Helping the Environment

I’ve put up a few posts here (Green ICT, How to move 160 Servers, Did You Notice?) about moving our datacentre and how amongst other things this will help the University reduce its environmental footprint. Well, we’ve set up the shared datacentre along with the University of Aberdeen and North East Scotland College and it’s great to see that our achievement has been recognised at national level.

EAUC (The Environmental Association of Universities and Colleges) have an annual Green Gown award ceremony, and the Shared Datacentre was a winner in the category of Modernisation: Effectiveness & Efficiency in the Estate. There’s a wee writeup of this in RGU’s “Green Times”.

The British Computer Society UK IT Industry Awards recognised our venture as a winner in their “datacentre of the year” category.

Computer Weekly has featured the project in their European User Awards as “as an exemplar of public-sector excellence and green efficiency”. It’s worth reading this article for some insight into the slightly trickier moments of the project – “. . . like a Bond movie.”

With this success under our belt, we are now actively pursuing a shared project to develop a backup datacentre – work should start in earnest in January. This one will be on RGU’s Campus and once again will be designed with the environment in mind and take advantage of the abundant supply of cool fresh air of the North East (yes, summer as well as winter) to keep our servers at the optimum temperature without spending a fortune on air conditioning. I’m definitely hoping for a white Christmas . . .

It’s not a side of IT that our staff and students often get to see, but just thought you’d like to know how much we are leading the field here and we’ve managed to achieve by sharing with other institutions. My thanks to RGU IT Staff and colleagues in University of Aberdeen and North East Scotland College!

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Connected Aberdeen

Aberdeen and the surrounding regions are widely recognised as a global energy hub and a substantial contributor to the economy. Aberdeen was the only major UK city to grow during the last recession, oil and gas exports are around £7billion annually and 11 of Scotland’s top 25 companies are located in the region.

Driven by the vibrant commercial and residential sectors, there is a growing demand for digital connectivity in the area. There is also a recognition that currently it is behind the curve in the deployment of next generation broadband and that connectivity overall is not in keeping with the region’s role as a global energy hub.

Aberdeen City Council and Aberdeenshire Council are working in partnership on an initiative called “Accelerate Aberdeen” to improve digital connectivity within the City and the immediately surround regions. Late last year it was announced that Aberdeen City had been awarded over £5m from the UK Government “Urban Broadband Fund” to become a ‘Super Connected City’. This is being taken forward in a number of distinct strands and Aberdeen City Council have engaged early on with the two Universities in the city and with North East of Scotland College to ensure that they are involved.

One of the strands is called a “wireless concession” and has been launched as a public tender . Aberdeen City Council wants to see significantly improved mobile and wireless coverage across the city. To achieve this, the Council will allow the successful bidder to use the Council’s lampposts, bus stops, and buildings across the City to install the necessary infrastructure to provide 4G mobile coverage, and WiFi in key areas. It’s fantastic that the Council have recognised the importance of this to the educational institutions in the city. Between the two Universities and the College we probably have over 30,000 learners in the city – the vast majority of whom will rely heavily on good mobile and wireless coverage for communication and accessing modern digital learning resources. Anything that improves connectivity across the city will benefit the learner and research communities and their interaction with enterprises across the city.

Formally, this procurement covers assets owned by Aberdeen City Council. It might also be possible to extend this in a similar way to assets owned by the Universities and the College in order to improve coverage on our campuses, but we’ll need to wait until early 2014 to talk to the successful bidder and see what might be possible here. Will keep you posted.

Start of Semester

First of all, a big welcome from IT Services to all new students who have joined the University this year and welcome back to all students who are returning after their break over the summer. For the IT people, this has been overall the busiest summer we can ever remember, with all the preparation to install the network infrastructure for the opening of Riverside East, refurbishment of the Aberdeen Business School, and rolling out as part of that new Windows 7 desktops, a new printing solution, new audio visual facilities, a new WiFi system and moving one of our datacentres. I’ve written in more detail about these in various other posts over the summer and you can look over them for a bit more background.

