Information Technology Strategy - Report of the IT Committee - (2) to No 4403



<br /> Oxford University Gazette: Information Technology Strategy<br /> (supp.)

Oxford University Gazette

Information Technology Strategy:
Report of the IT Committee

Supplement (2) to Gazette No. 4403

Monday, 3 June 1996



Contents of the supplement:

    To Gazette No. 4404 (6
    June 1996)

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    [Introduction]

    1. In the course of 1994–5 the joint Information Technology Committee
    carried out a review of technical strategy, and presented to Council and the
    Board an initial statement of its technical recommendations on a wide range of
    matters At the same time the committee invited comments on these
    recommendations from the Libraries Board, faculty boards, departments, and
    colleges. Having take account of the comments of the central bodies and of the
    wider university community, the IT Committee has now presented to Council and
    the Board the annexed report on its recommendations for the University's IT
    strategy for the next two years or thereabouts, which is published in the
    Gazette for the information of members of the University.

    2. An updated version of the technical recommendations, etc. is available
    on the Internet at
    http://info.ox.ac.uk/itstrat
    (printed copies can be obtained on request to the committee's secretary, Miss
    C.M. Godman, University Offices, Wellington Square; telephone: (2)70081;
    e-mail: Catherine.Godman@admin.ox.ac.uk). These detailed recommendations
    represent objectives the committee believes could be achieved within a period
    of roughly two years, on the assumption of level funding for the University
    (new central funding being required only for more IT support posts in
    faculties and departments). While it points out that the timescale will need
    to be adjusted because of the deterioration in the University's financial
    position that is likely to occur in the next few years, the IT Committee
    wishes to reaffirm that its recommendations nevertheless outline the direction
    in which it believes the University should continue to move.

    3. Council and the General Board have endorsed the IT Committee's
    observation on the implications of the immediate financial difficulties and
    have noted that, as well as new central funding being required for more IT
    support posts in faculties and departments, additional funds will also be
    needed in due course for the extension of the network backbone, the
    retrospective conversion of the Bodleian 1920–85 catalogue, and the
    upgrading of the network to asynchronous transfer mode (ATM) technology (items
    (d) and (e) in the outline strategy which introduces the
    annexe, and Section VII (ii)). Subject to this, Council and the General Board
    are persuaded that the elements of the University's strategy should in
    principle be as they are set out at (a)–(e).

    4. Other points which Council and the Board have noted include the fact
    that the establishment of a distributed system of support staff will not in
    itself produce significant savings on central staff, and that, in the arts
    subjects, the need for intermediate-level staff support for users, to which
    the IT Committee draws attention in Section III, is still matched in some
    subjects by an unfulfilled need for low-level support if full use is to be
    made of equipment already available. Council and the Board have noted also the
    expectation that, if the timetable for providing personal IT equipment to
    those members of academic staff who want it slips, extra costs will be
    incurred because of the need to re-equip those whose machines have become
    obsolete (Section V). They find the comparison with provision at other
    institutions (Section VII) interesting and have noted the IT Committee's
    conclusion that the University comes out relatively well except in the use of
    IT for teaching and learning, a point to which HEFCE quality assessors have
    frequently drawn attention. Council and the Board, while certainly wishing to
    encourage the acquisition of computer skills by both staff and students, like
    the IT Committee would not at present want to contemplate introducing a
    mandatory IT literacy requirement. Finally, Council and the Board have noted
    that the IT Committee makes clear in Section IX that the target dates for
    achieving the various objectives will be reviewed once the funding position is
    clear. The General Board accordingly expects that requests for funding various
    aspects of the proposals will come forward through the usual channels over the
    next two years, and that decisions about which can be funded and when will
    have to be made as these requests are presented.

    5. Subject to these points, Council and the General Board have endorsed
    the proposed strategy.

    6. The IT Committee is asking also that Council and the General Board
    agree to remove the obligation on other bodies to consult the committee in
    respect of expenditure of more than £50K and less than £250K (clause
    4 of the decree governing the IT Committee—Statutes, 1995,
    p. 220—empowers Council and the Board to determine such amounts from time
    to time). They think that such relaxation would be appropriate in present
    circumstances and have agreed that it should no longer be necessary for other
    bodies to consult the IT Committee in respect of expenditure of more than
    £50K, but the committee's approval should still be required in respect of
    expenditure of more than £250K.

