A Sound Investment

Some of you may have noticed some inclement weather in the North East of Scotland these past few weeks leading to flooding, blocked roads and power cuts. A lot of this peaked on December 30th in the Garthdee area of Aberdeen, where the RGU Campus is. We didn’t get flooded, but there was quite a big power cut across the Campus.

Over the past few years we have moved all our core IT infrastructure into two new datacentres – sharing with the University of Aberdeen and North East Scotland College. One of them is on the RGU Campus so this power cut was a good test. Both datacentres are well equipped with battery backup, plus generator backup – but of course as much as you can test these components in controlled circumstances, there is nothing like the real thing.

In the event, when it became clear that there had been a power cut, I received an anxious phone call from the duty manager asking me if the data centre and our IT systems would be OK? By the time I received the call, the automatic alerts had already notified technical staff in IT Services and the Head of IT Operations and Support, Richard Lynch, was on his way to the Garthdee Campus. There he found that both the battery backup and generator had kicked in automatically as they are designed to when the power was cut. All our IT services continued without interruption and when power was restored the generator powered itself down again and everything settled back to normal.

Many if not most of the major incidents I have encountered in IT have been down to a loss of cooling and/or power in the datacentre. Incidents such as these demonstrate the value of investing properly in datacentre resilience. What ended up being a non-event could otherwise have been a a much more protracted IT recovery operation.

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New Building for the Scott Sutherland School of Architecture and Built Environment

The next phase of construction in our Riverside East building – the new Scott Sutherland School – is now nearing completion. This has been built as a new wing onto the south of the existing building, and will house the School and the Faculty Office for the Faculty of Design and Technology. Early in June, the contractors expect the building to be ready for the University to start fitting out with its own furnishings, equipment to make it ready for occupation from July. Have a look at Daniel Doolan’s blog for some great photos of the construction work for this project – and indeed the rest of Riverside East.

One of the most important tasks in getting the building ready is the installation of the IT and Audio Visual (AV) equipment. Some of this has already taken place – the IT network cabling was installed as part of the construction work, and the company installing all the AV equipment has been working alongside the main contractor and much of the AV kit is already in place.

Over the next few weeks, staff from IT Services and the University IT/AV team will be working to install and commission all the remaining IT facilities. These activities can’t really start until the main building work is finished as they depend on a clean environment and the furniture installation.

First of all, IT staff will test the fibre optic connection that links the new building to the rest of Riverside East. The next stage is to start installing the network switches in the communications rooms within the building. The switches connect to the cabling and control all the IT network traffic throughout the building so nothing really works until these switches are in place. It’s not just a question of plugging them in – they all have to be configured correctly to operate with the rest of the University network.

As the switches are being commissioned, IT staff will also be checking out all the AV equipment and making sure that it works across the network. Then, once the furniture arrives and the switches are ready, IT staff can start to install PC’s on staff desks ready for staff to move in. Following this, the WiFi access points will be installed so that WiFi access is available in the new building, the printer/copiers need to be installed and linked up to the network, and PC’s need to be installed in the IT labs and studio spaces in time for students to start using the new building.

This is a busy and very intensive period of work for IT staff and will be a key priority for them over the next two months. We are all looking forward to seeing the new building completed and occupied, and staff and students enjoying a modern new environment for the School!

WiFi plans for January

We have continued to monitor our WiFi service across the Campus over the last couple of months and I’m aware that whilst it has now improved for many people, there are still some people having difficulty in using the WiFi network. Our own engineers have been testing the performance regularly across the Campus and gathering information on specific issues, and we have been working closely with the manufacturer throughout this period. We know that there are issues connecting some types of device, some issues when people move from one Campus location to another, and some specific areas of the Campus where people are consistently having more difficulty connecting to WiFi than other areas. On the plus side, we can see from our system monitors that there typically two to three thousand successful connections being made by people at any point in time during the day.

We have now reviewed the issues we are seeing with the manufacturer, and are getting support from very senior level within the company. We have agreed an action plan with them and they will be placing engineers on our Campus week commencing 5th January to carry out a complete review of our entire installation, and as part of that to make some specific changes that we have agreed. There will be some outages during the first week in January, but we anticipate these will be short.

Our own engineers and the manufacturer will carry out an initial assessment of the impact of this work over the first half of January. With such a large user population and range of devices it will be important that we do further checks after that so that we can be confident that we have resolved the issues people are experiencing and have a stable and reliable service across the Campus. We’ll do this by asking a group of staff and students in the first instance to keep a more detailed diary of their use of WiFi – when it works and when/where they have problems.

We are giving a high priority to resolving the remaining issues on WiFi and will work through this as quickly as we can. Please do keep providing feedback via our Helpdesk, visit the Georgina Scott Sutherland Learning Centre or contact us via ITHelpdesk@rgu.ac.uk if you need any help meantime.

WiFi

I outlined in a previous blog post the work we have carried out over the last several months to improve the WiFi service on Campus. We’ve been carefully monitoring the service since the start of semester, and over the first few weeks it performed well and we were seeing it handle a much higher load of users successfully when compared to the same period last year. We had good feedback from those users we were in contact with.