We’ve done our best to test all of these over the summer, but it’s not until the start of semester when students return that everything really gets put to the test, and there have been a few teething problems this year. WiFi I know has been difficult in some parts of the Campus. In Riverside East, we put a new WiFi system in, based on “Eduroam.” This is working very well and the great thing is that once you have set it up on your tablet or smartphone, it connects automatically so you don’t have to keep on entering your username and password. The old Wifi system is still around in the rest of the Garthdee Campus and we had originally planned to rollout Eduroam to the rest of the Campus over the next few months. However, we’ve experienced a number of problems with the old WiFi system. We have a temporary solution in place which will keep the old system available, but we are now going to speed up the rollout of Eduroam to the rest of the Campus. This will consist of two phases:

First of all, we will replace all the existing WiFi access points on the old system with new Eduroam ones. That will be fairly quick and we hope can be done in the next 2-3 weeks. However, these access points do not currently cover the whole campus – they mainly cover the more heavily used public areas and teaching spaces. So the next phase will be to add additional access points to bring WiFi to as many as possible of the areas not covered by the current system. This will take a bit longer, as it takes some time to plan the optimum location of new access points.

We’ve had good feedback about the new Windows 7 desktops and those of you who were here last year should see a noticeable improvement. Some people have reported that some of the new desktops “freeze” from time to time for a few seconds, – IT Services are aware of that and are working on a solution along with our supplier.

The new printers are working well and successfully processing thousands of print jobs every day. As it’s a new system, we’ve had a number of calls to the Help Desk for people asking for help and advice, and a small number of specific issues, but hopefully that will settle down now as everyone adapts to the new system.

Talking of the Help Desk – the start of Semester is always a really busy time for the IT Help Desk. There’s normally a steady stream of people who have forgotten their passwords (not you though?) and this year there have been many additional calls from people asking how to use some of the new facilities such as printing and Eduroam WiFi. The graph below shows you clearly how the number of calls to the Help Desk have spiked just over the last 2-3 weeks, so I hope you understand it will take a little bit longer for non-urgent calls to be answered at the moment. Remember that you can find information on how to solve the most common queries on the IT Help Desk pages on RGyoU so please look there first:

You can also find information on the IT Services pages on the main University web site.

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Digital Curation

Unless you are devoid of any sense of wonder, you should marvel at the news that Voyager 1 has now officially left the solar system and has reached interstellar space. On the off chance that this fragile craft may one day be retrieved intact by intelligent life forms, NASA placed a “golden record” on board. This record includes samples of music, bird song, whale sounds, greetings in many languages, black and white and colour images of human society, our planet and the solar system.

They did not, however, include a record player in the spacecraft to playback this disk, and anyway that would only have helped for the sound tracks and would have relied on the unlikely possibility that alien life also uses a mains electricity supply of 120V 60 Hz with a type A electrical plug.

They did helpfully provide a stylus to get any alien started and a comprehensive set of instructions. This Wikipedia article explains how the instructions are meant to be understood, and you can look at / listen to some of the material here .

All this nicely illustrates one of the key challenges of digital curation – with our world being so dependent on digital material today, how can we preserve important digital assets and ensure that they will be accessible in the future? This is potentially a massive challenge for society and in the UK, the Digital Curation Centre has been established as a centre of expertise – a look at their web site illustrates the breadth of the challenge.

Of course, it’s not just long term digital curation that presents access challenges – ensuring at a basic level that file formats we publish are accessible across the exploding range of electronic devices is important. One great format is good old PDF – and given that the initials stand for “Portable Document Format” this should not be a surprise. Put a document into PDF format, and it is immediately accessible on Windows, Mac’s, Linux, IOS devices, Android and any web browser. Anyone using an iPad or similar is likely to have discovered a whole range of “apps” that also allow you to annotate PDF documents with comments, ink and even audio. On campus at RGU, Adobe PDF is available as standard on University PC’s and will allow PDF documents to be created and annotated.

