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. . .

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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.”

Moving to Riverside East

It’s just a few weeks before the first part of Riverside East, our new building down at the Garthdee Campus, will be open for staff and students.  The Library is moving first and they plan to have moved out of the Aberdeen Business School and into the new building around the end of May. Sounds like they are having fun with red and green dots getting ready to move thousands of books – have a look at their blog.

We’re having fun too in IT Services, although we’re not quite seeing dots in front of our eyes yet. Before anyone can move into the new building we need to get all the IT equipment set up ready for staff and students to move in.

First priority is to build the IT network. All the cabling work has been done as part of the construction project, but what we have to do now is install all the network routers and switches which will drive the whole network across the building, and connect it up to the rest of the Campus. The network kit has been bought and the IT Engineers are on site to start the installation. It’s a complex process. The network equipment needs to be physically installed into the communications rooms and communications risers in the building, and thousands of cables need to be connected up to the correct network equipment. It’s essential that this is done systematically and neatly from the beginning to make access for future maintenance easy. Then it’s all got to be systematically configured and tested. The priority is to get everything ready for the Library first, but in order to do that much of the whole building network core needs to be done anyway. So in terms of sequencing, we’ll get the Library done first and then move on to the remainder of the building according to the move schedule for the Schools and Departments moving in. Because some of the construction work is still ongoing, health and safety is an important priority and all the IT engineers who will be working on site are going through formal safety training first.

Next come the IT workstations – approximately 400 are going into the Library space in time for it to open for students. There is a team of IT staff, ably assisted by some students from the School of Engineering, who are currently taking lots of workstations out of their boxes and cabling them up ready for installation in the new building. That’s fine, but of course you can’t put the workstations into the Library until there are desks to sit them on. So, all this IT work is actually now part of a very intensive programme of work to co-ordinate all the activities for the move into the building. The University has contracted with a company called Space Solutions and they are managing the overall programme of work – actually right down to scheduling the use of the lifts in the building. There’s no point in a bunch of IT guys arriving with hundreds of workstations and furniture guys with loads of desks and then fighting over who gets to use the lift. Just goes to show what level of detail has to be planned at this stage.

At the tail end of all of this there will be a fairly intensive period when the desks are going into the library, the workstations are going on the desks, are being connected up and tested, and somewhere round about this time thousands of books will be getting moved across and into their proper places on the shelves. Then of course there will be printers to install, and the self service issuing terminals for borrowers to use.

I’m sure it will look like an oasis of calm when the doors open and students go into the new building. Inevitably there will be some snagging at that stage, but spare a thought for a month of very hard work which will have preceded the opening!

 

Technology in Teaching Spaces in RGU Riverside East

RGU’s new Campus Masterplan Building – “Riverside East” – is due for handing over to the University in April, and the Library will be the first official occupants – moving in during May. After several years of planning, preparation, procurement and building – we’re almost there! You can get up to date information on preparation for the move by referring to our “Campus Moves” web page:

One aspect of the new building that has been continually in our minds has been how to fit out teaching spaces with new technology to support anticipated future approaches to teaching and learning.

Work to scope the design of the new facilities started back in 2009, with a working group that included representatives from all faculties. This group was provided with basic room layouts and asked to discuss key questions about the way in which staff would want to use the spaces.  These questions included: “What will staff want to be able to do?”  “What will they want their students to be able to do?” Outcomes from these discussions helped to feed in to the specification of the room designs in the new building.

IT Services, DELTA (The Department for the Enhancement of Learning, Teaching and Assessment) and Estates and continued to refine and develop the technical specification of learning spaces as the Masterplan project proceeded. We learned from developments in other Universities and activity in corporate environments – both in the UK and internationally. I wrote in a previous blog entry the key design principles that we wanted to see in the new building and since I wrote that blog the demonstration facility has been created in DELTA’s offices in St Andrew Street.

You can get a preview of all the features in an online video tour.  This includes links to specific video guides to each of the key features.  Staff at the University are also welcome to visit the demonstration area in DELTA’s offices and try it for themselves (contact Nicol Ferguson).

DELTA will  be coordinating a programme of staff development to help staff learn about the potential, and  encourage  best use of the features.  This will range from basic “how tos” of using specific pieces of kit, through to considering blended learning designs to make best use of the combination of the virtual learning environment and the new physical environments.

 

 

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: