became the de facto experts in the arcane rituals required to change the paper in a line-printer, or the foibles of the Fortran66 implementation. These people were most often graduate students or young researchers; what they weren’t were computer professionals. As time rolled on, it was these local hackers (for that is what they were — in the original meaning of the word) who became the departmental representatives on the various user groups that sprung up as more and more departments and users made use of the central computing facilities.
Personal computers brought with them a different set of problems: word-processing issues, floppy disks not working and so on; and, importantly, they brought with them a different set of people to support. The academics doing calculations were still there, but they were rapidly overwhelmed by the large mass of ‘users’ having problems not with VME or VMS, but with this thing called ‘Microsoft’. And the local experts? Well they rapidly became experts in word-processing, because they were, after all, the person who everyone went to with computer problems. And still these local experts were usually active academics; but now they were trying to balance a research career with fixing other people’s computer problems.
The problem was spreading as well. Not only were departments getting personal computers, but so were colleges. In the late 70s and early 80s the Bursars’ offices in most colleges were changing (slowly) from hand-written ledgers to machine-generated accounts. These machines were not the problem; the problem was the introduction of PCs into offices and senior members’ college rooms during the late 80s. What happened when something went wrong? Well, someone in the college knew just the person to ask in their department!
What of OUCS in all this? They were still supporting the mainframe(s) — by now it was a Vax cluster — and there was little user support for PCs. This is not meant to imply that OUCS were slow on the uptake — far from it — but their role was to support central computation facilities. But it meant that slowly the departments and colleges were employing staff specifically to look after computers. The departments had a head start over the colleges; after all, they had in-house ‘support’ already. What’s more, there was a structure in place within the University in the form of User Groups where the staff could ‘get together’. The colleges had some specific problems to contend with, though, mostly in the form of undergraduates: there was a need to create computer rooms for the undergrads, and there was a need to control some of their excesses, neither of which was an issue for departments. So departmental and college computer support drifted in different directions.
By the mid-90s there was an obvious need to provide some structure for the ever-expanding cohort of IT Support Staff (ITSS). They were clearly a diverse bunch of people who supported an even more diverse user community. But they did have one thing in common: they all worked in the University environment. This need manifested itself in the first IT Support Staff Conference in 1995 and from that the IT Support Staff Group was formed to provide a focus for ITSS issues.
OUCS was well aware of the role that the college and departmental staff played in supporting users. Already OUCS was providing Unix accounts for any undergraduate who wanted one, and it was inevitable that the ‘users’ of OUCS facilities would rapidly change from being a restricted number of departmental users to everyone in the University. There was no way that OUCS had the resources to support 20,000 people on its own. Wisely, they decided to embrace the ITSS and provide facilities for them to operate in a devolved support model. To that end the IT Support Staff Services (ITS3) group was formed within OUCS to co-ordinate the various support staff focused activities.
There was still a big divide between colleges and departments. During the late 90s the number of ITSS in Colleges expanded greatly: initially there may have been one person shared between two or three Colleges; by 2000 there were more likely to be two or three staff per college. There were two main reasons for this: undergraduates started turning up with their own PCs; and conferences were starting to expect there to be some form of IT infrastructure. The departmental ITSS, though, were still supporting the same mixture of office and research IT. There was actually at that point very little overlap between the support requirements in the college and department environments. Indeed, there was little overlap between the college and departmental ITSS, and the main interaction between the two groups was at the now annual conference.
There was a third group developing as well during the 90s: the admin staff in the University Offices, Libraries, and so on were using more and more computing facilities. They had very specific needs which didn’t overlap very much with either departments or colleges. Consequently a large ITSS community grew up in that environment as well.
So what changed? Primarily it was the ubiquitous high speed network. The difference between a college and a department in cyberspace is virtually non-existent. Users expect to be able to work in their college rooms in the same way as they work in their department office; conferences expect there to be IT facilities in the place where they spend the day as well as the place where they spend their evenings; departments have to support graduates who use their personal laptop in the department and colleges have to support researchers who need access to computational facilities; and in amongst all this, everything is done electronically when dealing with the University Offices.
In the late 00s, where we are now, it was decided as part of the strategic review to rationalise the various support staff groups, committees and ‘user’ groups into one body, the ICT Forum. This body would be the champion for ITSS throughout the University whether they be college, department, or admin based. Again though, what of OUCS in this? After a couple of false starts it has settled down into its current role of providing infrastructure, supporting the support staff and providing user-facing services. The interaction of OUCS with ITSS is largely symbiotic: neither can work without the other and the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
There is a wealth of knowledge amongst the ITSS in the University and no part of the University can afford to work in isolation these days: there have been numerous examples where someone has said ‘if only they had asked, I could have told them…’ — the ICTF will provide the structure to facilitate both the asking and the telling.
Oxford on iTunes U is a new public portal to pull together the online talks and videos from a diverse range of teaching activities at Oxford. Launched on October 7th 2008, this unique collection of free-to-download audio and video podcasts from the University is available within Apple’s hugely popular free music service, iTunes; we have also developed a parallel web version with identical content for those who do not use iTunes (http://podcasts.ox.ac.uk/).
iTunes U makes it easy for a global audience to access the best of Oxford; it lets the public leap over the walls of the University’s departments and colleges and dive into a variety of teaching and research activities in a wide range of disciplines. It contains literally hundreds of hours of interviews, talks, lectures, and promotional films. The project has enormous outreach potential and has been featured regularly in the national press and the local news. It has helped raise the profile of key areas including admissions and the fundraising Campaign whilst also providing a unique set of free world-class open content released by academics, researchers, and students.
This growing collection of approximately 150 hours of material is as broad and diverse as you’d expect from Oxford. From world-class Nobel prize winner Joseph Stigilitz, an economist who predicts the credit crunch, to a complete lecture series on Philosophy, Medieval English and Politics, and a beginner’s guide to Quantum Nanotechnology … there’s a smorgasbord of food for thought for the intellectually curious.
Looking at student activities, we have the highlight of the Oxford Art year: the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art final year student show. Every year the students work towards a final exhibition, showcasing the very best of their work. We can now step right inside this process, through a series of podcast video interviews with students taking the viewer through the decisive steps that led to the creation of their final portfolio. Also from Ruskin comes a frank and stimulating discussion between the Ruskin Master, artist Richard Wentworth, and a group of final year students, who talk about the highs and lows of their three years at Oxford. It’s a unique insight into what it feels like to be a young artist, the day after a memorable final show.
Moving across the University to an English tutorial at Mansfield college, here we can see students grappling with the topic of gender in medieval English literature. Another click whisks us away to the Sheldonian, where we can join a packed theatre to listen to world-class researchers Richard Dawkins, John Sulston, and John Harris grappling with an equally challenging topic — ‘What is Science for?’ — in this hugely popular lecture from earlier this year.
What about Big Bangs at Oxford? The biggest science experiment ever conducted formally started in September 2008 at the CERN Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, and Oxford scientists were at the heart of it. In the Science area of Oxford on iTunes U, we can hear the excitement as Alan Barr — a physicist specializing in particle physics — describes testing the ATLAS particle detector, one of four core sensors looking for the world’s smallest particles. For Alan it has been a long road, constructing the apparatus in the basement of the Denys Wilkinson building with fellow engineers and physicists, and he reflects in the podcast on the data that may unravel the secrets of the how matter was formed in the early stages of the creation of the solar system.
The Oxford on iTunes U service and the parallel web version are both linked from one key homepage — http://itunes.ox.ac.uk. Use either service to subscribe to the feeds that appeal, and enjoy the Oxford experience in the comfort of your own home.
Once you’ve recorded your material and placed it on a departmental server, you can create an Oxford podcast feed using the central OUCS RSS service, OXITEMS. Contributors of audio and video material are being asked to complete a contributors’ form to confirm that they own the material, have not breached copyright, have not made defamatory remarks, and so on. The contributors’ form also releases (with the speakers’ approval) material for reuse by the university.
The OUCS podcasting service has been spearheading this initiative through a regular series of training workshops to support staff in departments, and a gap-filling recording exercise to make sure that all divisions are adequately represented.