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    ANNEXE

    PROPOSED IT STRATEGY: REPORT OF THE IT COMMITTEE


    I. Outline of the Strategy

    As the Flemming Report [1]
    observed, an IT strategy has to exist in an arena of rapid technological
    change. A strategy with a two-year horizon inevitably therefore has a more
    tactical flavour than those for other areas. Nevertheless our proposals
    represent to a large extent a continuation and development of the strategy set
    out in 1992, and are entirely consistent with the recommendations in the
    Flemming Report (which had a decade as its time- frame).

    In summary, the elements of the strategy are:

    (a) the University will continue to follow a distributed computing
    strategy based on the client-server model;

    (b) as funds permit, the programme of equipping permanent members
    of the University's staff with personal computing equipment, and of
    increasing the number of networked computers for student use, will be
    continued;

    (c) as funds permit, priority will be given to providing some
    level of local IT support staff to every unit;

    (d) priority will be given to providing the funds to enable the
    network backbone to be extended to remote accommodation in co- operation with
    Oxford Cable Ltd (Comtel);

    (e) high priority will be assigned to adhering to the schedule for
    the retrospective conversion of the Bodleian 1920þ85 catalogue.

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    II. Distributed Computing and the Client-Server Model

    The 1992 strategy recommended this as the underlying strategic approach. In
    this, a given IT application is logically separated into two parts, the client
    and the server. The client part consists of those aspects of the application
    which are better performed locally to the user: this will always include the
    user interface, and any processing associated with it. The server part on the
    other hand consists of those aspects which are (at least sometimes) better
    performed remotely: these might typically include the heavy processing and
    management of shared data. The full adoption of such a strategy was seen as
    bringing the following benefits:

    • users would be able to access a wide range of local, university-wide,
      national, and international information and communication services using a
      consistent interface from a number of standard user environments (MSWindows,
      Macs, and so on);
    • an integrated network file system would provide easy access to files from
      wherever the user is working, and there would be a centrally managed file
      back-up and security system;
    • there would be university-wide access to applications software,
      courseware, and databases supported either locally or centrally;
    • there would be university-wide access to specialised and expensive
      peripherals (such as high-quality colour printers), and to library catalogues
      and other repositories of electronic information.

    It needs to be understood that the distributed computing model is not
    synonymous with either decentralised or even federal arrangements. The
    distinguishing characteristic of distributed computing is that facilities and
    services are located wherever is most effective and economic. The best (and
    most cost-effective) balance between computing power at the desk top and in a
    central server requires continual re-evaluation: it depends on the relative
    costs of processing power and communications, the availability of funds in
    suitable places, and the kind of work people wish to do. In the long run, we
    continue to expect more and more computing power at the desk top;
    nevertheless, there will continue to be good reasons at times to locate
    facilities centrally. For example, it has recently been agreed to purchase a
    second general purpose Unix computer system to supplement the existing
    machine. This was necessary because of the continuing high demand for this
    central service; the load on Sable has given rise to performance problems
    which have in turn postponed the date when Sable can be expected to take over
    the VAX workload and permit the decommissioning of the VAX. In the course of
    assessing alternatives to acquiring a second Sable, the possibility was
    seriously considered of distributing the workload to departmental servers.
    Such a measure would have meant the loss of economies of scale and given rise
    to substantial support costs for departments, especially because some of those
    which depend upon the VAX lack the infrastructure to support their own
    systems.

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    III. Support Staff

    Distributed computing cannot be implemented fully without adequate support
    being available to users. Ideally, there should be a structure of local and
    remote support that presents a seamless interface to the user. The arrival of
    distributed computing has brought potent new tools for research and teaching
    into the hands of academic staff and graduate students. These tools are
    accessible at a wide variety of sites, such as college rooms and faculty
    computing rooms. The scope and power of these tools continually increase. In
    the Arts in particular, the vital issue now is adequate intermediate-level
    staff support for users, especially in two areas: the mounting of advanced
    software and advice on its use; and the daily operation of small local area
    networks with bridges to the university backbone. This type of staffing falls
    between the low-level help now found in many colleges and the high-level
    support afforded by the Oxford University Computing Services (OUCS). In the
    Sciences it has often been possible to redeploy technical staff into IT
    support. In the case of the arts faculties and other units there is little or
    no scope for redeployment, and this means that new funding is required.

