Mobile Phone Signals Indoors

One of the issues that we have inside some of our buildings, particularly on the Garthdee Campus, is that the strength of mobile phone signals varies and is quite poor in some places. We’re not alone in having this problem – it affects other Universities as well although I am sure it varies hugely depending on the types of building and their location.

Just about everyone uses a mobile phone, so early on in looking at the Estates Masterplan, we decided to see what we could do to improve the signal strength inside our buildings. This turned out to be anything but a straight forward exercise. First of all, OFCOM regulations mean that only a licensed mobile telephony operator can legally operate the equipment that we would need to install inside our buildings. So, before we could do anything we had to find a mobile operator willing to help. We did find one of the big operators who was willing to take a look at this with us, but it was very unclear whether or not we would be able to reach an agreement with all the main mobile operators.

There are significant costs for the mobile operators to install their own equipment on campus, and they have their own cost/benefit calculations to go through before they will make any commitment. On top of that, there are also significant costs for the University and complete high quality indoor signal strength across the Campus, even for one operator, was starting to look very expensive.

So, faced with a situation where (a) a total coverage solution was very expensive and (b) we had no guarantees that we could persuade all the main operators to come on board, we went back to the drawing board:

Most people today have a “smartphone” as their mobile phone. This gives:

i) Ability to make and receive phone calls (!)

ii) Ability to send and receive SMS messages

iii) Ability to access the Internet for web browsing, web-based services such as e-mail, Facebook, etc

iv) Maps and location based services

v) Personal communication media including voice and video conferencing across data networks using services such as Skype, instant messaging and Twitter

(iii), (iv) and (v) can all be done on the University wireless network. SMS messages can usually get through even where signal strength is very low, and that just leaves voice calls.

Interestingly, from around 2010, data traffic carried across mobile networks had exceeded voice traffic, and is forecast to grow significantly. Some figures suggest that by 2015 95% of mobile traffic will be data related and all of that will be accessible inside our buildings on the wireless network.

So for the time being, we have concluded that it is not cost effective to implement a complete indoor signal solution for mobile phones across the Campus, as the wireless network will cover most uses. There are still other ways to make voice calls over the wireless network (e.g. Skype) and our new “Unified Communications” system will also allow members of staff to install “apps” on their smart phones to access the University telephone system.

We won’t completely lose sight of indoor mobile telephony, and we may yet put some small, low cost, solutions in particular areas if there is a real need for mobile voice access. We’re working with other Universities to see how best to do that.


New PC’s for 2012-13

From the University wide IT budget every year we set aside approximately £400k for our “access strategy”. It used to be called our “desktop replacement” budget, but the nature of the “desktop” has been changing over recent years. Increasingly, University provided IT services and software can be accessed through a Windows desktop PC, and Apple Mac, Windows laptops, netbooks, Apple Macbooks – and now tablet PC’s such as iPads and Androids. In recognition of this change, some of the annual £400k is also now used to support some of the server infrastructure which ensures that software can be accessed across this range of devices (see “MyApps – the Foundation of Future Desktop). Hence the term “access strategy”.

We have around 3,000 of these devices in use across the University and our current policy is in overall terms to replace these over a 5 year cycle. In some areas, because of specialist requirements, we replace on a 3 year cycle.

This is the time of year when we look at what is due for replacement and we are working through that at the moment. This is a big exercise and not just a question of buying a bunch of PC’s. For example, when we replace the 3-year old computers in specialist areas (e.g. School of Computing), these 3 year old ones will still be absolutely fine for many other parts of the University – so there is a domino effect as we refresh one area and cascade their PC’s into other areas. The PC’s that have truly come to the end of their life then have to be properly disposed off, complying with environmental legislation and ensuring that all confidential data has been wiped off them. All of this involves IT staff in IT Services, Schools, Library and external suppliers.

Procurement Scotland have negotiated national deals for buying desktop computers and laptops and wherever possible we buy from their contracts as we get great prices on the equipment.

This year, we are conducting that exercise with a large new building due to open within the next 12 months. One of our aims will be to ensure that as much as possible of the IT equipment going into that building is new or nearly new. This will include using large numbers of low energy workstations as part of the “Future Desktop” project. We might hold back some of the new purchases until nearer the opening of the new building so that they can go straight into the new building.

We are also very aware that we are buying equipment for a desktop world which is changing rapidly and where it is hard to predict what will be the “norm” in 5 years time. We have not yet brought iPads and the like into this annual upgrade process, and only this week Microsoft have announced their latest offering for the tablet computer world. But our “Future Desktop” strategy is very much about future proofing our whole approach and precisely what we buy in our annual refresh is going to change over the next 5 years. Interesting times!