We’re hoping to improve the web portal, with more functionality and a smoother look and feel. However, the real asset of Oxford on iTunes U is the wealth of top quality content, and we’ll be adding more student-generated content for the University Life area, and many more interviews with researchers. Furthermore, because the content is no use if you can’t find it, we’ll be strengthening the subject-based metadata and investigating more interactive ways of letting users discover interesting content, so that more and more people can explore Oxford’s wealth of teaching and research, whenever they want, wherever they are.
Information Technology has transformed the ways in which academics across all disciplines communicate and find information, and in many disciplines it has transformed the ways in which the research is carried out. Where the latest cutting edge high performance computing, high speed networks, and new forms of online multidisciplinary collaboration are involved, the new digital paradigm is often referred to as ‘e-Science’, or, increasingly, ‘e-Research’. By extension, the term ‘e-Humanities’ is being applied to those areas of research in the Humanities where the emerging, advanced, digital technologies and methods are making new types of research possible.
Large-scale digitisation projects are producing enormous amounts of data in areas of interest to scholars across the various disciplines in the Humanities, and the availability of this data can potentially unleash a huge potential for new research questions to be addressed. Various departments in Oxford are already deeply involved in many of the key digitisation projects, such as Early English Books Online (EEBO), the Lexicon of Greek Personal Names, the John Johnson Collection, Google Books, and the Great War Archive, to name but a few. Many tools and datasets exist, but in a fragmented and unconnected landscape where many different technical standards apply and where the user has to negotiate many different barriers to licensing and acquiring them, and then many more problems in connecting tools and data. The next step is to harness these tools and resources within an infrastructure that can allow researchers to apply much more easily the tools that they want to use for searching, collating, analysing and annotating data, and for online collaboration. While numerous projects at Oxford are managing to pursue digital projects at the cutting edge of the Humanities, a co-ordinated infrastructure could release much more of the potential, as well as laying the framework for more multidisciplinary collaborations.
The Building a Virtual Research Environment for the Humanities project has laid some important groundwork towards building this infrastructure. The work of the Oxford Text Archive in the AHDS, CLARIN and DARIAH provides some of the key links with the latest national and international developments in building a research infrastructure for the Humanities. In a recent initiative within the University, the Humanities Division, OeRC, OUCS and others have been working together to contribute to Project Bamboo (http://projectbamboo.org/), a major new initiative to advance arts and humanities research through the development of shared technology services. Project Bamboo originates in North America, but aims to have a global reach, and Oxford is joining with other leading UK research universities to investigate the possibilities of developing our e-Humanities activities through this framework.
OUCS has a long history of involvement at the cutting edge of many areas of humanities computing, through initiatives, projects and services such as the Oxford Text Archive, Humbul Humanities Hub (now Intute: Arts and Humanities), the Text Encoding Initiative, the British National Corpus, which are all ongoing, and past ventures such as the CTI Centre for Textual Studies, Arts and Humanities Data Service, and the Humanities Computing Unit. In collaboration with other departments, OUCS looks forward to a key role in facilitating and contributing to e-Humanities in Oxford.
The backbone continues to operate reliably and traffic levels are still rising with no sign of abating. Similarly, the number of registered hosts connected to the network increases each year and now exceeds 76,000 connections.
|31 July 2001||41,016|
|31 July 2002||44,935|
|31 July 2003||50,797|
|31 July 2004||55,186|
|31 July 2005||60,659|
|31 July 2006||66,063|
|31 July 2007||71,394|
|31 July 2008||76,742|
The last year has seen a continued rise in traffic both to and from JANET. The single 1 Gb/s link between Oxford University and JANET has been augmented by a second 1 Gb/s link thus doubling our throughput capacity. Traffic is load-shared between these two connections and they have been provisioned in a resilient manner so that the loss of either connection enables traffic to continue passing, albeit at a lower bandwidth.
The dial-up service saw a further drop in its usage with only low numbers of concurrent users. The equipment operating this service is now quite old and is unsupported by the original supplier. Although we have adequate spares for the foreseeable future, this is a rapidly declining service with throughput significantly below that offered by broadband. Users are advised to consider the alternatives and not to rely on this for the future.
There continues to be increasing demand for wireless networking (OWL — Oxford Wireless LAN) across the University. The last year has seen the introduction of the Eduroam service across a number of locations and which has proved to be popular.
OUCS has invested in improvements to the infrastructure supporting OWL, Eduroam, and the Visitor Network services, including resilience upgrades to firewalls and database servers, and network enhancement.
We are now busy planning the introduction of OWL Phase 2 following the award of a grant to introduce wireless networking in public areas across the University. This 3-year project will start in August 2008 and significantly increase wireless availability.
Herald provides the University’s email service for over 35,000 users. The service supports access via IMAP, Webmail, and POP allowing users a choice of a wide variety of email clients, web browsers, and platforms to access their email. In September 2007 OUCS completed the first phase of a major upgrade to the Herald email service, including a migration to new IMAP software and a complete replacement of the server and storage hardware. The upgrade project enabled us to allocate every user, whether student or staff, an initial quota of 1 GB (with a process to allow discretionary increases for higher volume users). The new system provides a greater level of resilience, resulting in no unscheduled downtime for the service between September 2007 and July 2008. The second phase of the upgrade project, completing at the end of 2008, provides a robust disk-to-disk backup system together with an off-site mirror. The provision of off-site backup is in line with the recognition by OUCS and other IT providers that the University’s business depends on many of the services we provide, necessitating the mitigation of various risks, including the loss of the OUCS Data Centre.
The Herald IMAP service handles approximately 900,000 client logins per day during term time (by approximately 26,000 unique users, with some email clients accessing the service multiple times per session). The table below shows the number of unique users using different login methods in a sample term-time period compared with equivalent data from the previous year:
As in previous reports, we are unable to indicate undergraduate usage by division. However, it remains the case that students form the primary constituency of Herald users. Undergraduate email data occupies approximately 32% of the Herald mailstore.
As reported above, in September 2008 we increased every user’s quota to 1 GB. The following chart illustrates the rate of growth of the mailstore. It is clear that the actual usage of the mailstore grew at a more rapid pace from Sept 2008 onwards. It is likely that users are, perhaps inevitably, taking a more relaxed approach to inbox and folder management (e.g. storing attachments with emails, failing to clear out junk-mail or deleted-mail folders, and so on).
Of these the vast majority are delivered to the appropriate mailbox. A significant number are automatically forwarded to other email addresses; others are filtered into a user’s junk-mail folder, based on Herald filter settings applied by the user.
OUCS provides the University access management service. Until now the service focused primarily on providing a secure single sign-on authentication service, centred around Kerberos and, for Web-based access, Webauth. The following lists the number of services, provided by units across the University (i.e. colleges, departments, etc.), that are using the Webauth service.
The Oak LDAP service is the first of a planned re-branding of the access management services provided by OUCS. The LDAP service enables authorisation decisions to be taken by service providers in the University. Data on unit affiliations (departments and Colleges), and the nature of people’s relationships with the University (student, staff, etc.) are provided. The directory information in Oak LDAP can also be used to map between people’s different identifiers (SSO username, barcode, etc.), and to retrieve contact data and names for people and units. The service can be used in conjunction with the Kerberos and Webauth services. During this period the service was made available as a ‘production pilot’ for University IT providers. Requests for enhancements were encouraged and many of these will be implemented for the 2008/09 academic year.
The rollout of support for the Shibboleth access management protocol has enabled Oxford to join the new UK Access Management Federation for Education and Research. This has proved particularly important for access to electronic resources supported by the Library Services, hitherto available via an Athens username and password. Oxford’s subscription to Athens ceased at the end of July 2008. OUCS has collaborated closely with OULS in their rollout of a library portal and proxy service which, through a combination of Shibboleth and the single sign-on service, enables the use of the Oxford username to access bibliographic and other electronic resources from outside the Oxford network. Although the OULS library portal was launched on 1 August 2008, access to electronic resources via Shibboleth has been available to users for most of this reporting period. Even though the service was not actively promoted for most of this time, a significant number of users accessed resources using this method.