Even better, although PDF was originally a proprietary format launched in 1993, it is now an open standard governed by the International Standards Organisation (ISO). It’s history spans 20 years so far – I can’t actually lay my hands on an original PDF version 1.0 document, but I’m sure if I could it would still be accessible with today’s PDF readers.

PDF of course does not cover all digital formats, but we should use it wherever possible in published material and documents to be stored long term. That may merit some policies and further guidance, but you don’t need to wait for that!

Of course, there’s also something ironic about a 1970’s spacecraft carrying an almost obsolete recording format into interstellar space. I have no idea how they would have put a PDF file onto Voyager 1 if PDF had been around at the time, never mind how to instruct an alien in its use.

Where goes the PC?

It’s now hard to read technology news without some mention of the decline of the PC – which is usually taken to mean Microsoft Windows based platforms. The latest one from Gartner indicates that global PC sales have fallen for the fifth quarter in a row, making it the “longest duration of decline” in history – down from 90 million units per quarter in late 2009, to 76 million units in the latest survey. The report is summarised on the BBC web site which includes a chart showing the spectacular rise in sales of tablet computers (iPad’s and similar) – widely agreed to be the main cause of the decline in PC sales.

It’s not just the Microsoft world – although Apple has bucked the trend, things seem to be catching up with them too .

What’s going on here, and what does this mean for future computing devices at RGU? Two things – (1) the PC format is not going to disappear suddenly tomorrow, but (2) the tablet format is definitely here to stay.

Let’s take the PC first. For years, most of the innovation was around the PC format and people faithfully upgraded their (perfectly good) PC’s every 3 to 5 years to get the latest technology and software. Now the innovation is in the tablet and smartphone space. People are still using PC’s where they need more power or sophistication in the software, but the PC they have is “good enough” for now, and instead of upgrading their PC many feel there is greater value in buying a tablet. I don’t know anyone who has actually thrown out their PC and replaced it completely with a tablet. A decline in sales does not necessarily mean a decline in use of the same magnitude at this stage and there is a whole world of software and services built around the PC platform that remains essential to everyday work life. It’s a bit like at the start of the recent economic recession – sales of new cars plummeted. People were still driving like before, it’s just that for a while they didn’t buy new cars.

What about tablets? Tablets bring a new world of opportunity in terms of their mobility, “instant on”, ease of use and long battery life to name but a few. Software similar to that available on PC platforms is available at a fraction of the price. As the power of tablets increases, they will progressively start to encroach on the functions carried out by PC’s – although the pace at which this happens will be interesting, as PC’s will grow in power as well. Have a look at the book “The Innovator’s Dilemma” for some great insight as to what might happen here based on previous technology shifts.

Our overall strategy is to sustain the existing, mission critical, PC based environment and software, but position it, and our future services, to be available on a wider range of devices {see MyApps post}. At the same time, we want to start exploring new opportunities brought about by tablets as these become a greater part of the device portfolio used by staff and students.

What about Windows 8? That’s almost worth a post in its own right. There are many views expressed online, but it seems the general consensus is that Windows 8 is not a great user experience for mainstream PC use – unless perhaps you have a touch screen. Touch seems to work better on mobile devices, but for vertically mounted touch screens there are concerns about its ease of use and “gorilla arm”. And then there’s the start button, or not . . .

Remember that the Windows platform is still mission critical to organisations, 76 million shipments per quarter is still huge, and the traditional Windows 7 user interface with mouse and keyboard is still the most effective interface for everyday tasks. If Microsoft are trying to take a leaf out of Apple’s book by creating a closer integration between their Surface tablet, and the desktop – they should remember that Apple didn’t bring wholesale change to their OSX platform to achieve this when they brought out the iPad.

Moving to Windows 8 will not be a simple transition and will require significant training across the organisation in comparison with previous versions. Right at the moment, therefore, we’re not rushing to rollout Windows 8 across our desktop at RGU and will focus on Windows 7 and removing the remaining areas of XP. However, we can’t stay on Windows 7 for ever, so we will watch carefully how the Windows platform develops further and how people in general start to become more at home with the later versions.