    In 1993–4, when some new funds for IT support were allocated, Law was
    alone amongst the arts faculties in being the recipient of a grant. This year,
    notwithstanding the grim financial outlook, Archaeology, Theology, Oriental
    Studies, English, Modern History, Law, and Liter‘ Humaniores are all seeking
    funding for this purpose; this reflects the growth of importance of IT tools
    in all these disciplines. We recognise that in some quarters there is an
    expectation that funds might be made available by reducing the staff grant to
    OUCS. It needs to be recognised, however, that much of the work for which
    support staff are required is new work rather than replacing services formerly
    provided by OUCS. In the 1992 strategy report it was pointed out that the main
    disadvantage of the client-server approach was that its greater complexity
    brought greater support requirements. There are still large numbers of novice
    users who require particular support. More importantly, the absolute amount of
    IT-related work in the University is still on the increase.

    Much work has been done this year to analyse the attribution of OUCS staff
    costs to particular services. Details of this analysis are appended
    [2]. The committee wishes to draw
    the General Board's attention in particular to the following features of this
    analysis. It makes clear the degree of investment in network-related services.
    OUCS itself considers its network support dangerously thin, given the degree
    to which the University is becoming critically dependent on its uninterrupted
    reliable operation. While some improvement will be provided in the longer term
    if the small number of staff working on services scheduled for obsolescence
    can be redeployed into network support, in the short term the process of
    migrating users from the VAX to Sable will be labour-intensive. The figures
    confirm that the vast majority of staff costs are allocated to core services,
    and there is evidence (for example, in the OUCS Annual Report for 1994þ5) that
    these are widely used.

    In May 1993, in the IT Committee's report on the consultation exercise and
    recommendations for implementation of the earlier strategy, it was proposed
    that after three years there should be a review of the activities of OUCS with
    a view to establishing the permanent staffing level it needed. The IT
    Committee is making separately to the General Board its recommendations about
    how this might be carried out.

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    IV. The Network

    In addition to adequate support, effective client-server computing is
    underpinned by the network. Since the last report, the network has been
    extended and upgraded. High priority is assigned by the IT Committee to the
    extension of the network to remote accommodation. As the General Board is
    aware, the opportunity has arisen to extend the backbone in collaboration with
    Oxford Cable Ltd (Comtel). Such collaboration would avoid the need for
    planning permission and, even more importantly, would mean the backbone could
    be extended at much less than the expected cost. If at all possible, the
    University should position itself to take advantage of this opportunity.

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    V. The Consultation Process

    The consultation process yielded 48 responses (21 from faculty boards and
    committees, 7 from colleges, 15 from departments, and 4 from the library
    sector). We also received initial comments from the General Board itself. As
    was to be expected, comments ranged from technical points to matters of
    policy; they have been considered by the IT Committee's Technical Review
    Group, and the appended technical recommendations1 have been revised to take
    account of detailed points, to rectify omissions, and so on.

    The General Board asked for more information about the financial
    implications of realising the strategy, as it considered that not all of these
    had been identified. Although the committee's report had drawn the attention
    of the central bodies to the need for new money for support staff, the General
    Board suggested that the technical recommendations had implications for
    expenditure on equipment, and possibly on other requirements. The Board
    stressed that such additional provision could be made only at the expense of
    other needs whether within the IT sector or beyond it. The Board also
    indicated that it wished to see more rapid progress towards the achievement of
    the distributed computing strategy, which it identified with a change in the
    balance between resources assigned to OUCS and to other academic areas.

    The comments received as a result of the consultation process tended to
    confirm the committee's impression that, were funding to remain broadly level,
    those members of academic staff who want personal IT equipment would be
    equipped within a reasonably short period (although not by the original target
    date of the end of 1996) without the allocation of additional equipment funds.
    If the timetable slips, however, extra costs will accrue, because of the need
    to re-equip those whose machines have become obsolete.