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 a backup service for both desktops and departmental and college servers, and a long-term data repository service for the University’s digital assets.
As the number and size of local desktop and server machines in and around Oxford grows, so the challenge for the HFS is to meet and absorb this growth. Equally, increasing numbers of research projects, together with various digitisation projects, require that their data are securely archived over the course of the respective projects and beyond.
The real challenge to the HFS is to meet the inexorable growth in demand for Backup and Archive services both effectively and efficiently. To this end, major activities in the past year have centred around the acquisition of two new disk servers and associated SAN hardware. This has allowed for more client data to be staged to disk in any one 24-hour period and thence to allow the faster movement of this data to secure tape copies. Accordingly, the HFS raised the daily backup limits for clients earlier in 2008 to 100 GB/day for Desktops, 200 GB/day for Servers, and 300 GB/day for Large Servers.
Other activities have focused on managing the amount of old and erroneous Backup data. A more proactive approach to identifying and removing these has resulted in the long-term growth of data held in the service slowing. Total data occupancy is now anticipated to double every 24 months, whereas previously it was doubling every 18 months.
In September 2007 the HFS Team organised and hosted the highly-regarded TSM Symposium at St. Catherine’s College. We have run this 4-day conference every alternate year since 1999 and it continues to attract keynote speakers from IBM Storage together with delegates from all over the world.
Future activities of the HFS Team will focus on several areas, including: replacing two ageing host servers; investigating the next generation of tape drives; piloting new dedicated TSM backup client software for Exchange, MS SQL and other databases; and opening remote client backups over VPN. At the same time we are participating in a beta program looking at enhancements to the management of the extremely large database systems that underpin the HFS Service.
Over the past year OxCERT have handled around 600 security incidents, ranging from instances of malicious software on single machines to large-scale compromises affecting dozens of machines across several colleges and departments. Several of the most major incidents have resulted in considerable disruption for units for several days while incidents were investigated and critical servers cleaned.
Major new vulnerabilities from the past year include flaws in the HFS client software, in Adobe Flash Player, in SSL libraries used on certain Linux platforms, and the discovery of a major threat affecting the majority of DNS resolver implementations. Such problems have required prompt action from many parties in order to reduce the University’s exposure to the threat, as exploits often appear in the wild within days of the initial announcement, or in some cases before any vulnerability has been announced.
The year has seen a number of new developments, notably a major upgrade to several critical back-end systems, allowing the team to monitor the University’s upgraded JANET connection and to handle the ever-increasing volumes of data collected. Further enhancements are planned over the coming months.
The OxCERT webpages have been redeveloped as part of the OUCS website. A new series of monthly reports and security advisories has been started, each accompanied by an RSS feed provided through OXITEMS. Documentation will be expanded as time permits.
The team interacts with other security groups, vendors, and law enforcement agencies in the UK and around the globe, either on a regular basis or in response to specific incidents, and has been represented at meetings and conferences on a local, national, and international level.
The team assists the ITS3 section with the handling of copyright violation notices, which arrive at an average rate of two per week, although at times the rate is considerably higher. In two recent cases the accuracy of the data in the notices was called into question, while a study at the University of Washington has raised doubts regarding the detection methods used. We await feedback from the rights holders as to what steps are being taken to avoid this problem in future.
The team has also been involved in a a pilot project to enable examination papers in preparation (and other sensitive information) to be distributed securely by electronic means; work on this continues but has encountered numerous technical problems and deficiencies in the software used.
During the past year the Help Centre has undergone a period of changes and expansion. This started with a merger of the OUCS Shop and Help Centre in August 2007 under the management of the Help Centre co-managers. The Shop was physically moved into the Help Centre at the end of October, improving the interaction between Shop and Help Desk and allowing staff from both services to start assisting each other. Changes continued with a farewell to Peter Higginbotham, who decided to take early retirement in April 2008, and is much missed. He has not been replaced directly: instead, the post of deputy Help Centre Manager was created. The most recent changes stem from the closure of the OUCS Shop counter (see the Shop report for more details) and have resulted in the following services now being included in the Help Centre:
We continue to find it very difficult to analyse the data on Help Desk usage because of the high proportion of queries emailed from non-University addresses and a drop in the use of our online help form. We can say with confidence, however, that the number of emailed queries (including those using the help form) has risen by almost 12% and that staff, postgraduates, and members of congregation continue to be the biggest user groups (see table below). The marked drop in the number of appointments booked with specialists has two causes: appointments for hardware problems were replaced in May 2007 by an enquiry form and this data shows the first full year without such appointments. In addition, the skills and experience of the Help Desk staff have increased to the point where they can handle a larger number of issues without having to resort to specialists. This is a very encouraging trend, making IT problem-handling more efficient both for the user and OUCS.
The data from queries channelled through the help form shows that the colleges and divisions account for the highest use of the Help Desk, generating over 85% of the queries (see table below). The Department of Continuing Education leads the field of other affiliations, having overtaken Academic Services from last year.
The most noticeable change in the type of queries handled by the Help Desk is a growth in the percentage of both general software and VPN-related questions. VPN queries have chiefly increased due to difficulties with the early versions of VPN for Vista. Vista questions also partly account for the software query increase because operating system problems are included in this category. The other main contributor is Mac OS X, as the help desk is increasingly called on to help with start-up and configuration problems of Apple Macs. For next year we plan to break down our logging by operating system.
Both the hardware repairs and upgrades, and data recovery/installation services, have experienced an increased demand this year. A total of 306 machines were handled, which is an increase of 13% over last year. Of these, 78% were PCs and 18% were Apple Macs. The remainder were peripheral devices and machine examinations for the preparation of reports for use by insurance companies. Perhaps the most unusual work undertaken was to remove a large number of African ants from inside a laptop, many of which were still alive. Remarkably, the machine remained in a working condition throughout the period of infestation.
Many student owned machines are laptops where their portability is appreciated. Indeed, only 7% of the total number were desktops. Judging by the increasing numbers of external hard drives encountered, there seems to be a greater awareness of the advantages of backing up data to safeguard against hard drive failure. Recent trends towards the use of solid state drives, which would lessen this risk because of their increased reliability, are still being held back by high prices.
Conversely, the falling prices of laptops have tended to limit the scope for extensive repairs of these machines. There is a critical cost where it is economically preferable to discard the existing machine in favour of purchasing a new one. Increasingly demanding software and hardware obsolescence hastens this decision. We have noticed that more owners accept the need to balance the cost of repairing a machine against the price of purchasing a new one, particularly as it can be a straightforward matter to convert data between differing file formats, even when using different hardware platforms.
In cases where software corruption has been responsible for the machine’s malfunction, our data recovery and install service has become popular, accounting for 22% of our caseload. Where the laptop or desktop is beyond economical repair and the hard drive has been unaffected by the malfunction, data can be retrieved for the owner. Software corruption or a severely infected operating system can be cured by replacing the operating system and reinstating personal data.
It has again been a busy year for registration. We continue to look for ways of reducing the manual operations needed by the front desk by automating more processes and devolving management to the user and to ITSS for managing usernames, email addresses, remote access accounts, TSM registration, software downloads.
|Reporting Year||No of RT Tickets|
A total of 37,498 (38,933) Single Sign-On (SSO) accounts are being maintained — 86 (88) percent of which have been activated. An SSO account gives access to many applications such as Weblearn, software downloads, OxCort tutorial reporting, external journals etc. (Last year’s figures are given in brackets.)
Over the last year the following domains have been created: alumni, careers, gtc, education, ludwig, manor-road, msdtc, odit, ouam, oxford-man, smithschool. The following domains have been removed or are winding down: brazil, cas, edstud, green, greyfriars, online, templeton.
Registration has been managing the wind-down of oxford.ac.uk email addresses over the last 4 years. There are currently an additional 17,244 long form email addresses being managed, not counted in the figures above, which are due to be deleted in January 2009.
An SSO account is now created for users with Card Holder card status, so that ITSS can allow them into local applications such as meal bookings. Users with Card Holder status (unlike those with Virtual Access status) have a physical card.
