Archive for January, 2010

A Long Week – and the Digital Economy Bill

A week between postings – unusual enough to tell you that I’ve been concentrating on other things I guess.

This week has been dominated by a couple of things, the main one of which has been my proposals on a new IT Operations Model for the Corporate Review of IT.

I am now well on with the paper that will go to the Executive in early March. Whilst that probably sounds like I’m well ahead, I’ve to take the paper to the Steering Group on the 5 February, for their comments, before I can finalise the paper. I also have to write a business case.

However, getting a full final draft of the main paper has been the most important aspect of what I’ve had to do so far.

One of my personal other ‘notable’ events was the preparations for the move of IT Infrastructure staff from City to HBP. On Monday the screens came down and the whole area was pretty much opened up. I liked it, personally, but I could understand a couple of comments from people who felt exposed by the ‘wall’ being removed. By Friday afternoon most of the staff in the main open area had moved and all that was left was furniture and various detritus. It looks very strange without them.

Accommodation featured highly again this week, as Facilities discuss options for space planning Howard Level 4 for when IT and Media staff move here. FD are again facing the challenge of trying to fit everything into the right kinds of space in the right kinds of place. That may leave us with some potential challenges of our own but we’re at the end of a domino chain (is it a chain of domino’s?) so it’s too soon to be clear whether there are any issues for us.

I also spent some time following the progress of the Digital Economy Bill through the Lords this week. There have been various comments on parts of the bill in relation to copyright in terms of individual rights and freedoms as the bill requires Internet Service Providers to take action to prevent or tackle piracy – which means ISPs will have to monitor users activity, potentially cap or disconnect customers, and report copyright breaches to rights owners.

Interestingly, Virgin Media are currently considering deploying software to monitor “illegal” activities on their network, something that may currently be in breach of UK law. Alexander Hanff, of Privacy International (same source as link above), states that “Under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa) intercepting communications is a criminal offence regardless of what you do with the data,”

This article sets out briefly what the bill covers, and the author, Nisha Baveja, solicitor at Briffa, states that “The second part is that which is causing most concern. Whilst it is likely that disconnection will only be an option to pursue if all other options (including writing to the possible infringer and warning them of the infringement, reminding them again) have been exhausted, there are no precise processes by which an Internet user will be disconnected in the Bill, and no sign of strong appeal mechanisms or tests of evidence. This means that even innocent users whose wireless broadband has been hijacked might be at risk of being disconnected.”

However, from a work perspective I’m interested in what this may mean for us in terms of providing internet access to thousands of people. Early discussion on the bill seemed to suggest that we might have to similarly take steps to monitor and deal with (effectively police) copyright breaches relating to digital content. This, from the Times Higher, considers what it may mean in that “… there are fears that universities, which will be held responsible for the activities of their students, could be unduly affected by the proposals.”

We currently work to ensure people don’t use our services for unlawful purposes of course, so this is nothing new. The change is in the potential move of responsibilities – that we may be held responsible for the actions of those we have given authorised access to our networks. At the moment, we have to make reasonable efforts to ensure that users adhere to the JANET Acceptable Use Policy through our own ‘IT and Learning Resources Regulations’ and we deal with infringements as we become or are made aware of them. That’s quite different from being ourselves potentially penalised for illegal activity.

Some amendments to the bill have already been made but there are still concerns for what the bill might mean for Universities and other public bodies. That’s why I signed a letter set out by the Strategic Content Alliance this week, asking that the position of University and Museums be properly considered in discussions as the Bill makes its way through Parliament.

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To the Cinema

An unusual but very enjoyable escape from meetings this afternoon.

I’d been meaning to go see the new Film Theatre in The Void since it was refurbished last academic year. Bumping into Mark Albrow reminded me (again) that I’d still not done so and we agreed that I’d visit on a Friday afternoon.

I knew a lot of work had gone into the design and fit-out but wasn’t expecting it to be so good, and such an improvement on the provision at Psalter Lane.

Mark met me near the lifts and the first thing that struck me was that they’d brought the film posters with them from Psalter Lane. It really sets the scene. Up a small ramp and into the theatre, which looks very much like a small art cinema (which I guess is what it is). Mark took me into the projection area and Melvyn Tucker showed me around some of the technology. Again, the level of thought that’s gone into the controls and how all the component pieces of equipment come together is amazing. Melvyn demonstrated some of what the theatre can provide by running a film on Blu-Ray. The sound in the theatre was lovely and sharp, and even on the very font row the image was clear and comfortable to watch.

Most of the controls Melvyn showed me in the projection booth are available on the console at the front, meaning that the person leading the session can pretty much control everything themselves and with the sophisticated programming of controls everything looks deceptively simple.

What’s striking about the theatre is how much thought and care has gone into everything, even the little touches like the finish, the brackets on speakers, and the writing flaps for people to take notes.

I asked Melvyn how he felt about the space – I know he had felt sad to be leaving Psalter Lane – and he brims over with pride talking about the new facilities. And it’s not hard to see why.

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Today was, in various forms, about planning.

