5. Client Computing
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, diagnosis and repair of networking problems on PCs, etc.
The service is not available to undergraduates or to staff from departments that have opted out of using the OUCS Help services (except for IT staff). 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 Personal Computing consulting area for demonstrations, etc. Increasingly, advice is consolidated and placed on the Web. The Personal Computing pages are now very extensive (see /pcsupport/). 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. We are 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.
Infections, sometimes severe, have continued to occur across the University, though there is no particular pattern to them [figure 45]. The most severe which have emerged this year are based around email attachments of Microsoft Office documents or Windows scripts. In many cases they exploit Microsoft Outlook email facilities, if installed and in use, to facilitate their rapid propagation.
They 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 personal computer 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. However, OUCS would recommend the maintenance service (see above) as a more effective solution to the personal computer breakdown risk. Numbers have remained stable [figure 51].
As one example of the repairs that are undertaken, the most traumatic type for the user is when a machine that has been switched to accept 110 volts mains supply, is subjected to 240 volts. Alternatively, a properly adjusted 240 volt machine can be inadvertently switched to the lower voltage. In one recent case, the operating system had been corrupted by an application; the user panicked and decided to alter the position of every switch he could find in an endeavour to restore normal operation, including the 110/240 volts switch. Thus the machine experienced 240 volts mains fed into a newly switched 110 volts power supply. In such a case, the power supply responds with a loud retort, often accompanied by a smell of burning plastic and a small amount of smoke. Unfortunately the damage does not usually end there as the supply is unable to keep the excess voltage to itself. The system board and other components are at risk from permanent damage.
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. Of course, the Shop takes advantage of the special pricing negotiated as national deals for the HE sector. In addition, it has been possible to negotiate improvements on these deals from some suppliers. The rise in the sale of Ethernet cards witnessed last year continues.
The Shop also provides the vehicle for making available all the site-licensed and bulk-purchased software, with most of it now supplied on CD-ROM rather than floppy disk: media copying for the most part is undertaken in-house [figure 55]. Details of all items for sale through the Shop, together with price lists, can be seen at /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.
- in the past, various activities for which the Shop provides a `retail' facility for other parts of OUCS (eg some software trading, user registration fees) have been bundled with the Shop's turnover, but efforts have been made to extract as much of that activity as possible;
- the cost of computer hardware continues to fall, thus turnover and profit will fall with it;
- the mark-up on computer hardware is becoming smaller and smaller as suppliers squeeze their own margins; this in turn reduces our margins;
- the decline in special purchasing for humanities is probably brought about by increased confidence in that sector in undertaking the purchases themselves; this activity has always struggled to `break even', and has been treated as a subsidised service to the University (like the central Purchasing Office, which also does not cover its costs);
- the change to the HelpDesk (especially as it affects undergraduate students) has resulted in a decline in traffic into the OUCS buildings, so this will have had an impact on sales;
- the prominence given to a number of new computer retailers in Oxford will also probably have had a negative impact on trade;
- more and more students are arriving at Oxford having already purchased a PC; this has resulted, for instance, in a high level of sales of Ethernet cards, but of course these are much less costly than PCs;
- the introduction of the Microsoft Campus Agreement has seen the number of Select licences issued fall from 3,350 in 98/99 to 902 in 99/00; the Select deal provides a healthy margin on sales, whereas the Campus Agreement provides no margin; this has also impacted sales turnover and margins.
Clearly such trends bear careful monitoring, and the Shop will be reviewing its operations to ensure that, even if the volume of trade declines, it still is able to pay for itself; its current level of reserves will allow it to make modest deficits such as this year's.
OUCS undertakes a variety of activities designed to make the acquisition of software (primarily) for personal computers more straightforward and less costly. The various arrangements it has made probably save the University hundreds of thousands of pounds each year.
Nevertheless, the savings have already been very substantial: if all copies that have been installed were to be paid for at Select rates, the cost would have about doubled; note that the cost in the years prior to this Agreement had shown substantial year-on-year growth, so that growth has now been halted. In addition, there is the very real saving in staff time keeping meticulous track of issued licences; and there is the benefit of eliminating the risk of piracy of these products taking place within the University.
The second arrangement, which has been in place now for about 5 years, uses a special grant made to OUCS to purchase site licences for various appropriate software products. A committee appointed by the IT Committee oversees this expenditure, to ensure that it matches academic needs, that it continues to represent good value for money, and that the benefit is experienced by all disciplines within the University.