New facilities are now available for ITSS, allowing them to see their users’ data and apply for project accounts. Also, additional data about the states of TSM backup is now available both to help desk staff and to the users themselves via self registration.
The move towards greater automation continues: automated notification of expiry of email addresses (in addition to expiry warnings for University cards and SSO accounts) is now provided; account/address wind-down is now an automated nightly job (rather than a monthly manual job); more software is now available for download through self-registration; and we again extended the project times for all undergraduates applying to return as postgraduates so that their accounts did not expire on 31st August, thus saving many ad hoc requests for account extensions.
- implementing Proctors’ decisions on rusticated students’ access to resources;
- mass mailing for Central Admin (e.g. Vice Chancellor, Academic Registrar, Public Affairs Directorate, etc.);
- a Wake-On-LAN (WOL) project which will allow registered machines to be woken remotely if needed, e.g. for backup or patching;
- the Core User Directory project;
- payroll replacement procurement (i.e. HR review);
- OSS web services evaluation; and
- liaison with Academic Administration, Conference of Colleges, and IT Support Staff.
Over the past year we have been investigating provision of a new Content Management System for OUCS websites. An internal survey, analysis of systems used elsewhere in the University, and evaluation of shortlisted systems have led to a much better understanding of our needs. In preparation for changes, we have gradually replaced all web forms which depend on our current AxKit delivery system with a more generic system.
- advising departments on use of the Google Search Appliance, which was upgraded to a capacity of 1 million documents during the year;
- enhancing and promoting the OXITEMS system, notably for use with the iTunes U podcasting system;
- assisting other groups within OUCS, on:
The Research Technologies Service provides a service for Oxford University staff and students which consists of a centre of expertise in a range of services: research facilities, support services and information, advice and support for research projects. The RTS service has a remit which covers Oxford University and the following areas:
During this year the RTS has developed an integrated research project advice and assistance facility. This has been set up under four research categories which follow the usual research project progression:
During the year the Oxford Text Archive has had reduced funding; this has meant that the service provided has been restricted to the depositing of specific, funded, or pre-arranged resources. A research award enabled the purchase of equipment which allowed the continuation of a limited service and for further storage facilities.
Projects which have continued from last year include eIUS Infrastructure Use Cases and Service Usage Models and the Bridging the Interoperability Divide (BID); the latter was completed during the year. Work is also continuing on the British National Corpus and the TEI initiative. Ongoing research projects across OUCS include the Low Carbon ICT project, the Groupware project, Modelling4All, Phoebe, Thema and the SACODEYL project; all of these are detailed in the report section.
Several European projects are being undertaken by OUCS with a range of European partners. These include CLARIN, DARIAH, and ENRICH; and others are under consideration by the European Commission.
Projects have been funded by a number of research organisations including the AHRC, JISC, and Eduserve. Staff contributions to other projects within the University include: Low Carbon ICT; Scoping digital repository services for research data management (with OeRC); and Virtual Research Environments. Research links with the Oxford e-Research Centre (OeRC) have continued with joint research funding applications, liaison and director posts, and collaborative projects such as Shibboleth deployment, digital repositories, and e-infrastructure usage. Several departments and the Oxford Internet Institute have also been involved with joint bid submissions.
Michaelmas 2007 saw the WebLearn migration project get into gear with awareness-raising activities and the launch of pre-pilots. This has inevitably affected usage of WebLearn, with some Units choosing to hold back to some extent in using the present service and try new areas in the Beta service.
Even so the past year has seen usage fairly well sustained for the existing service; consideration of usage in Week 1 of Trinity 2007 has seen dips in the number of visitors and visits in terms of accesses counterbalanced by increases in the pages accessed.
|October 2004||November 2005||July 2006||July 2007||June 2008|
|No. Floors in Academic Units||50||65||77||89||104|
|(of which Colleges)||(4)||(9)||(14)||(19)||(30)|
The table shows that accesses from within Oxford are c. 75% of the total, so the majority of users are still the staff and students of the University. However, the number of distinct search queries resulting in WebLearn accesses indicates the continued widening of resources.
The IT Learning Programme (ITLP) is part of the Learning Technologies Group (LTG). Led by a team of experienced teachers, the ITLP offers a wide range of IT courses and ensures that the course programme reflects the needs of the University and meets the requirements of staff and students. The ITLP programme is run with both technological and pedagogical proficiency. The academic year 2007-08 has been another record year for the provision of IT courses to students and staff. The ITLP team delivered over 150 modules per term to over 12,000 course participants.
|3 hour sessions||5,252|
In addition to our regular programme of courses, we are able to create ‘closed’ courses built according to the specific needs of a faculty or department. These specialised courses are aimed at graduates, undergraduates and/or University staff. In 2007-08 we delivered 21 such courses, totalling 132 hours, to 513 members of Oxford University. Some of our tailor-made courses have proved so successful that they have then become part of the regular curriculum for a number of University departments.
We continue to deliver the Skills Toolkit for Research Students. This is a one-day workshop, in collaboration with the Careers and Library Services. The workshop is designed to present a selection of some of the University’s most useful resources for researchers through a variety of interactive sessions. These sessions offer insights into the use of familiar tools (mainly electronic) as well as introducing some novel approaches to streamlining research activities. The sponsorship of £500 per workshop from Adept Scientific along with £2,000 per year from the Graduate Skills Group to cover our running costs has been secured for future workshops.
In 2007-08 Breakfast at OUCS has run 3 times. Every new member of staff in any department or service of Oxford University has been invited. Over croissants and coffee, we introduce staff members to many important services at OUCS; to the cutting-edge lecture rooms and other facilities; and to the IT Learning Programme and its innovative use of educational technology.
Our student feedback system (Ostrakon) allows us to continue to maintain the highest level of teaching excellence. Ostrakon is a powerful tool that helps us to recognize and encourage quality and to determine areas that require attention. Feedback is provided instantly through a web interface and by email, without the need to collect and digitize paper questionnaires. Student comments and overall summaries are generated automatically. A number of Colleges and departments have now adopted Ostrakon for their student feedback systems.
Details of all our courses are available through the A-Z listing on our website at http://www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/itlp
Our Thames Suite of four lecture rooms combines an exceptionally high standard of computer and presentation facilities with innovative room design and layout to provide a professional environment for both learning and presenting.
Designed specifically to meet the needs of teachers and students, presenters and audiences, the suite’s integral flexibility enables each of the rooms to be adapted easily to suitable configurations for computer training, seminars, presentations, workshops or conferences. Our flexible accommodation and high specifications have made it a venue that is much sought after by departments that need to host IT-oriented events, and it is increasingly being used by external organisations. All Thames Suite facilities are maintained to a very high standard.
- Area Studies
- BSP (for training on financial systems)
- Central Admin (Finance, Personnel, Student Admin, HERA, Heidi)
- Centre for Evidence Based Medicine
- Mansfield College
- Public and Primary Health
- Welcome Trust
Learning Technology 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. Key work has included preparing the transition for departments to move to the next generation of the institutional learning environment WebLearn Beta. This pilot work has involved the selection of early adopters, and running training sessions and outreach activities to pilot all the new features of this institutional software. There has also been a regular training series to help relieve the administrative burden of staff 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 (http://thema.oucs.ox.ac.uk/) — a longitudinal study exploring the experiences of students in technology rich environments at Oxford. We are also collaborating with TALL at Continuing Education on a number of projects, including looking at user-owned social technologies and the Design 4 Learning Pedagogic Planner project. This project work (described more fully in separate entries) has informed OUCS’s work on good practice in the effective use of IT in teaching and learning.
A major initiative in this period has been preparing the technical architecture for providing a University-wide podcasting service. By providing advice, audio/video encoding engines and an RSS podcasting framework this has allowed departments to adopt a standard workflow for releasing audio and video content into a new web portal: http://podcasts.ox.ac.uk/. The core of the work has been made possible through additions to the RSS service OXITEMS by the OUCS Information Services Team. This initiative has created a unique portfolio of teaching and outreach material and for the first time allowed access to key audio and video material through a single institutional standards-based web portal.
