Thursday, 24 February 2011

"we don't support that"

When I first joined what was then the Computing Service, we had a clear policy on Macs. We didn’t support them. If you turned up with a Mac it was unlikely there was anyone central who could help you. That seemed OK at the time (but that was a long time ago!) Over the years the position has gradually shifted, but we’ve never made this explicit. This cause confusion, and I get queries about it, especially when people see me using an iPad or Macbook myself! So I’ll try and spell out where I see we are now, wearing an Infrastructure hat.

There are some central infrastructural services which are fundamental. Fundamental means that we need to provide these on both Windows and Mac clients (& often Linux/Unix clients too). Off the top of my head, that could be things like wireless, filestore, Active Directory authentication, printing – but we need to define what that list actually is.

Some of these might be straightforward, while others are trickier. Macs haven’t kept up with the latest Microsoft server-side developments. For example, we want to use DFS for filestore, but Macs can’t handle that natively. So we are looking at 3rd party client software for the Mac that might bridge the gap. Infrastructure and Service Delivery will work together for this to happen.

Macs are just the start – before long we’ll be getting requests to print from iPhones and connect to wireless from Chrome OS netbooks too.

More generally (but I’m straying into areas best covered by my fellow assistant directors here): we can no longer simply say “go away, we don’t support that” in a world where people are using Macs, PCs, smartphones, tablets, etc etc etc. It’s just not acceptable to our customers and we shouldn’t do it. If we tried to staff and students would just route around us and self-provide. Cheap consumer IT equipment and cloud services on the web mean that the days of IT Services as a gatekeeper are long gone.

But – whatever we do has to be sustainable. So how can we possibly support everything? The implication is that we can’t offer the same level of handholding that people were used to in a one platform world. So rather than a binary supported/not-supported divide, we need graduated support. We also need to harness other support mechanisms, like self-support (eg user communities, or ‘Just Google It’). AskIT is an experiment to introduce that graduated/self-support mechanism in one particular area.

We need to explain to staff and students what they might reasonably expect. How can we do this clearly? Personally I like the idea of Gold, Silver & Bronze support levels, as I think users would understand these concepts. I expect whatever we do for printing and filestore there will be more rough edges on Mac than on Windows, and the Service Desk will always be more fluent on answering Windows queries. You could describe that as Windows users getting Gold level support while Mac users get Silver.

Does this make sense? All comments welcome…

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

What makes Bristol special: #1 Venue magazine

Venue (magazine)Image via Wikipedia

I've lived in Bristol for the past 16 years, and think it's the best city in the UK in which I could chose to live. Bristol is a creative, artistic, leftfield place, vibrant and laid back all at the same time. There are many statistics I've heard - most of which are probably true. We have more street parties than anywhere else in the country, more festivals, more graduates from the two universities who stay here and settle. But stats are dull, it's the experiences that I remember:
  • The Cube Microplex - a volunteer run co-operative cinema & arts centre 52 weeks of the year.
  • Carny-Ville - a mind blowing night of entertainment, performed by a cast and crew of two hundred people, all put together by a group of legal squatters
  • IgFest - being chased by zombies across the streets of Bristol. Sport, theatre and technology converge. Huge fun, very silly, and yet an important signifier of what all organisations will be doing with the forthcoming Experience Economy.

I could go on and on - MayFest, Bristol Jam, Banksy - but I won't.

How did I find out about most of these? Venue magazine.

It was announced today that Venue, the weekly listings mag for Bristol and Bath, is to close after the next three issues. It's extremely sad news, for the journalists who are losing their jobs, and for the whole city. Bristol will be a poorer place without Venue. Venue was part of the virtuous circle of Bristol's cultural scene. It's existence was proof that Bristol had something special, and could support such a publication. Through existing it in turn helped the flourishing creativity of the city, bringing audiences to new events across the city.

I discovered the news through reading the Bristol Culture blog on my iPad. There's real irony in that - former Venue editor Tom Phillips explains "Sad truth is that, for whatever reason, the sums don't add up - print is on the way out but neither readers nor advertisers want to pay for the internet".

I did immediately run out and buy a copy of Venue - I do most weeks but hadn't in the last seven days. I'll buy two copies of tomorrow's edition (hey, it worked for 6Music).

Perhaps the freelancers and staff of Venue will somehow regroup and reinvent themselves as a monthly or on the net. Perhaps Bristol City Council could scrap the Our City freesheet and use that cash to prop up Venue. Perhaps Banksy or Steve Lansdown could fund it...

What has all this got to do with Bristol University? As universities fight harder to attract students paying up to £9000 a year, the quality of the student experience is becoming supremely important. I think the university increasingly recognises how important the experience of the whole city is within that. I'd like to see much closer links between the university, the council, and local enterprises to bolster this, and show the city at it's best to our students.

