OUCS Annual Report
Section 5: Client Computing
OUCS provides a wide range of services to support "client computing" - by which is meant, in this context, primarily personal computer usage. These services range from advice on purchase; the sale of computers, software and consumables; general trouble-shooting; virus protection and eradication; upgrades; bulk purchase of software and site-licensed software; maintenance cover; support of local networks; and a wealth of general advice and help.
It is thought that there are now some 25,000 computers installed and in use in the University [figure 14]. If the industry norm for numbers of computers per support staff is used (30-50), then there should be some 500-850 staff to support them. In fact, the number across the University and Colleges is several times smaller, giving (at very best, assuming all IT staff are committed to supporting only PCs) something like 100 computers per support staff (comparable to other universities); given the other functions that many staff support (especially in OUCS), then the load is probably more like 200 per staff member.
This heavy load means that every effort is made by OUCS to use its support staff in the most strategic fashion possible. This is exemplified in the following key services, many of which are designed to help local support staff, not always end users directly (as is the case also for the various direct help and information services outlined in the next section).
This service is based around a walk-in "surgery" run 3 afternoons a week, with experts on hand to answer any and all queries. These range from detailed advice on what computer to purchase, assistance in using supported software packages, recovery of files from a corrupted disk, diagnosis of failing software, recovery following a virus attack, etc.
During the year, steps were taken, by means of an automated fault logging and authentication system, to be ready for the changes to be brought in on 1-Aug-99. From that date, no undergraduate students would be allowed to use this service, and no staff (except for IT staff) from those departments which have opted out of using the OUCS Help services. The advice service is provided at all times to IT staff by phone and email, rather than in person.
Staff will not normally make visits to users' sites, but users are expected to bring their computers with them if they are needed to resolve the problem (this is not often the case). Equipment is available in the Micro consulting area for demonstrations, etc.
Increasingly, advice is consolidated and placed on the Web. The Micros pages are now very extensive (see http://www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/maintenance/). In addition, special attention is given to advising and helping IT staff, so that they are better equipped to deal with queries from users locally. This includes the above preparation of material, individual advice, delivering of seminars (see section 6), responding to queries on mailing lists and via that medium on reporting new initiatives, information and guidance of a general nature.
Work started during the year on endeavouring to log some of this advice and guidance, so that a better picture of needs can be built up, follow-up can be more assured, referrals can be more seamless and some idea gained of how demand is distributed across the University. It is too early yet to be able to report any of these findings.
Up to about 1 FTE has been devoted to addressing virus problems. Viruses (of all forms) continue to proliferate and increase in sophistication, and only constant vigilance can prevent massive outbreaks and damage. This work includes monitoring the latest information sources for new viruses, ensuring the latest protection tools are acquired and distributed, keeping documentation and advice up to date, constantly endeavouring to raise the level of awareness of the need for vigilance, responding to outbreaks (sometimes by personal attendance), installing the latest virus detection and eradication tools in all OUCS computers and, on request, in departmental and college computer clusters, and recovering infected computers where necessary. Details of the services provided can be seen at http://www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/viruses/.
Infections, sometimes severe, have continued to occur across the University, though there is no particular pattern to them [figure 39]. The most severe which have emerged this year are the Word macro viruses, which continue to grow in sophistication. It should be noted that we only have records of those virus infections which are reported; and that the reporting may actually occur some time after the infection (as some viruses sleep for some time before activating). It is very important that all virus infections be reported, so that patterns, trends, warnings, etc can be derived.
OUCS continues to offer a microcomputer upgrade service. Advice is given on the best means of increasing the performance or functionality of PCs and Macs, as often substantial improvements can be made with minimal investment. Where requested, upgrades can be undertaken by OUCS in-house, at cost. Similarly, some repairs (for unmaintained equipment) can be undertaken in-house, again, on a cost-recovery basis. Numbers have remained stable [figure 40].
OUCS has negotiated extremely favourable terms with a national company which undertakes maintenance and repair of all brands and types of microcomputer equipment. Details can be see at http://www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/maintenance/. There are now over 6,000 items covered by this scheme, which continues to experience modest growth [figure 41]. OUCS monitors callouts and reports of unsatisfactory service, and for the most part the service has been exemplary [figure 42].
The cost is subsidised by means of a General Board grant, so that humanities faculties (plus a few others) receive the service free of charge, whilst other University departments and units receive a 50% subsidy. Colleges, associated institutions and private users pay the full price. These subsidies help to assure the proper protection of expensive and vulnerable computer equipment, and avoid complex handling of small cash sums for humanities faculties. OUCS takes special care to ensure that the scheme is not abused by those who pay nothing directly for it.
