A fresh start… a fresh semester

turn-it-off-and-back-on-again-2If you follow the @RGU_Helpdesk on Twitter you will have seen their big welcome back this week to students new and old.

A new semester is an opportunity to make a fresh start; reorient yourself with your course, and the campus. Having been through the stress of exams and assessments, it’s time to re-establish a routine through your studies and get some welcome stability back to your life.

The IT department are pretty grateful for some stability this week too having dealt with some unwelcome and significant network issues last week and a campus power cut.

As part of our fresh semester start we’re trying to focus a bit more on communicating information to you through all the channels we have available, and hopefully learn a bit about how we can best engage with staff and students, but also to raise a general awareness of our services and the value we add to ensure stability and a high degree of availability. This week the IT Helpdesk are featuring in the winter edition of RGU Nexus magazine, and in particular you’ll meet the helpdesk and learn a bit about the sheer scale of support they are involved in.

It’s a standing joke that technical helpdesks will ask you “switch it off and back on again” to fix the problem or, as cynics would suggest, make you(r problem) go away. The TV series the IT Crowd took it to new levels with their repeated “have you tried turning it off and on again” turning it into a catchphrase…

It’s not just a standing joke though, there is some science behind this approach. We really aren’t trying to make you go away with the least effort on our part. A large percentage of errors are quite genuinely resolved by rebooting computers, and if not then it can generate errors that are more meaningful to technicians to help with diagnosis, or eliminate causes.

When a PC restarts it’s really just making a fresh start. It clears out any old data or processes and makes fresh connections to its resources and its network, restarts essential background processes and does it in a set logical sequence to ensure optimum performance.

Most importantly for a helpdesk call, if there are any hung processes these will be stopped and started a fresh too, and your PC will more than likely be running better with any “glitch” you had encountered, more than likely have gone.

So like all of us, a reboot is sometimes the best course of action. With the start of a new semester and a relatively new year, you’d do no harm trying a wee reboot from time to time, for your health and that of your electronics.

If it doesn’t work, then you can always call the Helpdesk but unless it’s a technology induced headache, don’t expect them to fix your health troubles too…. … they’re good, but not that good!

ITHelpdesk

email: ithelpdesk@rgu.ac.uk

telephone: +44 1224 26 2777

 

 

First Move

First Move

Well, it’s the 30th May 2013, and the Library staff and books have moved into the new Library Tower in Riverside East, and this is the first day that they’ve opened to staff and students.

In a recent post I explained what was involved in preparing the IT infrastructure behind the scenes, so this post is by way of an update and also a huge thanks. Many IT staff from IT Services and from the Faculty IT&AV team, have worked immensely hard over the last 2-3 weeks on fitting out all the IT facilities and I am grateful to their commitment in getting everything to this stage. Thanks also to staff from the Library, Estates and various contractors for their assistance.

With some final construction work still ongoing in the building, and furniture and book moves happening at the same time, it’s been a challenge to schedule everything and work around issues and snags that have been arising on a daily basis. But over the past few weeks the IT teams have commissioned the network infrastructure required to service the Library and front desk and deployed around 400 workstations into the Library ready for use. There are some last minute issues with power connections at the moment which are preventing the workstations from being powered on today but hopefully that will be resolved quickly and everything is then ready to go.

Now that the IT in the Library is finished, the IT teams will turn their attention to the rest of the building. There is a schedule over the summer for staff moving from the three Schools into the building and the IT teams will be working ahead of these moves to prepare the network and install workstations. Priority will be given to this, and the installation of IT equipment into the various teaching spaces in the building will fit around preparation for these staff moves. The IT network will also be required to support other functions in the building, such as the building management system which is used to manage a range of building services and that will be scheduled too.

Finally, the WiFi system also has to be installed in the building. The system has already been procured and delivered and IT Services will start to deploy this once all the significant remaining building work is complete and the priority areas of the main IT Network are ready.

It’s hard to convey the scale of all this work to a non specialist. When talking to colleagues in the Library, I was interested to hear them refer to “kilometres” as a measure of how many books they were moving. That’s a great measure and something that you can visualise. I wonder what the IT equivalent is – kilometres of networking cabling? Or alternatively who can suggest how many kilometres there are in a terabyte?

UCAS – Paperless Admissions

For those who may not be familiar with the post-school education system in the UK, UCAS is a national body which is responsible for managing applications to higher education courses in the UK. Anyone wishing to study at a UK University will submit their application online via the UCAS web site which also provides information to assist applicants in their choice of University and course.

The process is fully online – I was on the parent side of this a couple of years ago when my son applied to University, and it’s always interesting to see things from a different perspective! What would not be obvious to most parents, however, is that once all these applications are submitted online and the data is transferred electronically, until now UCAS has also printed them out and distributed something like 2.7 million paper copies of the applications to Universities across the UK every year. It is therefore the paper application that forms the basis of the admissions process.