In a small way the MyMobileBristol with which I'm involved is looking to do exactly that - ideas like mobile guided walks of the city for university open days. Let's see what we can do...

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Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Just Do It

In Loughborough at the moment for two related seminars. Yesterday was the first UK Universities Google User Group. A roughly even spilt between people who are already using Google Apps, and people who are evaluating it or considering options. As a representative of the latter group, I chaired a panel on 'Building the Business Case', and got to quiz Aline Hayes of Sheffield Hallam and Chris Sexton of Sheffield on why they adopted Google Apps, and how they made the case to do so. Lots of questions from me and from the floor about worries over security and loss of control, and some very good answers from Aline and Chris. Hopefully a recording of this session, and the others, will be up online soon.

Today is the UCISA Cloud Computing Seminar, so a more general agenda. Yesterday I felt like a bit of a laggard - I was talking to some of the same people I first quizzed 12 months about Google Apps & MS Live@Edu. Some were very surprised we haven't just got on with it! Today I can hold my head up a little higher, giving a 10 minute talk on something we did Just Do - Deploying GetSatisfaction at the Bristol. It's a great online forum / community support tool, and it took us very little effort to get it into service. Some lessons learnt from the experience though, which I hope others may find interesting.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Email & Calendar: The Big Event

We're at the early stages of a plan to replace the university's email and calendar systems. Last week we held an event to kick this off. 300 Bristol staff and students gathered in the beautiful Tyndall Lecture theatre to see demos from Microsoft & Google, and most importantly ask questions. I was delighted to see so many people turn out, who were obviously interested and engaged. We've had some great feedback since, that people really welcomed the opportunity to get involved.

Involving people at such an early stage was very deliberate. In the past the IT department at Bristol has sometimes been guilty of failing consulting people early enough, and providing technical solutions which are good in what they are, but don't actually do what people need them to. This project is part of a commitment that the new IT Services organisation will do things differently in future.

Why do we want to replace email & calendar?

Because you told you to! It's been the top IT request from staff surveys for some time, and one of the top requests from students. People said they wanted a modern, easier to use email client to replace Mulberry, with email and calendar in one. Something that work on desktops, mobile & the web. Above all, people need far more quota, so you don't have to spend time sorting and deleting your old mail.

What do we want to provide?

For staff: a modern, integrated email & calendar in one. After that, a better way to share and collaborate on documents too.
For students: an email for life service - get an email address when you arrive at Bristol, and keep the same address even after graduation. Great for your CV and for job applications.
For everyone: more quota! Something in the range 7GB - 10GB per person

How can we do it?

We are looking at two products as the top two contenders: Microsoft Live@Edu & Google Apps for Education. Both of these are delivered as cloud computing, or Software as a Service - rather than being run on machines on site at the university, they are run by the supplier in their datacentres, and we access them over the Internet. In the last few years, many other universities have adopted cloud services for their email, originally for student use, but increasingly for staff use too. It's a different model for delivering services, with various advantages. One large advantage is that we can deploy cloud solutions quickly, and once adopted we stay up to date. We continue to benefit from improvements as soon as the supplier makes them, rather than going through long cycles to provision, upgrade, and roll out on site. Although we spend very little on our current email service, in the long term cloud services will be cheaper too, especially when providing increasing amounts of storage.

When will we deliver?

Going back years the university had previous plans to improve our email systems, which didn't get far. This time we know that we need to deliver, and not hang about.

We plan to rollout a replacement email service to new students entering the university September 2011. We think that is realistic and achievable. Soon after that, current students would be able to opt in, then alumni too.

Throughout the autumn term we would run pilots with staff in some small departments. A rollout to all staff would happen in 2012, with the timetable determined by the experience of the pilot.

What happens next?

In a few days we'll be launching a survey for feedback from people who came to the event - we'll email the attendees to let you know when this launches. We're interested to know which you prefer, but it's probably more important to know what your requirements are. That way we can work out whether either or both of the products meet your requirements and make sure we deliver what you need.

In addition there are many crucial factors which didn't really come out in the presentations:
  • security of our data: data protection, contractual terms. How good are the APIs so we have the ability to get our data back out again?
  • length of contract available, total costs (while the core of both products is free of charge to education customers, there are extras which could get very expensive)
  • Reliability - is it solid, has has it got a strong and proven history, are other universities happy with it?
  • The future of the product - is the supplier committed to it, what support is available?
  • integration with other systems - stuff we're already running and likely to use in future. Which supplier has the better ecosystem?
We've already done a fair bit of work on these, working with the University Secretary's Office (our internal team of lawyers and data protection specialists). We'll be having further discussions in private with both Microsoft & Google to explore these further. I'm also talking to other universities who have already done this, to learn from their experiences.