LTG Services also plays a role in disseminating best practice in learning and teaching. Activities include: 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. The section also runs two annual conferences. This year’s Shock of the Old conference focused on Web 2.0 social technologies, and the Beyond Digital Natives conference looked at developments in the student experience of ICT. Finally, LTG Services lent its expertise to teach on and help support the Master’s degree course in e-Learning at the Department of Educational Studies.
Following a review of ACDT in the middle of the year the divisions felt that the services offered by the ACDT were no longer needed (or should be pay-per-use), and that the resources used for such a service could be better employed. When the ACDT was formed ten years ago there was no access to generalised services as now offered by systems such as WebLearn, but times have changed. The resources have been reallocated within OUCS.
- WebLearn usability study
- This looked at usability aspects of Sakai and made recommendations as to the needed improvements for accessibility.
- Poetic Miscellanies database
- This project provided a database structure for capture of information of the extensive poetic miscellanies in the Library.
- Zoology distribution of infectious diseases modelling study
- This project investigated the way that the current model for disease prediction operated and produced a detailed schema to allow it to be ported to the web.
- Online Language teaching
- This was a multimedia project which allowed for Chinese language teaching. It is currently being quality assured for release as open source.
- Design of Museums booking system
- In collaboration with the Pitt Rivers Museum and Museum of Natural History a design was produced to allow capture of all the requisite information for bookings, reporting etc. No off-the-shelf package was found that could meet all requirements.
- Bodleian Integrated Documentation System scoping
- After the initial consultations this project was closed.
- Western Manuscripts at Christchurch: an online catalogue
- This project was scoped, and a quote was produced, but it was shelved pending raising of funding.
The 2007-08 year has been one of numerous changes for the Computing Services Shop. The reporting year opened with new management, the shop having moved in OUCS’s internal structure to merge with the Help Centre. This change followed on from last year’s ‘front of house’ services review, with the aim of making more effective use of the shop counter staff and full-time help desk personnel. A physical move followed at the end of October, making the Shop more visible in a new location within the Help Centre. This brought the two staff groups closer together and improved the interaction between the two services and also the Poster Printing Service.
Unfortunately shop counter sales of IT accessories have been decreasing over the past few years, largely due to the convenience and competitive pricing of online alternatives. Although the new location showed a slight increase in sales, they no longer justify the 2+ shop counter posts necessary to run the service. A decision was made in Hilary term to restructure the way in which the OUCS Shop services are offered. The changes agreed were as follows:
A vending machine capable of dispensing delicate items such as hard drives would be installed in the Help Centre in mid-September. Laptops can be ordered via the machine and then delivered to the address specified. The vending machine will provide the top-selling shop counter items without the man-power requirement.
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 29,159 software licenses were issued 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. 5,683 licenses were added during the year; the rental charge was £295,048.
The budget for site-licensed software used throughout the University currently stands at £98,345. Products include SPSS, EndNote, Exceed, and Sophos for which 3,237 licenses (in total) were added this year.
OUCS also administers various software contracts on behalf of groups of departments to assist in gaining more favourable pricing; this year £51,744 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, anywhere in the mainland UK, by the next business day after a fault being reported; 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 continues to fall, caused by a general trend in the industry of providing at least three year warranties as standard; in the case of equipment purchased by the ICT Support Team, a four year warranty is purchased. 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 less likely to have alternative breakdown cover and is often critically inconvenienced by hardware failure. The marketing and incentive program that has been running over the last year to encourage student uptake is continuing.
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;
The OUCS includes the Data Centre (formerly known as the Machine Room or Computer Room), housing servers, network equipment, and storage systems that enable the provision of all OUCS’s online services. A small, dedicated team monitors the mechanical and electrical infrastructure; handles manual backup rotation (including at our offsite tape store); and operates the large-format printing services.
During 2007-08 OUCS contributed to a feasibility study for a new, shared University data centre. Towards the end of the year, PRAC approved the allocation of funding to a Central Machine Room project (http://www.ict.ox.ac.uk/odit/projects/CentralMachineRoom/), under the aegis of ODIT and the Estates Directorate. The project includes, in the first instance, a project design phase for the refurbishment of the OUCS Data Centre. The refurbishment project is likely to start in 09/10 and will allow the existing facilities to meet the standards for a modern data centre, including better resilience and energy efficiency. In the meantime, OUCS continues to work with OUED and its contractors to ensure the continued maintenance of power and cooling systems.
NSMS activities have continued to expand steadily over the last year. This has required expansion of the team to 11 FTE. Approximately .7 FTE of the team is allocated to OUCS projects, including involvement with the Podcast Producer project. The continued growth in scale and complexity of activities led to the decision to take on a full time administrator who is responsible for day-to-day financial management and budgeting, customer relations, and assistance with team work management.
At the end of the last year, a ‘VM for rent’ service was introduced; demand for this prototype service has now reached the capacity of the initial resource, so plans for its expansion and further development are now being considered. Towards the end of this year a prototype Request Tracker service was developed with a view to launching it for general use later in the year. The Request Tracker system is already familiar to many IT support staff, who are using their own implementation. However, there is interest in a fully managed and secure centrally provided service for those without the resources to do it for themselves. Furthermore, we are providing information about the service to non-IT staff as the facilities are relevant to many service providers that need to track interactions with their customer base.
For some years now, NSMS has been making a major commitment to the use of virtualisation and has developed the leading expertise within the University in VMware ESX technology. The availability of this expertise has lead to NSMS involvement in a major virtualisation project with BSP and ICT ST. They have over 200 physical servers for which hardware replacement plans had to be made and they decided to transfer the services to a virtual infrastructure. That in itself was fundamentally a straightforward project, but NSMS also suggested investigating extending the scope of the project to encompass a high availability option by incorporating a dual site design. The result of this was a very exciting and innovative project involving the provision of two server farms and their SAN infrastructure, at two sites, one of which is at OUCS, with dedicated, dual, independently routed fibre links between the sites, running at 10 Gb/s. The network connectivity between the sites permitted synchronous storage replication between the sites. The communications infrastructure required for this design was available at little capital cost to the project because of the fibre optic infrastructure that the University has developed throughout the city; it was a very simple matter to exploit available dark fibre to provide the high performance inter-site connections. Without this existing infrastructure, it would have required a considerable expense to provide the links and this aspect of the design would almost certainly not have been achievable. The installation of the system was carried out by the NSMS team and it was completed on time in July 08. The NSMS team is managing the virtual, storage and network infrastructure of the production system. This leaves BSP and ICT staff free to concentrate on the transfer of their services to this new, highly resilient virtual environment.
A number of colleges and departments have started to virtualise their infrastructure and the NSMS team has been involved in a number of these projects, advising on system design, implementation and trouble shooting. A VMware emergency support service, designed to support these environments, will be launched later in the year.
The table below shows the distribution of NSMS income by University division, college and other groupings. The Central Administration group includes the following departments: Careers Service, Counselling Service, Development Office, Examination Schools, Occupational Health, Oxford Learning Institute, PRAS, Public Affairs Directorate, Safety Office, Sheldonian, Sports, University Club.
ITS3 has had another busy and productive year. 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 2007 and the 2008 ICT Forum conference in July. This was the largest event of its type ever with 330 attendees. Social events continue to gain in popularity and it is pleasing to see them being arranged by ITSS outside of OUCS as well as by ITS3. The ITSS Summer Barbecue in August, held at the Institute of Anthropology, was a huge success again and the rain held off for most of the evening.
ITS3 continues to provide a large number of seminars, with six ‘lunch & learn’ sessions happening in the last year, providing 110 person-hours of training. Bought-in courses have increased greatly in number, with the following having been run in the last year:
- TCPIP Networking +
- Altiris SVS hands-on
- SQL 2005 administration
- Supporting Vista Desktop (x2)
- Active Directory Design and Implementation
- Linux Administration
- Security +
- Windows 2003 administration
- Tailored Network +
- Ethical Hacking
A VMWARE fast-track course was successfully provided at the end of this report’s period. Running these courses in Oxford saves the collegiate University significant amounts of money in travel and accommodation expenses and adds considerable value to the experience as it enables Oxford IT Staff to train together and build rapport so they can continue to benefit from the training after the end of the course.