All that is about to change. Following a review of the application processes, UCAS announced that they plan to move to a completely paperless process so that student applications will only be passed to Universities electronically instead of by hard copy. This will take effect for students commencing in Academic Year 2014-15, which actually means that we will no longer receive paper forms from the start of the next admissions cycle in Oct/Nov 2013.

Sheila Kay, Head of Admissions and Enquiries at RGU, is leading the project at RGU to prepare for this and this is her most recent update on progress and plans:

“Over the last year we have done a lot of work including working with a selection of school-based admissions tutors and staff to identify what we require to put in place to continue best practice but to also look at ways to improve our efficiency and effectiveness throughout the admissions cycle.
By the end of this month, the supplier will be on site to install a web-based component of our student record system which gives us the functionality we are looking for.

The first phase of testing will be done by admissions staff to ensure the basic business processes are working as they should before expanding testing out to others. As all the Schools/Faculties have different ways of working and different requirements, it is important to ensure that what is put in place works for each area. Volunteers will be sought to assist with testing at various times over the coming months.

For courses that have no interview/selection process to manage, it is likely that input won’t be required until October.

For courses that do interview or have selection visits the plan is to get a short working group together to look at these requirements in more detail to ensure we can accommodate all procedures within the scope of the project. Contact will be made with these Schools shortly to get this started.

The current timeline is to get all the testing done by the end of October 2013 with a view to the system being put into the live environment at the beginning of November. There will be members of staff that have been involved with testing who will also require training in the full system. There will also be staff who’ve not been involved in testing and will be using the system and will require training in how to use it. This will take place early November and several sessions will be set up at Garthdee to ensure all staff have the opportunity to attend.”

Files on Fire

 

Last week we had our annual Health and Safety internal conference at RGU. We heard first hand from another University which had experienced a major fire, and was willing to share with us their lessons learned. We’d had a similar talk two years ago from another University which had experienced a major fire. You would think these were rare occurrences, but it was suggested that we should search on the Internet for “University fire explosion” – try it yourself and see what comes up.

It’s a great feature of the HE sector that we have such open sharing of experience and lessons learned. Following each of these major fires, the institutions quickly discovered that many staff were still storing the only copy of some electronic files and documents locally, on their laptops or desktops. They weren’t backed up. In some cases, there were also some local servers with important departmental data on them. They weren’t backed up either. 

For each presentation, we were shown images of burnt and/or soaking wet IT equipment being dried out in large dehumidifier arrangements before some IT recovery firm then set about recovering the precious data. In many cases this was important research data. Amazingly, the recovery was able to retrieve a lot of this data, but it took some weeks and the data was inaccessible during that time. For equipment unfortunate enough to be near the seat of a large fire – forget it.

None of this is anything new. You shouldn’t have to have experienced a car crash to know the importance of wearing a seatbelt. So, we shouldn’t have to experience a fire to know the importance of making sure our important electronic information is securely stored and backed up. If you place it on one of the University Shared Network Drives, or any of the main University systems such as Moodle – it’s all safe and secure.

If, however, you have the only copy of something important stored on your desktop computer, and no backup anywhere else, then as you close the door tonight to go home just imagine that’s the last time you see your office in one piece.

How does that feel?

 

 

 

 

Telephone Service

I don’t imagine you spend any more time thinking about the phone on your desk than you do thinking about the light bulb in the ceiling. It’s just there, it works, so why the heck are we changing it?

Up until the 1990’s, all phones were what we call “analogue”. If you have an old looking phone on your desk, chances are it’s an analogue one. With an analogue phone each phone has it’s own wire which goes all the way back to the University’s telephone exchange system. 1,500 phones = 1,500 wires, some going quite a distance.

In the 90’s, it became clear that telephone calls could be carried over computer data networks, which by then were becoming standard in buildings anyway. This is called “Voice over IP”, or “VOIP” for short. At a very basic level, this saves on wiring. For our big new campus buildings, we save hundreds of thousands of pounds by using VOIP instead of analogue, and for that reason alone nobody puts analogue phones into new buildings any more.

But that’s not all – as well as saving money, VOIP allows many more features than are available with analogue phones. I explained some of these in a previous post on Unified Communications.

At RGU, about half our phones are already on VOIP, but with the new Masterplan building opening up next year, it will all be VOIP and we are just now taking the opportunity to move all the remaining analogue phones across to VOIP. This is well underway and those of you with old analogue phones are going to see these replaced over the next couple of months.