    As expected, many of the replies drew attention to the need for more IT
    support staff; the relationship between that and the achievement of the
    distributed computing strategy has been discussed above. The role of OUCS in a
    distributed computing environment is also discussed above.

    The provision of adequate facilities for students, and especially the issue
    of the priority to be assigned to general-access facilities for students in
    the Humanities, attracted a good deal of comment. Generally speaking, although
    faculties want both types of facilities, they assign higher priority to their
    own on-site facilities than to general facilities (such as a general-access
    computer teaching room for the Humanities in general). A number of departments
    commented on the proposed classification of OUCS services, but these have not
    warranted changes in the classification proposed originally.

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    VI. Progress since 1992

    The main elements of the strategy proposed in 1992 were:

    • the future environment should consist of a locally provided
      superstructure (workstations, PCs, and Macintoshes) connected by a
      high-bandwidth network to central servers;
    • in the meantime the interests of those continuing to work in the
      traditional terminal-to-host manner should be protected;
    • provision should concentrate on a small number of supported
      platforms (MS-DOS including Windows, Macintosh, X-Windows, VT100 series
      emulation);
    • responsibility for the client end of things should be devolved;
    • pilot projects should be undertaken in various areas;
    • users should be more involved in planning, and colleges, departments,
      and faculties should be encouraged to formulate their own strategies;
    • the level and stability of funding for the infrastructure must be
      guaranteed, in a way that provided a framework for rapid purchasing
      decisions;
    • to derive full benefit from the opportunities offered by IT there must be
      adequate investment, not only in hardware and software, but more importantly
      in the people to manage, maintain, and support it.

    In general terms, we have either achieved the various objectives we set
    ourselves or (within the constraints of financial exigency) have made
    significant progress towards them. Our current thinking builds on, and is
    compatible with, the thinking behind the earlier report. The move towards the
    desired technical shape of things is well under way; the desired devolution
    has happened; the pilot projects have been conducted, and their lessons
    incorporated into the present strategy.

    The summary of detailed proposals and recommendations from the 1992 report,
    with comments about their present status, is appended
    [3].

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    VII. Comparison with Provision at other Institutions

    Because the comparative information that is available is both limited and
    somewhat unreliable, it is not possible to provide a conclusive comparison of
    Oxford's IT provision with that at other universities. What follows is more in
    the nature of a snapshot of selected areas than of a definitive account. Where
    quantitative data are available, they are subject to many caveats and must be
    treated with some caution.

    The following are proposed as possible criteria for comparing Oxford's
    resources with those of other institutions in the UK:

    (i) quantity and quality of central services and the cost of these as a
    percentage of the overall budget;

    (ii) network capability and extent;

    (iii) extent of provision of (networked) workstations for staff and for
    tudents;

    (iv) IT literacy of staff and students, and training opportunities;

    (v) extent and appropriateness of distributed facilities;

    (vi) comprehensiveness, quantity, and quality of IT services and support;

    (vii) extent and quality of integration of IT into teaching and learning;

    (viii) extent and quality of use of IT in other aspects of the life of the
    University.

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    (i) Central Services

    In general, the scale and variety of central computer systems seems comparable
    with the best available elsewhere. Supercomputing facilities are quite a bit
    less capable than those provided by a few other major research universities in
    the UK; the level of provision of special peripherals is comparable. Provision
    for students is as good or better than elsewhere. Many institutions do not
    allow all students automatic access to the Internet. The recently acquired
    Hierarchical File Server (HFS) will put Oxford ahead of other institutions in
    the provision of file services; none has the range of file services now
    provided by the HFS, nor anything like the capacity.

    The cost of central services at Oxford appears to be below that at most other
    UK universities, as indicated by the following data:

    Expenditure on central computing services (excluding administrative use)
    as percentage of total general expenditure:

    Year Oxford UK Average Range
    1993 1.8 2.6 1.0–4.5
    1994 1.8 2.4 1.1–4.2
    1995 1.6 2.1 1.2–3.6

    Centres responsible for providing national services are excluded.