First meeting was with the IS&T Management Team , Chris Walton and Kath Burgess to review the portfolio Period 5 budget figures. Everything looks OK, with some possible underspend though a lot of our spend is at the back end of the year (preparing for the next academic year) so that might yet change.

Part of the meeting was also to look at what our budget might be for next year and what that might mean. Clearly, whilst we have budgets centres for IS&T we are part of SLS and the Directorate revenue budget looks likely to be a ‘stand still’ budget for next year. That means that we would get the same as this year – which sounds OK until you factor in all the things that go up every year regardless, such as the above-inflation increases on our software costs, or the costs of learning resources that Learning and Information Services buy. We’ll be looking at the likely gap in that budget, and what options there are in IS&T and more broadly SLS to bridge that gap.

In the afternoon there was a SLS-wide Managers Workshop. These workshops bring together Portfolio Heads and Service Managers on a variety of topics. Today’s was planning. The new DVC was there and spoke to most people I think. He then spent 5-10 minutes at the start, setting the scene and offering a few initial thoughts on his experience so far at the University.

On word that Cliff used in that brief session particularly resonated with me – accountability – that sense of “the expectation of account-giving” in the Wikipedia definition. For me, this is a central element of what we, as a corporate service supporting the work of the whole University, need to demonstrate, and be seen to demonstrate, on a daily basis. I’m not sure we achieve that at present, or that it is perceived as such anyway.

The workshop itself reviewed the 5-year SLS Strategic Plan. Given it was written 12 months ago just as the Directorate was forming it wouldn’t have been surprising to see it needed some updating. The objectives largely seem fine – many of them are continuing as we move into new phases of strategic work – but there was some discussion about how the plan describes what SLS is about and I think there will be more work to update this to make it more relevant.

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Design it Better Rather Than Fix it Later

An overview briefing on the Software Development Life Cycle model for members of EGIS today.

The framework (SDLC) aims to ensure that there are the proper linkages between strategic thinking, planning and systems design such that any systems development project delivers what is required.

As I’ve noted before, Systems Methods work looking at Systems Failures shows that there is a high correlation between the amount of time spent in planning and design, and the fitness of the eventual system and the amount of re-work time needed to make it deliver what was required.

Systems Failures literature is littered with examples of systems projects that ran over time, over budget, or which failed to deliver everything that was required and this usually traces back to insufficient time in planning and design of the specification. The other failure is governance – the ability to sign-off the specification and to have a means to manage requests to change that specification, as well as something firm to test against before the final system was complete.

The SDLC is simply a way to check we’ve put the necessary thinking in at the start and during the design phase so that we get the result. It isn’t ‘another hurdle’ to get over; it should actually ensure we successfully deliver projects, and more quickly. However, the rigour it requires will be testing. Personally, I can’t see that the alternative – ad hoc fragmented projects that risk failing to deliver or that need a massive amount of post-project re-working – is what we need right now.

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The VC Goes Out on the Road

One of the VCs roadshows today, his first one of this set I think.

The Pennine was all but full and there were clear expectations that people were going to “hear something” as someone put to me.

In the event I think Philip was, quite rightly, clearly making the point that we are, still, in a relatively good position. Some things that could have affected our financial position have gone better than expected, such as the reductions in power costs. However, there is still a great deal that is uncertain, even if, as Philip said, things are becoming clearer.

As I’ve mentioned before, Lord Mandelson’s letter to HEFCE before Christmas sets out some challenges for the HE sector. Not just cuts in funding but also in some of the implicit (and in some cases explicit) policy pointers set out in the same letter.

The VC tried a different approach in terms of talking to the meeting and taking questions. It was a little stunning at first, to ask us to have mini discussions with our neighbours and come up with questions for him but it certainly got people talking. I’ve never heard the Pennine so noisy. I thought it worked pretty well in terms of getting some genuine questions asked and giving Philip a chance to share his thoughts.

For me, whilst I appreciate the need to not scare people, I think there is a balance to be struck between ‘we’re in a good position now’ and people perhaps hearing ‘everything is OK so just carry on’. Yes, we are in a good place currently. Better than could have been the case clearly, from some of the things the VC talked about. However, public finances will be tough over the coming few years (perhaps longer) regardless of who gets to pose outside Downing Street after the election. Carrying on just as we have done previously won’t allow us to weather whatever the finances throw at us.

Now’s not the time to panic but it is the time to be looking closely at what we do and how we do it, to make sure we’re in a position to safeguard those things that will keep the University healthy long after the ‘credit crunch’ becomes history.

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You will be taken to a secret location…

Monday, and I felt like I was taking part in a clandestine operation. My mission – to travel to Wiltshire to meet up with someone I’d never met or seen before, and then to travel to a secret location.

Actually, it was much less exciting than that, though still very  interesting. I was visiting the Eduserve data centre facility near Swindon, to talk to them about their service and whether it might be of interest to us.

We have a temporary breathing space in terms of our data centre needs as a result of the move to the new secondary data centre. However, in the next 12-18 months we’ll be thinking about longer term needs and how we might meet them. One of the options is to look at some kind of shared service model for our 2nd data centre. This has a number of possible advantages but specifically giving us better disaster recovery/business continuity provision by not having the two data centre so close together as they are, relatively, now. Depending on the kind of shared service, we might gain other benefits too – a purpose build and designed DC is likely to be more power and cooling efficient, therefore being both cheaper to run and more environmentally friendly.