The OUCS Shop sells a wide range of computer items, ranging from personal computers (Macs and several ranges of PCs to suit all pockets and needs), through peripherals (eg printers and Ethernet cards), to software and documentation. Viglen, Dell and Tiny all provide special pricing for Oxford University. Use of the National printer contract means that we can now supply printers from Hewlett Packard, Epson, Kyocera and Lexmark at advantageous prices (however we no longer supply Canon). There has been a dramatic rise in the sale of Ethernet cards, with approximately 50:50 between desktops and laptops. All the site-licensed and bulk-purchased software is made available through the Shop, with most of it now supplied on CD-ROM rather than floppy disk: media copying for the most part is undertaken in-house [figure 43]. Details of all items for sale through the Shop, together with prices lists, can be seen at http://www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/shop/
In addition to normal "retail" activities conducted within the Shop's physical premises just inside the door of 13 Banbury Road, OUCS also undertakes personal purchasing for recipients of Humanities equipment grants; this often requires non-standard hardware and software, with special efforts made to locate, price and acquire such special items.
This year, the Shop again experienced record sales [figure 44]. Although the value of computer sales was greatest, the volume of other items, especially software, grew the most [figure 45]. Overall, after allocation of salary expenses, the Shop made a modest surplus, thus fulfilling (as it has done in previous years) the OUCS Review's viability criterion.
OUCS undertakes a range of services aimed at improving software availability and affordability within the University. It administers the CHEST software deals which are struck on behalf of the whole HE/FE sector, and promotes awareness of theses deals and software. It also negotiates directly where no suitable CHEST deal is in place. It also arranges bulk purchase or site licences at discount rates, paying for these "up front" in expectation of recouping its outlay from Shop sales: typically, these arrangements break even, especially where canvassing of user demand via emailing lists has first been undertaken, or a department has indicated its willingness to be a party to such an arrangement. Details of all software licensing arrangements can be seen at http://www.ox.ac.uk/it/sls/.
A key aspect of these various arrangements is the administration of a centrally provided fund which enables a range of widely-used software to be purchased on behalf of the whole University, usually via site licences. This fund stood at £70,000 during the year, and has resulted in very substantial savings for the University, not only in direct financial terms, but also in saving the overheads of keeping detailed records of licences in many cases, and in affording the University added protection from accusations of software piracy. The fund is spent in line with the guidance of a small group set up by the IT Committee, and is always fully expended.
The numbers of licences acquired through all the above arrangements continues to rise steeply year by year [figure 46].
Notable additions to the list of software agreements were the Corel site licence, StarOffice, the ECDL training material, HoTMetaL, and a new volume licensing deal for EndNote. By the end of July 99 there were still a few items of site-licensed software for which we had not received a Y2K-compliant version.
Conscious of the importance of and widespread demand for "office productivity" software (word processing, spreadsheets, database), OUCS has entered into site licence deals for the Corel and Star Office suites. Negotiations were also carried out all year with Microsoft (in conjunction with colleagues from other universities) to introduce a form of site licensing for its most common products (operating systems, Office suite and a number of others). These latter negotiations resulted in Microsoft introducing, first in the USA, and subsequently at year-end in the UK, a site licence scheme. It is perhaps not all that we would wish it to be, the chief drawback being that it is only a rental scheme, and also that Microsoft will only commit to it for 3 years in the first instance. However, it does still hold significant benefits for Oxford (financial and others, as above), so the University's Resources Committee agreed to fund it centrally to start at the beginning of August 1999.
OUCS offers a very cost-effective maintenance service for the Ethernet network hardware used by most departments and colleges, which has continued to expand during the year. It utilises a board-replacement arrangement, so that networks can be restored rapidly and then the boards repaired, if appropriate, off-line. Details can be found at http://www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/network/lan/.
The cost is subsidised by means of a General Board grant for humanities faculties, which avoids costly handling of small sums by these faculties.
This service (NSMS) is steadily expanding and is provided by 6 full time members of staff. It currently has service agreements with 18 departments and 10 colleges and associated institutions, involving the support of 25 servers and approximately 230 workstations. Netware, Windows NT and Unix servers are being supported and the workstations use either Windows NT, 98 or 95. These facilities are supporting a staff and student population of approximately 4,400.
The following new services were started during this year:
Details of all these services can be seen at http://www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/nsms/.
The basic server management service is subsidised by the General Board for humanities faculty users, since they have not been funded to enable the level of cost associated with these specialist services to be met.
OUCS has a specialised Unit which undertakes custom construction of microprocessor-controlled equipment for a variety of science and medical departments. This service includes the analysis of needs for experimental control and other devices, identification of suitable off-the-shelf equipment where it is available, or design and construction where no suitable equipment is available. This can involve building from the printed circuit board and micro-chip level up, as well as the development, often, of specialised software. A couple of sample projects are described below.
As well as specific projects such as the above, the unit is involved in numerous consultations with University members on PC and data acquisition topics and C programming, as well as continuing to build on its professional competence in hardware development systems.