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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Web and Social Media

What do you think of the RGU Web Site? Do you use RGU’s presence on Facebook? Or LinkedIn? Do you follow any of RGU’s Twitter accounts, or bloggers {ha! If you are reading this then that question is answered}? What should the modern organisation project to the external world in terms of its digital presence and how should our key stakeholders be able to interact with us digitally?

These are questions we have been asking quite intensely over the past 6 months. Like many Universities, we have a web site (actually, quite a few web sites – that’s an issue) which had its last major development around 5/6 years ago, has had its content and some aspects of its look and feel spruced up incrementally since then, and was recently reworked to offer a “responsive design. We’ve also produced a set of guidelines to assist staff in the most appropriate ways to use the various social media channels.

In the intervening years there have been massive changes in the use of mobile technology in particular, and the way in which stakeholders now expect to be able to engage with organisations. It’s a while since we really took a long hard look at our external “digital presence” holistically, so we’ve asked We are AD – a digital agency – to work with us and look at our overall external presence as it is today, against best practice and our own strategic objectives as an organisation. We want to refresh our external presence to reflect today’s expectations from our stakeholders, and just as importantly set up our internal organisation so that we can keep our digital presence current in what we expect to be a continually changing technology environment.

They’ve been working with us since October, and have met with a cross section of stakeholders as well as doing an in-depth analysis of traffic to our web site and main social media sites. We expect to see their findings before Christmas, and in the early part of 2016 we’ll be preparing our plans to respond to these – will keep you posted!

Looking after your Passwords

I’ve already written recently about passwords, but the headlines this morning about the cyber attack on TalkTalk’s web site are a timely reminder again to all of us about the need to think carefully about how we use passwords online. It may be a while before they find out exactly how the attack happened, and what information the hackers may have got their hands on, but I thought that the Chief Executive, Dido Harding, provided this morning very sound advice to their customers in the circumstances.

One piece of advice related to passwords. Most of us now use so many online services that it is just not practical to have an individual password for each one – nobody is going to remember that, and you’d end up writing them down. Probably not very smart. However, the other extreme – using the same password for everything – isn’t particularly smart either, especially if you also use the same username (which might, for example, be an email address).

If you use the same password across many web sites, then if any one of these is successfully hacked it is possible that hackers will be able to find your password. Once they’ve done that, it’s an easy task for them to try out your password on other sites – your email for example. If they manage to gain control of your e-mail account they can start to impersonate you and cause all sorts of mayhem in your life. It can be very hard to get control of your email account back in this circumstances – most of the major email providers allow you to provide a backup email address and mobile phone number for these situations, so make sure you have these registered.

This can also present a security risk to University systems. If you use the same password to access your University IT Account and lots of other personal accounts, then you could be putting your University account at risk. If one of your personal accounts was hacked, and the hacker knew (or just guessed) that you worked at RGU, they could gain access to your RGU details. Might be a long shot, but I know an organisation where something very similar to this happened.

It may not be practical to have different passwords for absolutely everything, but think carefully about what is really precious to you and use a range of passwords. I would recommend, unless you’re not bothered about losing money, that the passwords you use for any online banking or investments are unique for each account and not used anywhere else. I would also recommend that you at least use a unique password for work, and a unique password for your personal email account and things like Facebook if you use them regularly. Money, work, and your core means of identity and communication – these things are important.

Beyond that it’s up to you – there will be many accounts where you are happy to reuse a password where the risks are lower. Have an Interflora account? Well, maybe a hacker will send a bunch of flowers to their granny – that’s not quite as bad as losing your life savings. Of course, even in these cases, if you think one of them has been breached it is important to change the password you use but at least the stakes are lower while you go about this.

It’s a good idea to keep a list of all your online accounts somewhere to jog your memory. If you really had to change all your passwords, can you really remember everything you’ve signed up to? And if you are finished using any online service – delete your account. It’s one thing less to worry about.

Welcome Back!

Oops – seems like I have neglected the blog over the summer, so time to get it started again regularly with the new academic year under way. First of all a very warm welcome to all new students, and to those returning for another year of study – it’s great to see you all here and that includes those of you who are studying online. All the IT resources mentioned below are for you too.

Also a warm welcome to any members of staff who have started recently.

First things first – if you need any help with anything to do with IT, please do use the IT Help Desk resources, or contact them directly if you need further help. IT Services have updated a lot of the information available online, so even if you are a returning student it’s worth checking these links (if you need to sign in just use your normal username and password):

On Moodle, the IT Help Desk has a new page, with a number of short videos to show you the key IT Resources available to you and how to access them. They also show you how to connect these to your own devices.

On the Student Portal you’ll find additional information and more detailed documents if you want to refer to them:
Follow the Help Desk on Twitter – they use it regularly to give you updates on any changes to our systems, news, and links to helpful information.

Follow this blog – we use it to keep you up to date in a bit more detail on what’s happening, what’s planned, and items of interest.

And of course, if you need to contact the help desk directly you can do that too:

Email: ITHelpdesk@rgu.ac.uk

Telephone: +44 1224 262777
In Person at the Learning Centre located in the Aberdeen Business School building

Opening Times are:

MON to THU – 8am to 8pm
FRI – 8am to 5pm
SAT – 10am to 2pm
SUN – 12noon to 4pm

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!

I’ve called my dog @ff43z*;

If you search on the internet “someone figured out my password”, and look for “images” – you should see a few examples of a poster with a picture of a forlorn looking dog and the caption “Someone figured out my password, now I have to rename my dog!”. Cats don’t find this funny either.

Trying to get people to take IT Security seriously is like pushing water uphill sometimes. . . until something happens. I stopped by the reception desk in one of our buildings this week and whilst I was there, somebody came along and handed over an iPhone that had been left on a chair. The receptionist said that this was a regular occurrence – I hope at least it had a pin number on it. Then, she produced a biscuit tin full of USB sticks that have been found lying about. How many of these contain the only copy in the world of somebody’s dissertation, or worse some confidential information?

USB sticks in a biscuit tin - is yours there?
USB sticks in a biscuit tin – is yours there?

Recently, the worst passwords of 2014 have been announced. The good news is that the word “password” has at last been knocked off its perch as the most common password. The bad news is that it has been replaced by “123456”.

Poor password control puts University systems at risk. Consider this – you have some kind of personal online account with a username and a poor password. You’re human, and remembering all these passwords is such a hassle – so you just use the same one at work – for your e-mail, the University finance system, whatever. Your personal account gets hacked and somebody knows your password. {Easily done – you may received one of these urgent emails which look as if they come from the IT Help Desk and ask you to “click here” to confirm your account or something like that. You’ll be amazed at how many people click the link, but not you of course.}

They make a guess that you might, just might, use the same password at work – bingo, they’re into the University finance system. Far fetched? Well, something very similar to that scenario happened in one organisation that lost a 6 figure sum of money as a result.

Now that I’ve kept your interest to this point, I’ve just revised the University’s policy on use of IT Facilities. Please read it – it’s there to help everyone use our facilities safely and fairly, there’s a very short introduction to the key points, it’s not rocket science and it won’t take you more than a few minutes.

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.