    The budgeted costs of OUCS (1995–6) compared with those of its
    Cambridge equivalent are as follows:

    Cambridge Oxford
    £K £K
    Staff 2,418 2,132
    Software,
    equipt., etc.
    1,479 1,077
    Total 3,897 3,209


    (ii) The Network

    The network reaches every university building, and so is as extensive as any
    in the UK. Indeed, it may be the largest Ethernet in Europe. The technology
    used is as fast as that of the backbone of any institutions apart from a few
    cases where the newer technology asynchronous transfer mode (ATM), needed for
    video data is being installed, mainly on an experimental basis. We too will
    need to begin to consider upgrading to ATM technology, but the case for this
    is unlikely to be compelling before 1997–8. The JANET link is as fast as
    that of any institution except for the thirteen universities participating
    (together with the Rutherford-Appleton Laboratory) in ATM-based trials
    [4].
    The JANET link is more heavily loaded than that of almost any other
    institution; usage tends to peak at around 15 per cent of total capacity for a
    one-hour period, and occasionally rises as high as 30 per cent.


    (iii) Workstations

    Overall, Oxford has about one staff workstation for every 1.5 staff, which is
    comparable with the highest levels of provision elsewhere in the UK. A handful
    of institutions are approaching an overall ratio of 1:1. Overall, Oxford has
    about one student workstation for every six students, counting college
    provision. According to an informal survey conducted a year ago, that level
    would result in the University being ranked about fourth in the UK for this
    type of provision. Most universities have large, central, general-purpose PC
    labs. While we lack this type of facility, it is compensated for by the many
    college computing rooms. These figures are, of course, approximate and vary
    greatly between subjects; this applies particularly for the figures for
    provision of computing equipment for students. Most workstations are networked
    (again, putting Oxford in the top rank), and their capability profile is at
    least as good as that at most comparable universities.


    (iv) IT Literacy

    There is no reason to think that Oxford staff and students are lagging behind
    their counterparts elsewhere in terms of their knowledge and use of IT.
    Oxford's IT training programme is admired and emulated in some quarters. Some
    universities are now introducing mandatory IT literacy requirements for
    students, and others are moving towards mandatory use of certain IT facilities
    by staff (for example, of e-mail). As a consequence, they may shortly outstrip
    the level of IT literacy at Oxford.


    (v) Distributed Computing

    Particularly in the Sciences, Oxford has a wealth of distributed facilities
    compared with most other universities; the Social Sciences appear to be
    somewhat better provided for elsewhere. Overall, the provision of distributed,
    local IT support staff is reasonably generous but the availability of support
    varies widely by subject.


    (vi) Range of Services

    There is no significant service which is not available at Oxford. The general
    advisory service provided by OUCS is thought to be one of the best in the
    country.


    (vii) Use of IT in Teaching and Learning

    While there is some good work being done at Oxford, generally the University
    is behind the main research universities in its use of IT in teaching, in its
    development work, in its encouragement of and incentives for staff to engage
    in such work, and in its provision of central support for such activity.
    Oxford has been slow to establish computer labs for teaching use in some
    disciplines, compared with many other universities. On the other hand,
    Oxford's teaching methods (especially its extensive use of small tutorials)
    differ markedly from those of most universities, and the overall quality of
    teaching at Oxford is high (though the HEFCE assessors seem adamant that more
    use of IT is required). The Education Technology Resources Centre has been
    attempting to be pro-active in this area, OUCS has recently redeployed someone
    into this field, and the new Open Learning Initiative at the Department for
    Continuing Education may also provide a focus for development.


    (viii) Use of IT in other Areas

    Oxford is more advanced than other institutions in the Ingres family in its
    Prophecy implementation; its new payroll/personnel system should also put it
    in the forefront. However, we are behind other institutions in our student
    records systems, and in the provision of management information. The use of IT
    in library services (including electronic databases, access to networked
    information sources, automation of library functions such as cataloguing,
    etc.) is above average. Currently, the OLIS library catalogue itself is below
    average in terms of user-friendliness and functionality, but the installation
    of the new GEAC system will put the University at the forefront in this area.
    The extent of use of IT in research is above average overall, but varies a
    good deal by discipline.