Interesting to hear the news about Steve Ballmer and it’s effect on the Microsoft share price. . .

Wi-Fi and Eduroam

Commissioning of the Wi-Fi system in the Riverside East building and Aberdeen Business School started on 14th August and will continue through to the 27th September. The service will initially be focussed on the Library tower, followed by the rest of Riverside East and finishing with the redeveloped are of Aberdeen Business School.

The initial service will cover Windows devices and apple phones and mobile devices. Other devices (e.g. android and Macs) will be added as commissioning continues.

Further details on the commissioning of wi-fi are available on RGyoU. Follow the link and enter your username and password to access the page.

Staff and students at RGU will be pleased to know that as part of implementing this new Wi-Fi system we will be implementing “Eduroam”. What is Eduroam? Very simply, it is a worldwide arrangement whereby staff from one academic institution can, when they are visiting another academic institution, log in to the wireless network at the other institution, but do so using the username and password they normally use at home. So, staff or students at RGU can visit other participating institutions and log in with their RGU username and password.

Likewise, visitors to RGU from other participating institutions can sign on to the RGU wireless network using their own username and password.

The key benefit is that when you are visiting another institution, you don’t need to request a “guest” username and password, you can just log straight in. It works on laptops and mobile devices, and some institutions may allow you to connect to their wired network as well if you need to.

We are implementing Eduroam as part of the implementation of the new wireless network this summer. This wireless network will be implemented in Riverside East first, and then Aberdeen Business School as part of its refurbishment, and then later in the year in the rest of the Campus. When the new wireless system is up and running, the SSID will just be called “eduroam”. This means that we will also be using Eduroam for the normal wireless access for our own staff and students on Campus – it’s easier just to have one system.

For a few months, we will be operating with two wireless systems. Buildings other than Riverside East and Aberdeen Business School will continue to run the current wireless system until it is fully replaced. However, as soon as Eduroam is available in Riverside East you will be able to use it at other participating institutions if you happen to be visiting them.

Before you can actually use Eduroam, there will be some things to check and configure on your own equipment, you will need to comply with Eduroam and institutional policies, and you’ll need to enter your username in a particular way – but more details of all of that will be issued nearer the time. There’s loads of information available about Eduroam, but a good place to start is on the Janet web site .

If you are looking to see where you can use Eduroam, you will see that each institution can be listed as a “Home” or “Visited” institution, or both. You want to look for institutions listed as “Visited” – these are the ones which will allow you to log in when you visit them.

There’s also an amusing animation which you can view to get an easy understanding of what Eduroam is about.

Did you Notice?

Sometimes the greatest successes are the ones which go largely un-noticed. I reminded you last week about the work that was taking place this past weekend to move our Faculty of Health and Social Care datacentre across to the new shared datacentre at the University of Aberdeen. I’m pleased to say that the work went very well and that all the servers were successfully relocated and are now operating in the new datacentre with little disruption over the weekend.

Yes, there were plenty of glitches along the way but the team had, and used, plans “B” and “C” along the way and successfully overcame all the critical problems. For most of the weekend, the University was running on just one datacentre instead of the normal two. Thanks to much work over the past several years, however, all our critical services continued to operate as normal over the weekend with just the occasional short pause when things were being restarted. E-mail, web site, Moodle VLE, My Apps etc were all working over the weekend. A few pieces of hardware had problems starting up, but thanks to the use of “virtualisation” technology we were able to just move the “virtual” servers onto other hardware and continue services as normal until the faulty hardware is repaired.

My thanks and well done to all those involved from IT Services!

    OLD DATA CENTRE

server1
The First Items to be removed from the Old Data Centre.

server2
Server No. 7 on its way out.

server3
1 engineer happy to be found amongst the cables.

server4
Lets get some bubble wrap around server No. 16

server5
35 Servers, 2 large Tape Libraries all wrapped up and ready to go.

    NEW DATA CENTRE

server6
Where did I put that server?
(It’s behind you mate).

server7
A collection of worried engineers.

server8
A nice collection of cables.
(Connected at Last)