UW IT Task Force - Questions

UW IT Task Force - Questions

Questions for individuals who are not involved in service delivery:

  1. Do we offer an appropriate level of IT service to faculty, students and staff? You might consider areas such as email, teaching labs, research labs, web services, provision of desktop equipment, desktop support (software, trouble shooting, and training), internet access (including wireless), printing, backup/recovery.
    For UW and the reputation we strive to maintain, an appropriate level of service should be in the "very good" to "excellent" range.

    1. What areas do you feel are delivered particularly well?
      Core Networking
      IST provides the core network which allows ours to connect to the rest of the campus and the world. IST provides software (ONA) to allow IT staff to perform common network port configuration for our own network equipment. IST provides cable installation and repair.

      Network Monitoring
      IST monitors the campus gateway traffic to notice possible problems, primarily to detect compromised machines and excessive traffic.

      Network DNS
      IST runs the authoritative campus DNS service, with a distributed mechanism to allow each constituency's IT staff to perform their own updates. We run a secondary DNS, for improved performance and reliability, and to house some Windows-specific data specific to CS.

      Mail and Networking Expertise
      IST provides expertise in mail and networking protocols and implementations. IST provides a simplified/packaged form of mail system software and web server system software for distribution to Sparc-based Solaris servers.

      Student Information
      IST provides a regular dump of student data used to maintain student accounts and resources on CS machines. Independently, they provided restricted database queries of student data used in course planning and student advising.

      IST runs a reliable, widely used central web-accessible calendaring service.

      Web Collaboration - Sharepoint
      IST runs a Sharepoint service, used for some administrative collaboration within CS.

      Physical Security
      IST configures, maintains and repairs the physical security systems for room access and anti-theft measures in public computer labs. The current switch from fragile fiber-based security systems to a tab-based system should reduce the staff time we spend responding to false alarms. We perform simple repairs to the anti-theft security systems.

      Software Licensing
      IST makes campus-wide licensing arrangements; we take care of CS-specific licenses.

      Windows Patching
      IST runs a Windows patch repository, vetting patches before making them available to the rest of the campus.

      Classroom Podiums
      IST provides a podium and machine in various classrooms. We provide one of our own for a CS classroom, using a Mac. Some deficiencies are noted in the next section.

      Unix Software Distribution
      IST maintains the machines used to stage Unix software (primarily Solaris on Sparc these days) on hundreds of servers across campus. In addition, they package a small set of commonly used fundamental software to provide functionality not available through vendor-provided software and configuration methods.

      Accounts Management Software
      MFCF and CSCF work together to maintain the software used to manage the 10,000 accounts in the Math and CS student environments.

      Help Centre
      MFCF runs the Math Faculty help center, which is used by both Math and CS students. A vast majority of the consultant TAs are CS grad students.

    2. Where there are deficiencies, what do you suggest doing to improve on campus?

      Health Monitoring of UW Provided Services
      We have a perception of insufficient health monitoring, waiting for user reports rather than proactively noticing and correcting deficiencies. IST does use Nagios for a variety of services, with alerts sent to a pager. A review of services provided vs. what is monitored and acted upon would help, as would a public list of monitored services. Wireless network monitoring has improved, in part due to tools and training which were not provided by the previous wireless vendor.

      Blackberry Support
      UW's connection with RIM isn't reflected by the level of support our constituents receive for the Blackberry.

      Apparently Blackberry support provided by IST is improving, however the Black Berry FAQ is not being kept up to date with respect to the newer devices and firmware releases.

      Classroom Podium PCs
      Every term, we see some cases of podium replacements that didn't have up to date software installed for instructors. Software installed on podiums is not consistently kept up to date and the current method of software deployment can result in software being unexpectedly unavailable in a classroom after a PC has been replaced for repairs.

      Support for USB keys to provide presentation material would be appreciated.

      Mobility between systems of a similar "security level" is most convenient when there's a single authentication for them. This is done now with UWDir authentication.

      Problems can arise when a common "low security" authentication is used for higher security systems (e.g. the password used to read a UW-wide web page shouldn't be required to be the same password used to access personal health and benefits records, or to gain administrator access to shared systems).

      Wireless support has a bad track record in the Davis Centre. It is starting to improve but still suffers, notably from insufficient APs for the number of clients.

      Core Network
      Providing a network connection that has only two thirds (1Gb versus 1.5 Gb) the bandwidth of the sum of the external links (Orion, Hydro1 and Cogent) is a concern for us: one or more constituents' external traffic can easily saturate parts of it. The links connecting the interior core network routers to the external routers should have at least the same bandwidth as the sum of all exterior connections.

      Using bandwidth rate limiting rather than quality-of-service to control saturation of bandwidth hurts the image of UWaterloo; example is "NRC and other Canadian University's complaints that they get such poor transfer rates from mirror.csclub.uwaterloo.ca when our traffic monitoring graphs show more than 50% unused Orion bandwidth." Now that mirror.csclub is no longer behind a router which strips QoS bits from traffic, perhaps IST and CSCF can work together to provide QoS for this service in accordance with IST's published recommendations.