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    VIII. The Financing of Central Services

    Although strictly beyond the committee's remit, inevitably its discussions of
    the future role and funding of OUCS have led it to consider financial matters
    more generally. There is some interest in the science departments in moving to
    a system whereby departments contribute to the cost of OUCS in proportion to
    the services they use. In some departments it is believed that they are paying
    twice for the services provided by OUCS, once by means of top-slicing, and
    again if they decide to buy in services of their choosing. The committee sees
    some evidence of departments seeking to duplicate services unnecessarily. To
    the extent that this depends upon non-recurrent funding from the Research and
    Equipment Committee it can be discouraged; possibly it should be tackled
    rather more directly. An example of an area in which it is reasonable to
    expect market forces to operate to good effect is the backing-up of files. As
    OUCS's Hierarchical File Server becomes more widely used, it should be able to
    take over the backing-up of material for departments, and this should produce
    savings in both hardware and staff time. It is hoped that the same forces will
    operate in the area of e-mail, with the effect that, apart from special cases,
    departments will cease to rely on their own e-mail servers and will instead
    use facilities provided by OUCS.

    A more commercial relationship between OUCS and departments and faculties
    would have certain advantages. Planning could be determined by demand,
    although a way would need to be found of funding exploratory work and projects
    related to upgrading the infrastructure. The mode of operation of the
    Telecommunications Unit might serve as a possible model, although it differs
    in that it offers a uniform service to all its clients. If departments and
    faculties paid for particular services, they would be in a position to compare
    rates offered by OUCS and those offered by commercial suppliers and to make
    informed decisions. OUCS would, of course, have an incentive to be
    competitive. However, the implementation of such a system would have to be
    preceded by a fundamental change in funding arrangements: funding that is now
    top-sliced and allocated to OUCS would have to be distributed to faculties and
    departments to enable them to pay for services; this could be expected to
    result, in particular, in increased recurrent funding in the Arts, the
    majority of which hitherto have not had funds for equipment and technical
    support. Such a change would increase greatly the number of financial
    transactions around the University. It is debatable whether it would actually
    greatly increase freedom of manoeuvre.

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    IX. Costs and Timescale

    As stated at the outset, this strategy outlines objectives which the IT
    Committee believes could be achieved within roughly a two-year period, on the
    assumption of level funding for the University. New central funding would be
    required only for the new IT support posts in faculties and departments. Once
    the OLIS upgrade is paid for, no abnormally large equipment purchase is
    proposedþthe next large expenditure of this kind would be for upgrading the
    network backbone, which is expected to be needed somewhat later than the
    period under consideration.

    The target dates for achieving the various objectives will be reviewed once
    the funding position is clear. It may, for example, be necessary to defer the
    target date for having all staff equipped with PCs. The worsening financial
    situation increases the urgency of decommissioning the VAX because this will
    enable major savings (of the order of £85K a year) to be made on
    maintenance.

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    X. Recommendations

    The IT Committee recommends

    (i) that Council and the General Board endorse the proposed strategy;

    (ii) that they agree to remove the obligation to consult the IT Committee
    in respect of expenditure of up to £250K
    [5].

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    Footnotes

    [1] The report of the joint Working Party of Council and
    the General Board on Information Strategy, under the chairmanship of the
    Warden of Wadham College, which reported to Council and the General Board in
    Trinity Term 1995.

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    [2] Not reproduced here, but available on the Internet or
    on request: see
    para. 2 of this Supplement, above.

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    [3] Not reproduced here, but available on the Internet or
    on request: see para. 2 of this Supplement, above.

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    [4] The University's bid to participate in these trials
    was unsuccessful, partly because we had few existing projects requiring the
    extra speed, and partly because our proximity to the Rutherford-Appleton
    Laboratory put us at a disadvantage, since the pilot required participating
    institutions to be geographically spread. There was later opportunity to buy
    ourselves into the project; but the IT Committee's recommendation was that the
    costs involved (about £700K for less than a three-year period) were too
    great.

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    [5] This recommendation repeats the substance of technical
    recommendation 148:
    see now para. 6 of this Supplement,
    above.

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