We must have an app . . .

With the explosive popularity of the iPad and Android tablets, there is a great deal of interest in the development of “apps” to allow staff and student access to University information services. A number of Universities have already gone down this route. If you have an iPad and want some fun, go into the app store and do a search on “University” – you’ll see a few listed there, and of course being on the app store there is feedback. One of the apps listed has the following feedback:

“Still useless with no functionality”
“Surely the University can put more money into hiring a better company to create this app?”
“This app is clearly a failed student project”

Another app by contrast has the following:

“Such a useful app! Makes life so much easier” Fab idea!”
“Really helpful!! and Super!”
“Really useful for when around campus. Downside, can never have an excuse to miss a lecture again . . . oh man.”

We are getting a number of requests in from various Schools and Departments expressing their interest in having an app developed – that’s great. What we plan to do now is to create a clear guide on the criteria we should apply to decide when to create an app, and to guard against developing an app just to make some kind of fashion statement (and risk being the subject of ridicule on the app store). We also need to ensure that the University branding is protected and that anything launched into the app stores has been properly approved.

If we are developing apps for students, it will be essential to hear from them what they are really looking for and what they will value in an app. Many services which are web based will be accessible anyway from smart phones and tablet computers. The trick is to work out where the development of an app makes a compelling difference and to focus our energies on that.

Developing an app has all the challenges of any other software development. We would wish to ensure that it is multi platform (at least IOS, Android and Windows Phone), and we will need to have in place good support arrangements so that any glitches can be fixed rapidly, and if necessary we can release new versions quickly when operating system upgrades are released.

So, we’re on the case and will be working particularly with the School of Computing who have some experience of app development and will be able to help and advise on our options.


IT Strategy – our Infrastructure

Behind the scenes, we run a sizeable infrastructure to deliver the services available to our 12,000 registered users (staff and students, including distance learners). There is a Campus wide network (wired and wireless) connecting around 3,000 workstations, hundreds of phones, printers and an untold number of personal devices. This links to the core University services and also, of course, to the Internet via the national JANET academic network that connects all Universities and Colleges. We have two main server rooms on Campus that house all our servers and storage – we manage over 300 servers and over 40 Terabytes of storage. All this runs 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. This whole environment has to be constantly monitored, backed up and upgraded – old servers replaced, software updated, capacity expanded and new services brought on stream. It’s a bit like changing the engines on a Jumbo Jet one at a time without landing . . .

Most of this is unseen by our users, but it has to be a key part of our strategy to keep our infrastructure up to date, and to plan in advance what capacity we will need over the next few years. Particularly when many of our users use external services (e.g. Apple Cloud, Google, Facebook, YouTube) and these can change quickly – increasing the traffic on our network.

We’re also looking at ways to reduce costs and lower our environmental footprint. We have recently signed up with other regional institutions to create a shared regional datacentre, and we will move half of our servers and storage into this in a year’s time. The new datacentre will be state of the art and highly efficient in its use of power. Our equipment consumes over 100kW of electrical power and it takes more energy on top of this to cool it which is why it is so important to have an efficient datacentre.

We also have to plan for unforeseen events – what happens if we lose a server room through fire, power loss or other incident? What happens if one of our major network links is cut? We run dual systems on our critical services to ensure that they can continue even if we lose one of the server rooms and we have dual links and equipment on the core of our network. It is important to test our disaster recovery measures, and this year we are going to start running regular rehearsals which will include shutting down one of our server rooms to prove that the critical services continue to run as expected.


IT Strategy – Our Service Portfolio

In the last post, I introduced the new IT Strategy and briefly highlighted the “Personal Environment” as a priority. Our next priority is what we call the “Service Portfolio”. We deliver many services – too many to mention on the strategy document, but we have highlighted here the key priority areas. Whatever else we are delivering, we will be keeping an overall focus on ensuring that we develop our core services particularly to improve:

          • Our Virtual Learning Environment (VLE)
          • Information and Document Management
          • e-Enabling the University
          • Enhancing communication and collaboration tools

Many of the improvements on information and document management, and e-Enabling the University, will come from the Portal project – more on that very soon as the first parts will launch this summer. For Communication and collaboration tools the Portal will also be important, as will the new Unified Communications system – first parts of this will launch later in the year.