Watch this space for more news...

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Paddling frantically beneath the surface

On Hatchet Pond.Image via Wikipedia

As many readers will know, IT at Bristol is currently undergoing a large reorganisation. It's a tough but important time for all IT staff at the University. As part of this, at the end of 2010 I was appointed Assistant Director of IT Services (Infrastructure & Operations). Since then I've been very busy, to put it mildly! However in the new role communicating what's going on is even more important than ever, so I'm going to restart blogging with renewed determination.

The Infrastructure & Operations group provide the crucial foundations which keep IT at Bristol running. We look after the networks, the storage, the telephone exchanges. We build the systems to keep your desktop patched, your email free from spam, and a lot more besides. Staff in the group are the architects, specialists & engineers who make all this possible.

But that description makes us sound like backroom boys 'n girls, and that is far from the case. We are also a provider of services to staff and students. The ResNet service within Infrastructure & Operations is a good example of where a service culture keep our focus on what is important to our customers. Our open event this week with Google, Microsoft and 300 staff & students in attendance is another example, and part of a conscious attempt to say we'll do things a little differently in future.

This works for email, something naturally high profile, which everyone uses and on which everyone has an opinion. But much of what we do is invisible to the people who benefit from it. If the University is a swan gliding gracefully across the lake, then Infrastructure & Operations are hard at work paddling furiously beneath the surface. How often are you conscious, for example, of the terabytes of storage underlying everything the university does? Probably not at all - unless it breaks! 

So we can be invisible when we are doing our jobs well. That's not such a bad thing, but can lead to our staff feeling underappreciated. So remember us in your thoughts. There's even an annual event, Sysadmin Appreciation Day, on the last Friday of July to give you a handy excuse to do so! But no need to wait that long to show us some love. Homemade cakes are welcome at any time...
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Friday, 26 November 2010

Client computing in the future

Yesterday I attended the UCISA 'Client Computing in the Future' event, University of Huddersfield, 25th November 2010 (#UCISA-client). The first talk of the day was from James Hargraves, Client Platform Services Group Manager at UCL. James' approach really chimed with me, so I took detailed notes.
We used to think of client computing as a desktop computer with a software build on it. That's changing, and the old view is no longer sufficient. Trends changing it include Windows 7, Virtualisation, Macs, App Delivery, Cloud services, Smartphones, Tablets & Consumerisation.
Three different ways in which you can use virtualisation like techniques for client computing:

  1. Terminal Server (fairly familiar).
  2. VDI (Virtual Desktop Infrastructure). An alternative to terminal server, as your desktop has complete control over the VDI Virtual machine. In theory less contention between users than with terminal server. I got the impression James thought VDI technology too new for production use,, more something to keep an eye on.
  3. Client virtualisation - VM on client machines. eg run Windows on a Mac, or VM for personal use on a work laptop. This lets users install things they want under their own control, but without messing up the locked down corporate image.
Hardware Thin Clients. 
Is the promise of hardware thin clients too good to be true? Is the cost of ownership *actually* lower? No, not when you include the cost of the data centre infrastructure. Including that, the cost savings if any are marginal. [This is particularly true at Bristol, where we are struggling for data centre space]. Where are hardware thin clients most sensible? In a new building, where you can design the building with less requirement for aircon due to the lower heat output. Where are they least sensible? For student labs - students are intensive users, and thin clients are unacceptable for students if they can't watch Youtube!
Apple Macs
Macs are unquestionably becoming more popular. [Figures of 1/4 to a 1/3 Mac ownership by students quoted by various institutions]. Macs are gorgeous! There is nothing you can do to stop people buying them. Luckily, some new technologies make it easier for us to support them. There are options to deliver Windows apps to Macs. And if your data is in the cloud it is as easy to access on a Mac as on a PC.
Application Delivery
OSes don't matter to people, applications do. Apps are what people use. Smartphones have changed people's expectations of apps. Apps from the App Store arrive on your phone within a few minutes. In corporate settings, it takes forever to get an app approved, tested, and deployed! Our application delivery mechanisms need to get quicker. Yes, this will be tough on us, but from the users point of view that is not the point. So how do you do it? Offer an App Store like experience on the desktop. Citrix already have one - the stupidly named Citrix Dazzle. Chose your app, potentially enter an internal charge code if it isn't already licensed, and then it's there. [Maybe within a day, if not within the 5 mins of the phone, but better than the months it can takes us at the moment].
Virtualised Applications
MS AppV (formerly SoftGrid). VMWare ThinApp. Separates the OS from the app. Can allow installation of two versions of the app.
Cloud Based Services
eg Dropbox. How many people here use Dropbox? Lots of hands went up (don't tell your data protection people!). But you use it anyway as it is *really* easy and useful. Whatever we say to users they will continue to use Dropbox. Telling them not to is just ignoring the risk, when we need to manage it. So instead we need to make our corporate personal and shared space as easy to access, and that means putting it in the cloud.
Smartphones & Tablets
There were 4 or 5 iPads in the room, but smartphones were ubiquitous. iPads are still too expensive and there are real challenges at the moment using them in an enterprise environment - manageability, app purchase, support, and getting data on and off them. But these things will be fixed within the next three years, just as access to corporate calendar and email has been fixed on the iPhone [remember three years ago nobody had one of those either].
An ugly word, but the right word to describe what is happening to IT. Enterprise IT remains a good thing, but consumerisation can't be ignored. Central IT services need to rise to the challenge, not ignore the inevitable. At the extreme, some companies have experimented with saying "just buy your own computer and look after it yourself". Just give the staff a cash budget. This definitely isn't the right solution for all users, but it is for some.
The support dilemma
We need to support a wider range of OSes. We need to support personal devices. Personal devices have always been there, especially in HE, so take advantage of it! It's a challenge. New services don't mean users stop using the old ones! The old ones are still valuable. People use Twitter & Facebook & MSN but still use email. Students are still queuing to use desktop labs. People do everything at once [at times during my travels over the last three days I've been using the iPad, iPhone and netbook simultaneously!]
Implications for staffing
New technology such as virtualisation brings desktop and server infrastructure closer together. This challenges our traditional split between systems and support. Client & desktop should be seen as an area in its own right, with someone taking clear ownership of the whole thing. [Remember users don't care about the systems infrastructure, they care about the client and the apps on it. But traditionally maybe we defined ourselves by the backend systems infrastructure, thinking that is the 'real job' - and in the process neglected the true real job, what is important to the users?]
UCL's response
A group organised around the client, responsible for delivering a common desktop. [Big caveat, this is still a work in progress, and they haven't yet delivered it!] They have a decentralised IT staff, but [will] have a centralised app packaging process available to these staff. Gold, silver & bronze levels of the common desktop.
Areas that need further work
  • Backup/data integrity
  • Encryption
  • Remote wipe of mobile devices
  • Print consolidation
  • Green IT (- de rigueur to add this to list, but is it really important? He's a skeptic.)
The future
The future is:
  • consumerisation and cloud services - embrace these trends
  • responsiveness, an app store approach to the desktop
  • recognise that one size fits all doesn't work, especially in HE
  • tablets and mobile devices will be pervasive, but thick build PCs aren't dead

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Show your working (what this blog is for)

As any regular readers of this blog will likely know, I start a new role on 1st December as Assistant Director of IT at Bristol. In the expectation and hope that this blog will pick up some new readers I thought it a good time to set out what this blog is for.
It is a truism for all IT organisations that they don't communicate well. While there are pockets of good practice I think it has been a particular problem at Bristol. It's true of the IT department with its stakeholders and customers, management with staff, and different teams with each other. It's something we need to get better at, and this blog is part of a personal attempt to do so.
This blog represents my thoughts. It certainly does not represent any 'official' view of the University. Moreover it represents my thoughts at a particular point in time. I am always impressed by passionate but reasoned argument. As John Maynard Keynes said, "When the facts change I reserve the right to change my mind. What do you do sir?".
I think best when I do my thinking out loud. Some colleagues may have noticed this in meetings! I don't believe in the grand master working on a picture in deadly secrecy, putting it behind a velvet curtain, then unveiling it with a "Ta da!" flourish - at which point the patron mentions that he didn't want a painting at all, he wanted a sculpture. Rather I believe in the sculptor working in public. Mold the clay or chisel away at it in full view, draw inspiration from the outside world, take on feedback from whoever is generous to give it. Through this process of iteration we together produce the best possible final result.
As my friend the Physics examiner would say, "always show your working". A conclusion does not inspire confidence unless you show the process by which you arrived at it. As many people wiser than me have pointed out, an open conversation, carried out genuinely, delivers a level of trust amongst colleagues that a top down ivory tower model of leadership cannot.
I use this blog to discuss ideas. They may come from a conversation I've had, book I've read, or conference I've attended. I may not agree with everything the speaker/writer said, but found them interesting and noteworthy, and they started a thought process.
Thinking aloud in this way is for me the process through which half baked ideas are turned into something wholesome. If you don't like something, or if you do, please take this blog in the spirit in which it is intended. Above all, respond and help shape it. I'm available here, on twitter (@nick_skelton), by email, in the office, the corridor, & wherever. I look forward to hearing from you.