      Automated failover of the redundant internet links could stand improvement. In the case of third party de-peering and similar disputes, this problem may be currently intractable.

  2. Where do you see overlaps in IT services among the Faculties, Academic Support units, and IST? Does this overlap present problems in the delivery of services to you? If so, how?

    There are several authentication realms on campus (including UWDir, Nexus, and Faculty-specific domains). As a result, students, faculty, staff and visitors can be confused as to which password goes with which service.

    A related problem is the help desk each large computing support unit provides: it is not always clear to a person where to go for help, and going to one place for assistance can too frequently result in frustration when the help desk can't help the client or simply directs him to a different help desk.

  3. What do you see as the main barriers to improving IT services to UW clients?

    Ensuring that any new services and significant changes to existing services take into account the needs of all affected constituencies and involve consultations with those stakeholders at the design stage -- not after a service or improvement is being rolled out.

    While area-specific help desks generally provide very good service to clients, the need for a help desk to refer a user to a different help desk for specific issues (e.g. a student taking a course offered by another faculty, or a faculty member needing assistance with a service provided by IST) can be quite frustrating for the person needing assistance.

  4. How would you describe the IT service culture at UW (reflecting on the people that you work with when you have problems or are seeking advice)?

    The major IT service organizations (Faculty, Library and the part of IST (former DCS) serving administrative departments) are heavily service oriented and generally provide very good service for their respective constituents in areas where the IT staff providing the service have the necessary skills to meet their clients' computing needs. IT staff generally have an excellent understanding of the expectations of their client base and take pride in their work to provide a consistently high level of response to people's computing needs.

  5. How would you rate the overall IT services at UW, particularly compared to other places where you or your colleagues have worked or studied? When compared to its competitor institutions?

    CSCF's staff managers have all spent several years using and providing IT service in environments (corporate and academic) outside UW. There is some inconsistency of service levels across campus that also exists in small to mid-sized companies and the IT departments of larger corporations.

  6. Can you identify one or more initiatives -- organization, technical, service-oriented -- that would carry significant benefits for the operation of IT services at UW?

    We would like to see all service providers at UW (including those outside of IT) use a common request tracking system. At present, several groups use the ST system provided by IST, two use a separate incompatible version of ST, and others do not have a system we are aware of. The implementation and use of ST for tracking computing related problems across campus has helped improve customer service by providing a single interface for many groups and a consistent method to hand problems to the staff members best suited to solve them.

    The WatITis conference held once a year for IT staff across campus is widely seen as worthwhile for its encouragement of communication and collaboration: how can its effect be extended? Concentrating on content and sharing how-to and tutorial information throughout the year would be useful.

    Improving communication among IT service groups across campus, especially when dealing with long term planning, would reduce duplication of effort.

  7. UW prides itself on being an innovative and creative institution. With full consideration of our current financial situation, what areas of development should UW consider that could make this campus shine in comparison to other institutions?

    It may be advantageous for there to be more secondment of staff (formally or informally, both on a long term basis and for well defined projects) among IT groups and extending to IS functions and non-IT staff where appropriate to improve communication and create a stronger, more effective community.

    Where possible, foster the growth and implementation of UW-developed applications, promote their use widely among both on-campus IT groups and non-UW users. Put development resources behind these initiatives and promote them beyond UW. The adoption of such applications outside their group of origin is currently usually based on the initiative of a single individual. Management could be encouraged to foster the sharing of these innovations.

The following questions would be added for meetings with Faculty Computer Managers, IST Managers, Library IT Managers, CECS IT Managers, etc., i.e. individuals who are involved in service delivery

  1. What are the major tasks in your unit? Sample areas: network support, desktop support, system maintenance, web technical infrastructure, web content management, email services.

    CSCF provides computing support to the School of Computer Science in the functional areas of Infrastructure, Research Support, and User Support.

    The Infrastructure group provides the computer and network infrastructure needed by the School for all computer-related work. This infrastructure includes:

    • backup services of Math Faculty (MFCF and CSCF) teaching resources, DRCSCS Department resources and low volume (up to twice the volume of IST's bulk rate plan) research resources
    • compute servers used by faculty, students, and administrative staff
    • compute servers used in the delivery of courses
    • computer and network usage monitoring
    • computer and network health monitoring with alerts to technical staff
    • email services for faculty, graduate students, and administrative staff
    • email services for undergraduate students
    • evergreen planning and implementation of both server and desktop equipment
    • firewall and endpoint security
    • hardware purchasing, receiving and setup
    • a fault tolerant high capacity networking for DRCSCS and the Math Faculty Student Organizations that also provides access to IST's core
    • a Canadian mirror of the "Open Source" software we use in-house, with the aid of the CS Club and MEF

    The Research Support group provides computing and network support for researchers and visiting scholars in the School. This group is partially funded by subscriptions paid out of research monies for services rendered. Services provided by Research Support include:

    • consultation on computer and network hardware and software requirements associated with research grant proposals
    • investigation of computer hardware and software to meet research requirements
    • installation and maintenance of workstations for graduate students and researchers (hardware, network connectivity, firewall rules, operating systems, and software)
    • computer and network systems administration
    • response to alerts from computer and network health monitoring
    • computer security advice and response to alerts
    • act as a single point of contact to facilitate problem solving for any other computing-related issue, bringing in services from other support groups as necessary (CSCF infrastructure, IST, vendors, etc.)