It too has been a most successful scheme, and small increments in the amount of funding have allowed more and more software to be acquired this way (and accommodated some inevitable price rises), though requests continue to outstrip the available funding. One case in point is the desire for a site licence for Endnote (bibliographic software); however, despite substantial efforts both locally and nationally, we have not yet been able to persuade the supplier to offer a realistic deal. We depend to a large extent on national deals arranged by the CHEST. The only cost to the user is for the media on which the software is supplied.
- P-Counter Maintenance — all updates and support for the P-Counter printer accounting software — maintenance renewable yearly;
- MapInfo GIS mapping software — this includes maintenance until 24-Aug-03;
- Maple Home-Use Licence — enables all staff and students to install a copy of the Maple software on a personal machine — renewable yearly;
- MathType — tool to generate mathematical notation — this includes maintenance until 31-Jul-03.
- Adobe Indesign (publishing package), GoLive (tool for generating web sites), and Premier (video editing package) — now included in our Adobe agreement;
- Visio diagramming tool — now available under a volume purchase deal and under the Microsoft Select deal (licences vary);
- SSH Secure Shell client & server software — software with SSH protocol for encrypted terminal connections and secure file transfer over the Internet — free education site licence obtained;
- Multiplex v1.4 (remote control of networked PCs) and Perfect Screens v3.4 (desktop management facility) — site licence (perpetual).
- SPSS statistical software — the CHEST/SPSS agreement was renewed in December 1999 to cover the SPSS products until December 2004. The new agreement includes unlimited Unix servers and more modules for PC, such as Data Entry Builder, Answer Trees, and Trial Run. The PC products for the SPSS agreement are part of the Site Licence Scheme.
- NAG Fortran, Graphics & C Libraries — the CHEST/NAG agreement was renewed in July 2000 to cover the NAG Libraries until July 2005. The NAG Libraries are also funded under the Site Licence Scheme.
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 /network/lan/
This service (NSMS) is a facilities management service that has been established to meet a growing demand in Departments and Colleges for managed Client/Server networks. The Service draws on the expertise that OUCS staff have with PCs, Macs and network servers, particularly Novell Netware, Windows NT, Sun Solaris and Linux servers. The NSMS staff set up, update, and troubleshoot file servers, supporting Windows / Windows 95 & 98 / Windows NT/2000, DOS and Macintosh applications, on a Departmental or College network. The service will also support the configuration of workstations which are either stand alone, or connected to the University's network and possibly to a fileserver. The expertise of the support staff enables them to provide a high level of service at a price far below other alternatives. The NSMS staff work closely with existing IT staff within the department or college, and, by taking on responsibility for critical central services, free them to deal with other pressing issues. Details of all these services can be seen at /nsms/.
NSMS must charge for its services. The fees charged are very modest by commercial standards as they do not include full cost recovery or profit. 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.
This service is steadily expanding and is provided by 6 full time members of staff. It currently has service agreements with 23 departments and 10 colleges and associated institutions, involving the support of 25 servers and approximately 250 workstations. Netware, Windows NT and Unix servers are being supported and the workstations use either Windows NT, 98, 95 or MacOS. These facilities are supporting a staff and student population of approximately 4,400.
The development of a Web server facility, which had just been started last year, has been completed. It is intended to complement the freely available Web service that has been provided by OUCS as a general service to all departments and colleges for some time as this provides only
limited server facilities. The NSMS Web server provides a flexible, securely managed server offering both a Windows NT and a Unix Apache Web server environment. It provides a very full range of facilities for the presentation of Web pages, supporting full CGI scripting, Active Server Pages technology and database support, amongst many other things. It is therefore a valuable complement to the existing, more limited Web server service provided by OUCS. Amongst the 9 sites from different departments and colleges currently being supported are the Modern History Faculty and, in particular, the Gunpowder, Compass and Printing Press teaching site, the Centre for Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language and the Theology Faculty Teaching Resources. It is also supporting the University Museum of Natural History Specimen Catalogues site that is still under construction.
One other new service introduced by NSMS this year is the `holiday cover' service, which is already proving very popular (see /nsms/#Holiday-Service). NSMS staff become familiar with local systems that are normally managed by local IT staff, and can then give cover during periods of absence. This is especially relevant to those departments and colleges that only have one IT staff member.
OUCS has a specialised Unit that 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 the 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. The unit is involved in 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.