CSCF Research Support

These notes are intended to provide an overview of how the Computer Science Computing Facility (CSCF) Research Support Group (RSG) operates, who our clients are, what kinds of work we do and how we charge for our time.

Background

When CSCF was formed in January 2003 out of the Math Faculty Computing Facility (MFCF) to specifically address the needs of Computer Science faculty, there was a desire to have some form of dedicated research support. Those staff would not have conflicting obligations with teaching and administrative support.

Who our clients are

RSG primarily supports faculty and graduate students within CS. We also support cross-appointed and adjunct faculty. The full list of supported faculty roughly includes the names on this list, as well as their graduate students. However, to be supported by our group, they will need a support subscription (see below). Some services are provided by our infrastructure group at no cost. Further details can be found here.

Charging by Subscription

The basic premise of our model is that researchers may purchase support on a subscription basis either per desktop or in units of dedicated support time. Desktop subscriptions (currently $110 per term per desktop) are intended to cover any issues relating to that specific desktop workstation be it Windows, Linux, or Mac. The intention is that these should be more-or-less "standard" workstations (see this description). It is expected that some terms there may be little work and other terms (such as a major OS failure) there may be a lot of work. However, the charge is the same each term. It is also expected that desktop subscriptions last at least three terms, not just a single term when a problem occurs.

Dedicated units, on the other hand, are not tied to any specific equipment. They are intended to cover any faculty or graduate computing questions within whatever guidelines the funding faculty wish it to cover. Any computing-related questions are supported. Units of support are currently $880 per term and are expected to cover roughly 14-15 hours of work. However, it is understood that in any given term, the amount of work may exceed that expectation or be below it. It is expected that, over multiple terms, this number will be relatively stable. If it seems to be regularly high or low, we will suggest that they raise or lower their subscription to a more suitable level.

What kind of work

Our work covers almost any kind of computing-related support, based on the requests of our clients. We do not have a specified list of hardware, operating systems, or software that is supported or not supported. Where possible, we may encourage a client to choose equipment or software with which we are more familiar in order to provide support most efficiently, but they are not constrained by that. If they need help with something else, we will do our best to learn what we need to in order to solve the problem. Since we are tracking time, however, that may lead to larger support costs. However, once past the initial learning curve, we will be in a better position to help them in the future.

Some of the more common tasks we deal with:

  • getting quotes for new PCs, laptops, servers, printers
  • installing operating systems and software on new machines (Windows, Linux, Mac)
  • updating/adding network connections
  • recovering failed drives and/or OS corruption
  • dealing with malware
  • configuring printers or trouble-shooting printer problems
  • system administration of research servers, including:
    • creating accounts
    • installing software
    • configuring services
    • responding to outages
    • responding to security alerts
  • assist with the preparation of equipment grant requests

Points of Contact

One of the key features of our model is that each research subscription is assigned a "Point of Contact". That is, a single person to whom they can go to when they have a question or concern. That person gets to be familiar with the researcher or their group and can generally answer most questions fairly efficiently. If that person is not available, our clients are welcome to speak to any of the rest of the Research Support Group who will try to answer their question or at least log the request. Clients can make their requests in any form they prefer - in person, over the telephone, via email or directly into our Request Tracker system, if they wish. They are not required to use one form over another.

The RSG Point of Contact is not necessarily always the person who will answer the question. Their job may be to "triage" the problem and determine who can best solve it - be it someone in the CSCF Infrastructure group, IST, or an external vendor. They will "own" the problem and facilitate its resolution. This way, our clients don't necessarily need to know who's responsible for any given piece of technology (networks, printing, email, etc.). They can come to us and we'll work that part out.

How work is recorded/tracked

Internally, CSCF uses a heavily customized version of ST (Request Tracker) called ST (Service Tracker). This was the same software that IST uses but we have, over the years, added many features that help us track our work. One of those features is the Subscription Code. Each one of our subscriptions is assigned a Subscription Code. Any work done relating to that subscription is tracked with an ST with that code. From that, we can generate reports of how much time has been spent on any given subscription for any given term. That can be seen in our custom Subscriptions System.

Staffing levels

Another key feature of our model is that income from subscriptions is expected to roughly cover the salaries of RSG support staff and that there is an expectation of how much billable time a given staff member can be reasonably expected to generate. The current expectation is roughly 60% of their time should be billable. Therefore, given a 35-hour work week, it should be possible to generate 21 hours of billable time. While this value is possibly debatable (and, as it turns out, pretty difficult to achieve) this number is used to determine the required staffing levels to meet our subscription demand. Each subscription has a specific expected number of hours per term (or week). The total number of subscribed hours per week should not exceed 21 x #staff. The manager of the group is not included in this calculation - that being expected to be an expense to the School.

The advantage of this approach is that we have a very definable way of scaling up support based on demand by researchers. It should be noted, however, that the School does provide the support of a buffer of one staff position to cover variance in subscription levels. So, for example, if we have two staff positions and are approaching or (preferably) exceeding 42 hours per week of subscribed time, we can apply to hire that third person, even though they won't be fully subscribed. The manager can also provide some buffer by doing some of the subscribed work.

Time is tracked within each ST item, generally as work is done. It can be recorded "piece-meal" as each update is done, or as a lump sum, based on the staff person's preferred method of working. The amount tracked each week is reviewed regularly using a variety of tools, including this custom web-based application (access to which is restricted to CSCF staff). When reviewing subscription levels, clients may wish to see the list of jobs and the time spent on each, especially if we are requesting that they increase their subscription. By having these details we are better able to address any questions about the time tracked and the need for any increases. We rarely get any questions about decreasing!

Conclusions

The Research Support model in the School of Computer Science at the University of Waterloo allows flexibility in the ability of staff to respond to varying levels of demand from different researchers. We are able to provide support in the technologies of the researchers' choice and have a scalable way of accounting for the complexities of any given request. This allow the researcher to decide what support they need and choose when and how they get that help. By having a longer view of subscription levels, we avoid the "nickle and diming" effect where the researcher gets an itemized bill for each job, or to have to pay a larger subscription charge in a term when they have a "computing disaster". This provides for more predictable budgeting while still allowing them to get help when they need for whatever they need.

Links

Topic revision: r6 - 2018-07-13 - DanielAllen
 
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