One area I haven’t mentioned is our online Virtual Learning Environment. In February of this year, the University approved £250,000 for a major upgrade to our online learning environment in recognition of its strategic importance. This project is a partnership between IT Services and DELTA (the Department for the Enhancement of Learning Teaching and Assessment). Our VLE is based on the community-developed Moodle platform and the overall aim of this major upgrade is to improve performance, resilience and ease of support and ensure that the platform has the capacity to scale up for the anticipated growth in content and number of users over the next few years. Some of the key areas this project will be looking at are:

  • In response to student feedback, significantly improved module editing capabilities to encourage and enable consistency of layout, engaging/attractive module design and efficient setup through the use of selectable module templates;
  • An upgrade to version 2 of Moodle, including capacity and performance upgrades for the Moodle servers and storage;
  • Linking our e-portfolio service (MyPortfolio) more closely with Moodle and making the service available to all students in line with employability initiatives and PDP (Personal Development Planning) policy;
  • Updating our eAssessment service to allow for “high stakes” e-Assessment and also to provide mobile access;
  • Upgrades to media services to enhance performance and meet demand for anticipated future use of rich media content, including video streaming, lecture capture and the use of archived TV content;

Work has started, and the essential background infrastructure upgrades will take place over the summer, with new facilities being made available progressively over the course of the next 12 months.

IT Strategy – The “Personal Environment”

In February 2012 we prepared a revised IT Strategy for the University, and since then we have been consulting with Schools, Departments and Students. It has still to be formally approved, but it has been well received and I’d like to start sharing it more openly. I’ve put a copy here if you want to look at the whole thing, but I thought I would do a few blog entries on specific topics. The strategy is based on 3 “drivers” – (i) The University’s strategy “A Clear Future” and key priorities from that (ii) External public sector drivers and (iii) technology drivers. From these, we have defined 4 key areas of priority for IT: 

1. The Personal Environment

2. Key Elements of the Service Portfolio

3. Infrastructure

4. Governance

 The “personal environment” is a new concept for us. By this we mean the whole technology environment that our staff and students will directly interact with in their day to day lives. This includes the University provided workstations, services and infrastructure, but also devices owned by our staff and students and the services they run on these. “Consumerisation” of IT means that for many people, their personally owned environment is important to them and they would like to be able to use this at work. So, like many organisations, we will be looking at ways of helping our users to do this, and to do it safely within clear guidelines that protect our information and services. 

We’ll develop a “bring your own device” policy, or “BYOD” as it is referred to. This takes us into some interesting territory – what should the University provide and what should we expect staff and students to provide for themselves? More about that in a future blog, but I am thinking along the lines that for many people if you want to use an iPad or similar, it should really be your own one and our job is to make it as easy as possible for you to connect to our services on it. I say that because inevitably, anyone with an iPad, or Android tablet computer will almost certainly end up using it extensively in their personal lives anyway. However, there will be some situations where a tablet computer might be an essential tool and we’ll have to look at a University provision to some extent. Your views are welcome! 

As well as personal devices, there are personal services. Staff and students are using facilities such as Dropbox, Google Apps, Evernote and many other widely available facilities. We don’t want to ban their use – the opposite in fact, but there are some important issues to think through and we will be issuing guidance on these – probably along the following lines: 

  • Personal data should never be stored in these services no matter how secure they appear. This might break the law and expose you and/or the University to penalties; 
  • We should not use these services to deliver facilities that duplicate what the University provides – that should be unnecessary and will confuse our staff and students; 
  • Important University documents, records and other information resources should always be kept on University provided storage where they are secure; 
  • But if you want to use these services for your own work or study that’s fine.


Unified Communication – bringing it together

As part of the refurbishment of the University Estate, we are replacing the University telephone system.

The first task, which we will do over the summer this year, will be to concentrate on the basics – just the new telephone system. Those of you who already have one of the new phones will notice little difference, those with older phones will get a new phone and immediately some better features on call forwarding, voicemail etc. You will also be able to use software phones to access the University phone system when you are on the move or at home. Behind the scenes, we will be installing the equipment to run the new system which incidentally will also make our whole system more resilient as part of our disaster recovery plans.

Once this is installed this system can become the hub for allowing much greater video communication, internally and externally. It will be possible to run video links from your desktop, iPad, iPhone or Android and link to Skype. We will equip a range of meeting and teaching rooms with video conferencing ability. A key aim is to make it easy for you to start a video link by looking up somebody from the Outlook address book. The equipment in the main video conferencing room in the Faculty of Health and Social care will also be upgraded. 

We will also be integrating Outlook with the new system. You will be able to pick up your voicemail messages directly from Outlook. We will also be deploying an instant messaging system. More about that nearer the time, but very simply it allows you to see instantly if someone is available and fire off a quick message or start a phone call. It keeps email traffic down, and avoids you wasting time phoning someone if they are not available. 

All this represents quite a big change in the ways in which we can communicate, and other organisations which have adopted this have welcomed the flexibility that this brings. We’ll send out more information nearer the time as we are ready to start making this available for use.