If you have an analogue phone, this is what will happen:

1) Before we can do anything else, we have to get the new VOIP phone onto your desk and make sure that it’s working – we don’t want to leave you without a working phone. So, first you will be given a new “VOIP” phone which will sit on your desk along with your analogue phone. At that point, all your incoming calls will come in to your analogue phone, but you will be able to make outgoing calls from either phone. We’ll do that for all analogue phone users before moving to the next stage.

2) Then, phone by phone, we have to move your extension number from the old analogue phone to the new VOIP phone. We’ll tell you when that’s happening. After that, you use your VOIP phone for everything.

3) Then, we’ll take away your old analogue phone.

4) Once we have all staff safely across onto VOIP phones, then we will start to look at making other features available.

For those of you moving into the new Masterplan building down at Garthdee, you’ll get your new phone well ahead of that in your existing office. Then when the time comes to move, it’s just a question of unplugging the phone and plugging it in at your new desk down at Garthdee (someone will do that for you).

You can see more details of the project here:

On the Move

 

Modern video and voice communication technology is now very powerful and increasingly commonplace. For some time now, there have been predictions that the need to travel for business meetings etc will diminish greatly – and there is some evidence that this is happening. But we still travel – a lot.

Like many organisations, RGU has a staff travel policy and of course there is a form to fill in (which at the moment is paper based), and a process to follow. It’s an important process to ensure that staff travel in the most economic way, that absences are properly authorised, that an appropriate risk assessment is carried out for travel to international destinations and that staff have adequate guidance and information for their travel.

It is not, however, the most loved process in the University and it is generally felt that it could be streamlined and improved. A key goal of the new staff portal, which will launch in a few weeks, is to be able to “e-enable” our important administrative processes – and the travel process has been picked as our first one.

The worst thing that we could do would be simply to e-enable the existing process as it stands. This is an opportunity to look at the whole process from the ground up and redesign it. We are planning to do this with a “Kaizen Blitz”, as part of “Lean Kaizen” thinking. You can find more about the Lean Kaizen process here.

Essentially, it involves bringing a team together from across the University – people who travel, people who book travel, people who authorise travel, and people who can challenge existing ways – for about a week. Against a set of clear objectives, they will look at the current process, the issues, what we are trying to achieve and by the end of the week will have proposed a new way for us to manage business travel. Some of the key objectives will be:

  • Minimising the number of steps – challenge each stage and the approval routes
  • Easing the user experience – make travel booking a straight forward process
  • Ensure that risk assessment and other health and safety considerations are nonetheless robustly carried out and audit trail kept
  • Ensure that the process is likely to minimise cost of travel
  • Enhance the availability of information to travellers, and allow feedback to enhance the experience for future travellers to same destination
  • Ensure that the University can quickly identify and respond effectively to unforeseen events and emergencies

Once we have that, we can then start to configure the new online process on the Portal.

We’re just at the stage of identifying the Lean Kaizen team – watch this space.

 

Green ICT

Hopefully you will have read the recent edition of RGU’s “Green Times” – if not you can read it here.

It includes an article which shows the environmental impact of PC’s being left switched on and what you can do to help – by turning your PC off when it is not in use. What is less obvious to our staff and students is the impact of “behind the scenes” ICT. Way back in 2007, the Gartner Group estimated that globally information and communications technology contributes to some 2% of total carbon emissions.

That’s about the same as the aviation industry. A quarter of the ICT related emissions come from data centres running servers, which then require further energy to keep them cool. . .

We have many servers running in our server rooms on Campus, and the rooms themselves are nothing like as efficient as modern datacentre standards. We expend much more energy on cooling than we need to. Aberdeen University is in a similar situation, so are Aberdeen College and Banff and Buchan College (although they have recently upgraded their server room), and at the moment we all run our data centres independently from each other. Over the past 3 years we have been working hard to see how we could collaborate to reduce all our costs and carbon emissions.

This culminated in an agreement earlier this year to move into a shared datacentre by upgrading space in the University of Aberdeen. It’s currently under construction, and will be ready by the Spring of 2013. Initially, it will become the primary datacentre for Aberdeen University, Robert Gordon University and Aberdeen College, with Banff and Buchan using the facility at a later date.

The environmental impact of this will be substantial. We estimate that the total power consumption of all the servers from the 3 institutions is 220kWh. In our own separate, old, data centres at the moment we probably use the same amount of power again just to keep the servers cool (220 kWh is roughly 22 electric cookers, with everything switched on, running all the time – just picture it). CO2 emissions from all that will come to 2030 metric tonnes per annum.

By packing all these servers into one modern datacentre we will slash the energy required for cooling. We estimate that our total power consumption will drop from 441kWh to about 264kWh. As an added bonus, much of the electricity will be generated by Aberdeen University’s combined heat and power plant with lower associated carbon emissions. In total, we anticipate saving 1061 tonnes per annum.

And into the bargain, the institutions will save £2.6m collectively over the next 10 years.