I’m aware, however, that over the past two weeks in particular there have been some problems which have affected people trying to connect to Eduroam over WiFi on our Campus. Once they are connected, the connection is good and performs well, but there have been a number of reports of people not being able to connect from time to time. The problem seems to be that the attempt to connect either hangs, or says that it can’t connect, or asks for a password.

IT Services engineers have raised this as a high priority issue with the manufacturer, and they currently have an engineer on site from Europe backed up with specialist advice from the USA. They are able to trace what is happening on the system and are currently working on a number of options to address the situation. I’m sorry that people are experiencing some problems at the moment – we know how important the WiFi service is and we have stressed to the manufacturer the urgency of getting our WiFi system back to a stable state as quickly as possible.

If you do encounter difficulties in connecting meantime, the tips provided in the previous blog post may still be useful to help you get connected.

Responsive Web

A new version of RGU’s web site went live this morning, with a new design based on the concept of “responsive web design.” The Wikipedia entry for responsive web design summarises it as follows:

“Responsive Web design (RWD) is a Web design approach aimed at crafting sites to provide an optimal viewing experience—easy reading and navigation with a minimum of resizing, panning, and scrolling—across a wide range of devices (from mobile phones to desktop computer monitors).”

If you look at the new RGU home page on a full screen PC, or large tablet format such as an iPad, it will look pretty much like before (although there have also been additional improvements made along with the implementation of responsive design):

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If, however, you look at it on a smaller screen size such as an iPhone or similar, it will look like this:

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The layout of the page is now optimised for the smaller screen size, so that you no longer have to “pinch and zoom” to get the areas you are interested in to a size where you can read them.

Have a look yourself!

Update on Wireless Service

First of all, a Happy New Year to all staff and students at RGU! This blog has been a bit quiet last few weeks so new year resolution is to put more out on the blog.

Back in August, I gave an update on our plans for improving the wireless service on our Garthdee campus. Our plan then was to install the new service, based on “Eduroam”, in Riverside East and the refurbished space in Aberdeen Business School, followed by a rollout to the rest of the Campus to replace the previous system. We had hoped that the previous system would have been able to operate for an interim period of time until we completed the full rollout of Eduroam, but unfortunately it continued to cause problems from the start of Semester.

So, we decided to quickly replace all the wireless access points on the old system so that Eduroam is now the only wireless system on Campus. We also installed additional access points in the refurbished ABS Foyer and that has greatly improved the cover there.

However, we don’t yet have wireless coverage across all areas on Garthdee and we are working to extend this over the next few months. At the moment, the whole of Riverside East is covered, the open central areas in Aberdeen Business School, and Faculty of Health and Social Care are covered, Sports Centre and a number of open areas and meeting rooms in the other buildings. Until we get the cover extended, you may find some rooms where the wireless signal is not strong enough to give you a good connection – it’s not broken, it’s just that we haven’t yet brought the new system to these areas.

We know that WiFi is an important service for our users. Students, as usual, have a wonderful way of expressing their service requirements and one of the Class Reps shared this little pyramid with me – thanks!

WiFi

IT Services can see from the system logs that many people are using WiFi without any difficulty, but at the end of last year there were a number of people reporting some problems. Remember, there’s good support material which you can find online on the IT Helpdesk’s support pages.

We made a change in December as recommended by the supplier to address some problems in connectivity and “roaming”. What’s “roaming”, you may ask? Well, when your device connects to a wireless network it connects to a wireless access point (transmitter) close to you. If you move around the building, the system has to release you from the original access point and connect you to another one. Technically, that’s a complex process and sometimes, it can take a minute or two for that to settle down, so if you are finding problems with WiFi as you move around, allow the system a bit of time.

Some people have been confused by “RGU Connect” – you only use RGU Connect once, and what it does is configure all the settings on your device. Once you’ve done that, your device should automatically connect to eduroam from then on. Please don’t try to use RGU Connect as your main WiFi – it causes problems for other people trying to connect, and anyway won’t work very well.

IT Services also found last year that some devices worked better than others – this appears to relate to the manufacturer and the operating system – whether its Microsoft, Android or Mac. IT Services hope that the change made in December will have improved these issues but are continuing to monitor and work with the supplier on this.

Some apps that have worked in the past aren’t working fully. Some of these IT Services have been able to fix, others, are more difficult to diagnose. I am aware that Facebook Apps work on some devices but not on others – this is not a University policy to block Facebook!!! IT Services are continuing to work to resolve these issues, although some of this is dependent on getting information from the people that wrote the apps.

When you visit other eduroam campuses (in Aberdeen you can access it at Aberdeen University and NHS teaching hospitals) you will need to turn off “proxy” settings to allow you to use the service there (remember to note what they are before you turn them off!) then switch the proxy settings back on when you come back to RGU – they are normally “proxy.rgu.ac.uk”.

And finally (!) – if you are running a conference or event, remember that IT Services can provide guest logins for the WiFi. Only guests from other Universities will be able to use eduroam, and even then only if their University supports it.

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!