2. About Nexus

2.1. What is it?

Nexus is a collection of applications which can be used to improve efficiency in many general tasks, and also provide a facility for improving collaboration and group working. Nexus includes email, contacts, tasks, global address list, meeting scheduler, sharing file facility, all stored on a central server so the information can be accessed from anywhere.

The service is hosted by Oxford University and therefore the long term security, privacy and availability of data can be guaranteed unlike free online services, and it comes without the distraction of advertising. Resilience is provided by running a mirrored site at Begbroke with in-built hardware fault tolerance and reduction of any single points of failure. Should a problem occur there are multiple layers of redundancy built into the system to ensure continuity of service.

Nexus is based upon Microsoft Exchange and Microsoft Office SharePoint Service (SharePoint), chosen by the Groupware Project Board, following extensive University-wide consultation and representation, in June 2008. Currently the version of the software is 2007, with plans to upgrade to the next version (2010) at the end of next year.

2.2. Who’s doing it?

Nexus is being provided by OUCS to all members of the University as a centrally provided free service, with no discrimination between staff and students. The full Exchange service is now operational, while a pilot SharePoint service will start soon for a selection of users reflecting the different potential applications within SharePoint, initially focusing on the sharing of files between administrative groups, research groups, and clubs/societies. In addition a number of individual “My Sites” will be provisioned to allow sharing and publication of individual’s information.

Initial migration of users and their data has focused on moving from the central Herald service to Nexus. A series of additional migrations are planned in conjunction with other service providers like IMSU, BSP and smaller mail services across the university.

2.3. How does it work?

There are two routes to accessing information - either through a client residing on a particular computer (either a standard computer or a mobile device), or via a web browser. Users with a Nexus account login to the service separately from the remainder of the Oxford Single Sign on, but using the same credentials. Details of the clients supported can be found at www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/nexus/email.

Currently the recommended clients giving maximum groupware functionality are Outlook 2007, Outlook 2003 and Entourage Web Services. These allow full access to sharing of calendars, access to address lists, arranging meetings, etc. Some clients provide email-only access, while others have extensions allowing some calendar functionality.

Users accessing Nexus via a Web browser have a choice of Outlook Web Access(OWA) supported on Internet Explorer 6 or later, and Outlook Web Access Light (OWA Light) supported on all other browsers. Full details of setup and operation are provided at www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/nexus/web.

Nexus works in the same manner as any email server. Additional functionality is provided by allowing personal calendars to be displayed and modified independent of the user’s location, as information is stored on the server not the local PC. Also, access to the Global Address List (GAL) allows a search of all users with displayed address information across the whole university. This allows access to both the email address of the other user and additional information about when the user is free or busy from details in their calendar. From this information it is possible to arrange a meeting using a scheduling tool which will give options to optimise the number of people who can attend. Once the best time is decided provisional listings can be made and meeting requests sent to all participants.

2.4. Why is Nexus significant?

Providing users maintain their online calendar, there is a reduced likelihood of having to re-arrange meetings due to clashes of key members. Rooms can be booked at the same time as the meeting is scheduled, along with any ancillary resources which are shared between rooms (e.g. projectors, laptops). The meeting coordinator knows the best time for the meeting, which can be verified by the attendees when they confirm their attendance. This reduces multiple attempts to schedule meetings.

Information can be delegated to colleagues, so that a PA can control a manager’s calendar and arrange their schedule with full privileges to that person’s account. Mail can be sent on behalf of the manager, and meetings arranged or accepted, thus reducing the manager’s interventions.

Address lists can be centrally maintained so that the GAL is always consistent when contacting colleagues, but is not available outside of the system. It is also possible to set up small distribution lists of members of a committee or research group and to make access to these lists available locally, thereby ensuring that people are not inadvertently omitted from mailings. These distribution lists can then also be used for arranging meetings, reducing the need to continually type in contact details.

Tasks can be created, assigned to a person and allocated various metadata allowing for efficient project management. When SharePoint comes online this work flow will be expanded so that documents are reviewed at their appropriate time, and a record kept of the various changes to the shared file.

2.5. What are the downsides?

The greatest concern about a groupware service is the loss of control and privacy. However details stored in a person’s calendar are only shown as being “Free” or “Busy” unless the user has specifically delegated access to that information to another user. Calendars need to be maintained regularly to avoid clashes with external commitments and enable efficient use of the meeting scheduler.

Storage for email is set at 2Gb, which is double the Herald quota. As has always been the case, additional quota can be requested by establishing a case for a larger quota. Should a quota be required over 3Gb then a system is being put in place to allow this for a fee.

Mail is sent internally within Nexus without touching the outside routing system when both sender and recipient are recognised from the GAL. Users who have email routed to other providers than the central service have their settings synchronised in order to ensure mail is not routed inadvertently to different mailboxes.

As the Nexus service is totally in the control of the University, the expansion of the SharePoint service will depend upon adequate financial provision, driven by the decisions of the Groupware Product Development Panel in providing priorities.

2.6. Where is it going?

Microsoft have a roadmap for releasing an upgrade of the central application software as part of their 2010 Office suite. This will expand the OWA capability to more browsers than the current Microsoft-produced selection, and ensure greater functionality is provided to a wider base. In addition the new software is planned to provide a series of back-end functionality, including the facility to export users to a global service once they become alumni, and expansion of the potential size limits on databases.

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