After being met at Swindon I was taken to an anonymous-looking location outside Swindon where there was a large unmarked building that houses the facility. Unless you know about such things, you would simply mistake the building for another unremarkable logistics company, although perhaps a shy one given there is no logo or other information outside. The giveaway is the generator and, if you dodge the trip beams, the air con units.

Inside, once passed the keen security (good job I took my SHU card, I needed photo ID to get beyond Reception) there was a single door that leads to the main workings. Through this, the massive space has been deliberately planned and constructed to create individual ‘vaults’. Each of these might be able to house 4 x 20 racks and the associated cooling and other provisions needed to support things. Each of the 20-rack assemblies (called a pod) is sealed with glass across the ends and top of the racks, and cool air is blown in through underfloor grills. Not the best place to visit wearing a skirt by the by.

The vaults are constructed of material that is strong enough for someone to walk across a 6m span, and with thermodynamic properties that give 3 hour burn protection I was told. Each vault is independent of the others.

Power and data is fed from two sides of the building and each rack has redundant power and data for each element of equipment. Considerable thought has gone into making the facilities resilience and the centre runs 24/7.

A number of central Government services are supported here as well as some HE sector ones. Eduserve, a not for profit company, is now offering provision of DC services to Universities.

It was very interesting, and certainly as a model for mass DC provision you can see the merit in the approach and how it has been planned. I’m interested to see if they would be able to offer a complete data centre service – that is, the equipment as well as the serviced space.

Whilst we are some time away from looking seriously at our 10-15 year DC needs, it would be useful to understand whether this might be an option to consider when writing the new DC Strategy.

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The Case of the Missing Lock

Sometimes, some days, something odd happens that just takes over whatever you’re doing. Today was one of those days.

Mark Lee came in to see me in the afternoon to let me know that there were some problems with security on the area immediately around our main data centre.

When we went to the location, we found the security door had had the locks removed and was now accessible by anyone at anytime. Nobody could tell us who had done it but it didn’t appear to be an attempted break-in as the person who removed the locks had also filled in all the holes in the door with filler. They would also have needed a security pass to open the door to get to the lock in the 1st place.

The mystery deepened when we found out that it seemed that the locks had been removed in the morning. A series of phone calls later (with the help of D&S colleagues who were supervising other building work nearby) and with the help of Nick Nelson from FD we had identified that the lock had been removed legitimately. However, no new lock had been fitted in its place.

Nick organised for the contractor to be called back and in the meantime sorted out some temporary locks that allowed us to secure the area over the weekend. Probably one of the strangest Friday afternoon’s I’ve had for some time!

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Writing, writing

Mostly writing though not what I need to get done, more about catching up on things and sorting out small but time consuming matters.

Got to the end of the day and wondered what I’d spent most of my day on. Feels like insignificant progress but I know all those things would have come back to haunt me later if I’d not sorted them out.

Ho hum.

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Red Letter Day

Today was an important day in terms of the Corporate Review of IT – the Steering Group met for the very 1st time today.

The group is Chaired by Cliff Allan, and the membership is from a broad cross-section of areas of the University.

For this 1st meeting, it was all about checking the Terms of Reference and I presented a briefing paper on the background to why the review is happening. This links directly back to the ‘Information Systems and Technology Strategy’ endorsed in December 2008 but also to value for money reports done in 2007 that indicated that the University could get better value from its IT investment.

The next meeting of the group is early in February and I’ll present the 1st draft of my proposals paper there, for that group to give guidance and comment on.

That, of course, now gives me  a firm date to work towards – and it isn’t very long away now.

Better get on with some thinking and writing.


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Institutional Audit

We are have an Institutional Audit by the QAA this year and today one of my colleagues from ASQE came to brief me about the audit and what is needed from me in terms of contributing to the writing of the audit report.

We last were audited in 2005 (report here) and I only really remember having peripheral involvement at the time. Certainly I wasn’t involved in helping to write any of the submission documents.

For this audit, the University is expected to produce an ‘Institutional Briefing Paper’  or IBP of about 30 or so pages. The document needs to cover quite a lot, provide evidence to support what’s said, and keep it to a reasonable size.

This time around, the University is adopting an interesting way to produce and refine the draft IBP. An internal wiki has been set up, accessible by those involved in contributing to the document. People draft and refine their sections and can see other people’s sections. That allows there to be some sense of peer review of what’s written as well as allowing people the chance to add in or comment on things from other people. So, if I write my parts and one of my colleagues thinks I’ve missed something important that I should add, or that I’ve not been clear enough, they can let me know so that I can amend my draft.

This is a different approach because in previous years, so I’ve been told, the document would have been drafted following interviews with contributors and then a small writing team would have pulled it all together. The way we’re approaching it this time feels far more involving and evolutionary. It will be interesting to see how it goes, and as the 1st time I’ve really been involved in an audit, I’ll be interested to see how that works too.

In the meantime, I’ve some reading to do ahead of making a start on my 1st drafts.

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