Several one-off seminars have been given including the pre-term roundup in September 2007, and several briefings from OUCS/ICTST staff including Sophos and MacOS 10.5 (Leopard). ITSS induction has taken place 3 times and 40 new IT staff have been inducted. Some ITSS events were organised outside of OUCS including a session about Oxford Supercomputing at Begbroke and one about Subversion SVN at the department of Statistics.
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 400 certificates have been issued saving Oxford in the order of £100,000 at average prices. ITS3 is extremely grateful for the help provided by ITSS in dealing promptly with copyright infringements and the reduction in risk to the University this represents.
The Head of ITS3 continues to serve on the UCISA Staff Development Group (SDG) and its subgroup for distributed IT Support Staff. ITS3 acts as the contact point for the OUCS British Computer Society Group and plans to expand this group to the wider University in late 2008.
The ITS3 administrator has been working approximately half-time since October 2007 and this has had some impact on ITS3 services. This situation will be resolved soon after the end of this reporting period thus allowing ITS3 to continue to develop and expand.
During 2007-08 the ICT Support Team (ICTST) did a major update of the documentation for the Sophos (http://www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/viruses/) and the Active Directory (http://www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/windows/active/) services. The ICTST also made available new products from Sophos that were included in the recent software licence negotiation conducted by the OUCS software licensing team. The Sophos licence has now been extended until September 2013 and includes the following additional products: NAC Manager (endpoint security tool); Mobile Security for Windows 5/6; and Puremessage (anti-virus and anti-spyware tool for Microsoft Exchange).
The Enhanced Computing Environment (ECE) project continued to deliver improvements for the three central departments of the University. The Virtual Infrastructure project delivered a new enterprise standard server and data storage infrastructure which was built in collaboration with OUCS and NSMS. This is a redundant system split across two geographically distinct sites in order to provide resilience and to facilitate maintenance during normal working hours. The hardware runs VMware software which allows existing physical servers to be consolidated and will allow more efficient use of hardware. The Virtual Infrastructure also includes a Storage Area Network (SAN) which is expected to improve the efficiency and reliability of data storage for our users. The key advantages of the new virtual infrastructure are improved reliability, more efficient use of resources, reduced disruption to users, and ease of provisioning servers for new services.
Further improvements have been made in the systems and procedures used to manage desktop computers. The Altiris Helpdesk has now been rolled out to all three central departments, i.e. OULS, UAS (formerly Central Administration), and OUCS. An Altiris team was formed to develop training and to deliver small projects that will contribute to a managed desktop service for the three central departments.
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.
A number of projects have run throughout the year including a prize draw to promote the relocation of the OUCS shop to within the Help Centre, and rebranding of the OUCS web pages to provide a clearer, more consistent look to the different sections. A number of posters advertising OUCS services and sections have been put up in the Reception area and a project to improve the content and design of the display screens in Reception and the Refreshment Area is under way. This should improve the visibility, clarity, timeliness, and relevance of the information displayed.
OUCS regularly provides reports to University committees and groups, such as the ICT Forum. Work has been done on ‘Introduction to OUCS’ presentations: OUCS can supply a person to give an illustrated talk or others can use our Powerpoint slides in their own presentation. ‘Breakfast at OUCS’ events give new staff an overview of the department, and we have worked with the Public Affairs Directorate on IT-related content for the new Staff Gateway.
Regular adverts in Blueprint in the last year have promoted: the shop prize draw; the new Web Design Consultancy service; The Great War Archive project’s call for contributions; NSMS IT consultancy and server management services; how to access Herald email on mobile devices; the Groupware project and request for participation; Intute’s expert-evaluated web resources; and international conferences run by OUCS.
A new venture was using the online social networking site Facebook to advertise to members of the Oxford network (i.e. people with ox.ac.uk email addresses). Also new was the use of laptops to gather data on students’ IT use and experience electronically at Freshers’ Fair. Both of these were successful and will be developed and extended in the future.
We carried out 16 recruitment exercises during the period, which resulted in new job opportunities for three existing staff; and we welcomed eight new members. Some posts had to be advertised twice before being successfully filled, and there are others where the chosen candidate has not joined us yet. We said goodbye to nine members of staff, four of whom retired.
The ICT Support Team has increased in number from 27 to 29. One person left and they advertised posts on five occasions. Like OUCS they found it hard to recruit new members of staff through advertising during this year and resorted to using agencies.
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.
Bridging the Interoperability Divide (BID) is a collaborative project led by OULS in partnership with OUCS and the Oxford eResearch Centre (OeRC). The aim of the project is to provide interoperability between the Oxford University Research Archive (ORA) and other repository services, in particular Weblearn and the OeRC’s OxGrid Storage Resource Broker. In this period OUCS has focused on enabling the creation of reading lists via a search facility in WebLearn, and the provision of an OAI-PMH (Open Archives Initiative Protocol for Metadata Harvesting) resource discovery interface.
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. Last 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. Distribution of that version began in March 2007, with a special offer for existing subscribers.
During the year covered by this report, distribution of the BNC has continued, with 250 copies sold worldwide. In addition, OUCS staff (Lou Burnard and Ylva Berglund) have given one day workshops on its use at a number of conferences worldwide.
BNC Baby, a four million word extract from the complete corpus, has also continued to be very popular, particularly for teaching purposes. A new edition of this product was produced at the end of the year.
The Core User Directory (CUD) Project, operating under the aegis of ODIT, is developing a pilot directory service which provides a minimal set of attributes and a unique identifier for any individual who has a defined relationship with the University. Currently, various, disparate systems across the University store data about individuals, without any coherent information flow. OUCS is building on the experience of the Registration and Oak LDAP services to deploy a pilot system. During this reporting period OUCS seconded a member of staff who worked in collaboration with a member of staff from BSP to define the existing processes and requirements. A facilitated workshop in May 2008 assisted in refining and scoping the project further. The work of the project is directed by the CUD Working Party, with representation from across the collegiate University.
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. During this period the project published a detailed scoping study which includes a description of the project’s methodology, and a number of use cases (or scenarios) that summarise, in narrative form, the real-life use of e-infrastructure in various subject areas. The project has also actively contributed to the definition of service usage models within the research domain. The project is funded until March 2009, by which time a substantial number of interviews with researchers will have taken place, and a body of use cases published. The project is one of three projects funded by the JISC within its Community Engagement strand and is undertaken in partnership with the National Centre for e-Social Science (NCeSS) in Manchester.
The objective of the ENRICH project is to create a base for the European digital library of cultural heritage (manuscript, incunabula, early printed books, archival papers etc.) by integration of existing but scattered electronic content within the Manuscriptorium digital library. This will be achieved through enriching metadata, and coordination of heterogeneous metadata and data standards.
- creating a profile of the Text Encoding Initiative schema, with documentation and training materials, for manuscript description;
- writing a conversion system to TEI from records created under an earlier initiative, MASTER;
- assisting with OAI harvesting, and relationship between TEI and other metadata standards.
Groupware is software which helps users to work collaboratively within groups, and includes: email, on-line calendar, shared documents, workflows, web pages, shared contact lists and on-line collaborative tools.
The importance of a Groupware solution for the collegiate University was identified in the IT Strategic Plan (http://www.ict.ox.ac.uk/strategy/plan/plan.xml?ID=S5), cf Paragraph 250: ‘the University will need to review, as a matter of urgency, its Groupware solution (e.g. an integrated email, calendaring, scheduling, and messaging system). It is also clear that sectors of the University require a Groupware solution to be supplied, and there is a need for an online environment to help embed post graduate students.’ The Director of IT was asked by the University to establish the requirements for a Groupware solution for the collegiate University, and to coordinate the deployment of the subsequent Groupware service.
A high priority throughout the Groupware exercise has been to engage the collegiate University and to make all processes, documentation and decisions accessible. (Full documentation is available at: http://www.ict.ox.ac.uk/odit/projects/groupware/.) The initial step was to engage a wide cross-section of users to determine collaborative IT requirements for staff and students at Oxford.
- an email system confirming to current industry standards and including a rich set of features;
- a contact list facility which is searchable, exportable, importable, and shareable;
- a calendaring and resource booking system, supporting sharing of data and synchronization;
- a shared data repository enabling individuals and groups within the University to store, retrieve, and maintain documents flexibly and securely across different platforms.
Much time and effort was input by both OUCS members and others from across the University to reach this point. The next phase is to implement the recommended solutions; this will be driven forward by OUCS, but reporting back to the Project Board which represents the collegiate University. It is hoped that migration of users from Herald will take place over the summer of 2009.
The Low Carbon ICT project is funded by the JISC to run from October 2007 for 18 months. The project is a collaboration between the Oxford e-Research Centre (OeRC), the Centre for the Environment (OUCE) and the Computing Services (OUCS). The aim is to develop a new service provided by OUCS that supports colleges and departments in managing their desktop computers, reducing electricity costs, and minimising the CO2 emissions that result from the use and manufacture of desktop computers.
To achieve this the project team is developing a system that allows end-users and IT Support Officers to switch computers on remotely. With this facility in place it will be possible for heads of departments and colleges to encourage staff and students to switch computers off each evening. This is currently not advisable because occasionally patches need to be installed overnight, and some people need to get access to files on their desktop computer (for instance when they are away at a conference). To satisfy these requirements computers are normally left on.
In terms of cost savings, computers left on throughout the year consume about £50, while with effective power management this figure is likely to be £15 per year. This cost saving is most sensitive to the price paid by departments and colleges for a kWh of electricity.
- a simulation that allows members of departments and colleges to estimate the savings they could make with respect to financial costs and CO2;
- advice and guidance on how to set up a system of metering that can be used to validate and monitor progress against what has been predicted using the simulation;
- technical support in terms of a service that allows individual and groups of computers to be woken on request;
- policy advice in terms of supporting staff and students in minimising the impact of their computers on the environment and reducing electricity costs.
OSS Watch is a JISC-funded innovation support centre. We provide advice, guidance and support to UK Further and Higher Education wishing to engage with open source software development and use. OSS Watch has been hosted by OUCS since its inception in 2003.
In the last year we have published over 25 documents, including fully researched briefing notes, interviews with key open source leaders (including Richard Stallman, the ‘father’ of Free Software), conference reports, and case studies. These publications have covered issues such as sustainable open source development, community management and engagement, IPR management, and commercialisation of open source solutions.
- Project development
- 19 face-to-face project consultations; over 50 telephone and/or email consultations; a conference on procuring open source at the institutional level; 10 smaller focused workshops (4 specifically for Oxford); and representation at over 20 third-party events (both national and international).
- Knowledge transfer
- engaged with a significant number of institutions directly (including Oxford) plus engagement with services such as JISC legal and ISIS Innovation.
- Liason and collaboration
- assisted 29 organisations education focused in their engagement with open source development, use or exploitation (including Research Services in Oxford).
Finally, at the end of this period we secured increased funding for a further two years and have begun working towards becoming a fully sustainable support centre for projects both here in Oxford and nationally.
The Oxford e-Research Centre (OeRC) works with research units across the whole of Oxford University to facilitate the use and development of innovative computational and information technology in multidisciplinary collaborations. OUCS works closely with OeRC via a liaison officer and via a number of initiatives, shared projects, and joint management structures. The most important projects in which the two departments are currently collaborating are Bridging the Interoperability Divide (BID). Low Carbon ICT, e-Infrastructure Use Cases and Service Usage Models (eIUS), and the UK Research Data Survey (UKRDS). Less formal collaborations are also taking place to develop e-Research projects involving the Humanities, and to build digital infrastructures and tools for Humanities research.
The Oxford Text Archive (OTA) is one of the main architects of CLARIN, a European infrastructure project committed to establishing a research infrastructure for language resources. CLARIN is part of the European Roadmap for Research Infrastructures (which now includes the social sciences and the humanities for the first time) and is funded by the European Commission as a preparatory phase infrastructure project. This project is all about preparing a plan for constructing a research infrastructure that will remove the many technical, legal, and administrative barriers with which potential users of electronic language resources are faced today. The OTA is the UK representative for CLARIN, and aims to be one of the pillars of the proposed network of service centres.
At the national level in the UK, the need for services and infrastructure to support research in the Humanities is not so well recognised by funders. For a dozen years the OTA hosted the centre for literary and linguistic computing resources as part of the Arts and Humanitities Data Service (AHDS), with funding from the JISC, and in latter years from the AHRC. The AHRC and the JISC ceased support for the AHDS in March 2008, and the AHDS has ceased to exist. However, the Oxford Text Archive continues to archive, preserve, and distribute literary and linguistic resources. Building on numerous current projects and strong links with many academic communities, the OTA is looking forward to a vigorous future in the expanding areas associated with digital resources and infrastructures. The OTA will continue to exist within OUCS as a source of advice, help, and expertise with digital projects in the Humanities, and as a digital repository for research data in literary and linguistic areas. The OTA will continue to co-operate and collaborate with other research archives in the Humanities, and with centres of expertise in the digital humanities in the UK.
The JISC-funded XCRI project developed data formats for the eXchange of Course Related Information. The pilot project funded at OUCS completed its work on schedule in October 2007 and reported on its experiences at a JISC workshop. The XCRI Implementation Models Report (June 2008) (http://www.jisc.ac.uk/media/documents/programmes/elearningcapital/ximfinalreport.pdf) reported that OXCRI seemed to be the most successful project in terms of implementation. Helped by a very high level of technical knowledge and understanding, the project was able to implement the use of XCRI for aggregation of data between internal systems, to produce a new skills portal for the University, and to create a new value-added service combining XCRI courses data with Google maps.
The Podcasting project was established in April 2008 with the aim of allowing departments and colleges to serve podcasts — RSS feeds of audiovisual material — through a single standards-based web portal. The Information Services Team and LTG Services have worked closely together to develop the technical and procedural infrastructures required to facilitate this, including:
- developing the existing OXITEMS service to support the creation and editing of RSS feeds with audiovisual content;
- setting up a limited service where departments can store audiovisual material if they lack local resources to do so;
- establishing a workflow for the submission, review, and publication of podcasts;
- building a framework for reviewing podcasts prior to publication and flagging any problems of quality or content (in the trial stage of the project, this moderation was carried out by members of OUCS);
- producing guidelines on recording, editing, and publishing audiovisual material;
- running numerous training and dissemination events to develop the podcasting initiative throughout the University.
There has been a good initial takeup of this service, with all divisions and many colleges being well represented in the material available for download. Demand for this project has been considerable, and OUCS is seeking funds to turn this into a proper service.
The Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) project was established in 2006 with the aim of addressing the issue of secure transmission of sensitive documents via email, especially exam papers in preparation. At present exam papers are not allowed to be transferred by email according to the regulations (under the Governance of the Proctors). Following an initial trial at OUCS and the Faculty of Law, permission was granted by the Proctors Office to run a full working trial of PGP Universal Server to offer email encryption.
Phoebe was a collaboration between the Learning Technologies Group and Technology-Assisted Lifelong Learning (Department of Continuing Education). Its brief was to build a tool to guide practitioners working in post-compulsory learning (FE, HE and ACL) in designing effective and pedagogically sound learning activities. During this year we completed development of our second prototype tool and evaluated it with experienced practitioners, as well as trainee lecturers, at workshops in Oxford, Greenwich, Brighton, Swansea and Birmingham. The project attracted much interest both in the UK and worldwide, with teachers and researchers contacting us from as far afield as the USA, Brazil and Australia.
The project team continued to work closely with a parallel project at the London Knowledge Lab (Institute of Education), and bid successfully with the LKL and four other institutions for a 3-year, £1.5million project funded under ESRC/EPSRC TEL-2 programme to develop a Learning Design Support Environment. The project will be led by Professor Diana Laurillard and will start on 1 September 2008.
The First World War Poetry Digital Archive project commenced in April 2007, funded by the JISC Digitisation Programme. 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 contain 4,000 items of primary source material (poetry manuscripts, letters, service documents etc.) from some of the major British poets from the First World War including Wilfred Owen, Isaac Rosenberg, Edward Thomas, Robert Graves, Vera Brittain, and Roland Leighton. This will be supplemented by a comprehensive range of multimedia artefacts (photographs, audio and video) from the Imperial War Museum, and a set of specially developed educational resources.
In addition the project ran The Great War Archive initiative between March and June 2008, inviting the general public to submit digital copies of any items they held originating from the Great War via a special website and at submission day events. This received local and national press coverage, and in total over 6,500 items were submitted. This collection will be made freely available to all alongside the Poetry Archive.
Over the past year the project has continued to establish links with various other individuals, groups and institutions to help in the promotion of the project, and has, prior to its launch, already presented at a number of conferences. Podcasts have been made of a series of relevant lectures, events, and interviews with public figures, and made available on the project website and iTunes.
The First World War Poetry Digital Archive will be launched on 11 November 2008 to mark the 90th Anniversary of Armistice and will be freely accessible to all for non-commercial use in teaching, learning, and research. On its launch the archive will contain all collections and resources outlined in the original bid; however, due to its publicity, a number of other literary Estates have agreed to have their primary resources included in the archive (Ivor Gurney, Edmund Blunden, and David Jones). Furthermore, the project has been successful in receiving further funding from the JISC Digitisation programme to digitise the manuscripts of Siegfried Sassoon and work with Web 2.0 technologies to visualise the archive data in new and innovative ways to aid teaching, learning and research. This will extend the project until October 2009, by which point the archive will contain in the region of 16,000 digital items and a wealth of resources and tools for the study of the First World War and the literature that it inspired.
The aim of this three-year project has been to develop an ICT-based system for the assisted compilation and open distribution of European teenagers’ talk in the context of language education. The project has compiled spoken corpora for seven European languages and is now making these available in text, sound, and video format, together with language learning exercises based on the corpora. Tools, methods, and techniques developed for the project are also made available to facilitate future creation and use of similar corpus resources.
This year, OUCS has focused on the creation of the English corpus and corpus-based learning materials. 20 interviews have been recorded, edited, and transcribed and then annotated to facilitate exploration in a pedagogical context. A few hundred sample exercises have been developed based on the corpus, illustrating how the corpus and annotation can be explored in different language learning contexts. Information about the project and the available resources has been disseminated at a series of international conferences.
The project, which concludes on 31 September 2008, 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 the University of Murcia, Spain.
The Scoping Digital Repository Services for Research Data Management project is funded by the John Fell Fund through the ODIT. The project employs a Research Coordinator, based in the OeRC, who reports to the Head of Infrastructure Systems and Services, OUCS and the Keeper of Special Collections (Associate Director), Bodleian Library. The overall aim of the project is to document data management practices within the Oxford research community and to capture the requirements for future services to support data management, curation and preservation. The project has organised a workshop on research data management and published the Findings of the Scoping Study and Research Data Management Workshop.
Thema is part of JISC’s Learner Experiences of E-learning programme and is investigating how Master’s students at Oxford University use digital technologies in their academic and social lives. We have had a busy year, working with 22 full- and part-time students from courses in Education, Neuroscience, Immunology, Archaeology, and International Human Rights Law. They reported their experiences via an email correspondence with the research team over the first 7-8 months of their courses and then met with us for a face-to-face interview. We have also collected survey data from over 40 other students on these courses.
Initial findings suggest an enormous variation in students’ expertise in, and use of, digital technologies. For example, although most Master’s students appear to arrive in Oxford reasonably adept in their use of technology (e.g. over 90% have laptops), a small minority do not, and with heavy workloads lack the time to learn even essential tools such as PowerPoint and Excel. Students’ attitudes towards institutional provision — e.g. expectations that lecture notes and PowerPoint presentations should be uploaded to WebLearn, and that lectures should be podcast — and their insightful views of the benefits and drawbacks of using technology in their learning will, in due course, be fed into parallel initiatives within the University to promote teachers’ engagement with technology in their teaching.
We have given a number of talks and presentations within OUCS, and in July hosted a highly successful ‘Round Table’ for the five projects within the University that are investigating aspects of learners’ experience of digital technologies.
The main achievement of this year was the release of TEI P5 version 1.0 on 1 November 2007. Two more bug-fixing and enhancement releases were made in January and July 2008. Oxford has provided the main editorial input, maintenance of all the tools, and project management. The following staff from the RTS have worked on the TEI:
Sebastian Rahtz (Oxford representative to TEI Board of Directors): infrastructure tools, publication stylesheets, Roma schema interface (http://www.tei-c.org/Roma/), and teaching;
Two- and three-day courses on the TEI were taught by one or more of the above at the University of Maryland (October 2007), Poznan (December 2007), Taiwan (March 2008), Belgrade (June 2008), and Oxford (July 2008). Lou Burnard contributed to a one-day workshop on preservation of language resources at the LREC conference in May, and gave a one-day invited TEI workshop in Nice in April. Other conference presentations were given in Germany, Ireland, the USA, and Finland.
In April 2008, the TEI @ Oxford team started a project with the central secretariat of the International Standards Organisation to define a TEI profile for authoring ISO standards, and to develop tools for conversion to and from word-processor formats.
Over the last year, the VLE team has been developing two separate systems: the pilot WebLearn Beta service (based on the Sakai CLE) and, to a lesser extent, the current WebLearn service (based on Bodington VLE).
Enhancements to the current service have included a few bug fixes and user requests, as well as the introduction of new services to allow content and user group information to be moved to the upcoming new service.
Enhancements to the pilot service have centred on configuration, adding functionality to replicate facilities already available in the current service, services to aid the interoperability between the old and new WebLearn services and adding features that have been requested during user pilots or are required due to the unique nature of Oxford University.
Examples of work undertaken include: using the latest version of Sakai (v2.5 released in Spring 2008); translation of many tools to UK English; the introduction of a hierarchy service; provision of facilities necessary for content migration; and improvements in accessibility and general bug fixes.
A series of pilots have also been conducted: an early-bird phase ran from January 2008 to May 2008, which was followed by approximately 30 year-long pilots (of varying intensity) covering the areas of Teaching and Learning, Administration, and Research. In addition, a handful of ‘heads-up’ seminars and several training workshops have been held which between them have attracted over 200 attendees.
The Universities and Colleges Information Systems Association (UCISA) 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 fourteen events last year. These ranged from one day seminars covering subjects as diverse as innovation in communications through to desktop and applications virtualisation, to three multi-day conferences for directors of Information Services, heads of Corporate Information Services, and user support staff. During 2006-07 UCISA commissioned a new course targeted at technical staff with responsibility for services which aimed to help them better engage with their stakeholders. The course ran for the first time in the spring. UCISA has also formed a group to look at the leadership requirements of heads of services. The first in what promises to be an annual series of leadership events ran in January.
UCISA published a Best Practice Guide on Innovations and Communications, highlighting the approaches Information Services departments employ to communicate with their customers. Additionally UCISA issued guidance on the options available to institutions for access management and carried out a survey on technology enhanced learning. The results from this survey will be published in the second half of 2008.
UCISA represented the community in discussions with a number of Government departments and its agencies during 2007-08. Shared Services continues to top the agenda with UCISA being represented on the HEFCE Shared Services Advisory Group and taking part in discussions with suppliers. UCISA is also involved in discussions with the Home Office on the introduction of the new points based immigration system, and is on the steering group of the MIAP (Managing Information Across Partners) Programme.
Finally, UCISA responded to a number of consultations on behalf of the community on various topics including the student support regulations (DIUS), procurement (HEFCW), and the JANET Service Level Agreement.
XAIRA is a text searching program originally developed at OUCS for use with the British National Corpus (BNC) and subsequently revised as a general purpose open source XML search engine, usable on any corpus of well-formed XML documents.
During this year, we have put effort into enhancing the usability of the system’s PHP interface, so that it can act as a backend to web-based clients tailored to the needs of specific projects. The test vehicle for this development has been a major new online bilingual corpus of the Sanskrit classics. In addition, we have developed some new training materials, available from the project’s website.