    The User Support group provides computing and network support for teaching and general administrative work in the School. This support includes:

    • installation and maintenance of workstations for administrative support staff, sessional instructors and teaching assistants (hardware, operating systems, and software)
    • desktop support for the above workstations
    • web technical infrastructure and direction
    • web content management
    • software installation and management on teaching servers
    • operating system and software installation and management on lab computers
    • computer systems administration
    • managing continuity of technical information for instructional support personnel (a combination of non-developer and transient staff)
    • database administration
    • software development in support of both instructional and administrative needs
    • software installation and maintenance in Nexus for podium PCs in support of instructional computing
    • general use labs (Mac workstations, thin clients)
    • special use labs (Software Engineering, Graphics, Networks, Nortel, Real Time)

  2. What characteristics do you feel define your IT group?

    Where IST must focus on being "fair" to the Campus as a whole, CSCF strives to provide anything that enables the School of Computer Science users.

    From the July 9th, "2001 CS Governance Committee Report - Computing Infrastructure" report:

    CS has to stay at the forefront of technology, usually trying new (and sometimes unproven) technologies. To do this DRCSCS requires direct influence on the strategic directions that its IT support group takes, its daily priorities and any charging schemes that it uses.

    Thus CSCF was formed at the time of the creation of the David R. Cheriton School of Computer Science to address perceived needs for:

    • client service
    • specialized research support
    • complex technical requirements for teaching support
    • financial accountability

    We believe the quality of service we provide in each of these areas defines the group in the eyes of CS.

    What makes it successful?

    CSCF is close enough to our clients to understand their needs and large enough to have the resources to respond to them in a timely fashion.

    Researchers can concentrate on their research work, rather than having their time and resources eaten away by computer system and network administration and related support functions.

    Co-ordinating computer support for all areas of the school allows us to provide a continuity in technical support that was not available when that burden fell largely on TAs and RAs, who worked on a best-effort basis.

    Providing support for all researchers and all computing infrastructure for course work in one group allows us to pool resources and knowledge effectively. The Point of Contact system used by CSCF allows all our clients to obtain reliable, consistent service regardless of the nature of their needs.

    Based on feedback from our annual surveys, CS is happy with their computing support from a dedicated group which provides that support to the School in a consistent and responsive manner.

    What are your challenges?

    Both teaching and research in the School can require the investigation and implementation of computing systems and software which are on the leading edge of technology. Computing support staff for the School have an unusually high need to maintain currency in emerging technologies and the ability to quickly learn to manage rapidly evolving hardware, network, and software systems.

    At the same time, we need to maintain support for old (in some cases decades-old) software -- as demanded by clients -- while continuing to deliver state of the art utilities to instructors, researchers, administrative staff, and course support personnel.

    There is a significant population of technically sophisticated computer users and programmers in the School, including researchers, support staff and Faculty. This group of inidividuals often requires advanced, sometimes esoteric, systems design and programming support to meet their computing-related needs.

  3. How important are campus-wide standards for specific elements of the IT function (i.e. network hardware, customer service response time etc.)

    Use of common technologies in any area is frequently beneficial as it allows sharing of expertise both within and among computing support units. In some cases it can also allow sharing costs through bulk purchases or purchase agreements with hardware and software vendors.

    The campus-wide use of HP ProCurve switches for constituency networking is an example of a standardization which has resulted in cost savings, staff time savings, consistency of implementation, and ease of support.

  4. Can you identify some successful initiatives of your IT group that could be of benefit campus wide?

    In support of undergraduate instruction, CSCF staff have created an exam seating assignment system to help course support staff manage large exams held in multiple classrooms and provide information to help identify potential cases of cheating. The Accounting and Financial Management programme has used an earlier version of this system and intends to upgrade to the current version.

    OGSAS, CS's on-line graduate admissions system, may have been a useful initiative, however it is being replaced with the UW-wide GAP system. CSCF staff are willing to share lessons learned from OGSAS with the GAP implementors to improve the campus-wide graduate admissions system, particularly with respect to sharing information about client needs and admission workflow observed in the course of development.

    CSCF staff have been working with undergraduate operations staff to make effective use of data extracts from the Registrar's Office to provide reports used by both faculty members and undergraduate advisors. These decision support tools could be made available to any Faculty which can obtain access to similar data for its own students.

    CSCF has developed an improved implementation of the UW web Common Look and Feel which may be of interest to web site maintainers wishing to improve their visual identity without adding complexity to their procedures or web pages.

    Our Single Sign On authentication among Windows, Mac, and Unix (Solaris and Linux) services is a good working model which may be useful in other diverse computing environments.

    What would be needed to turn these local successes into campus-wide successes?

    It's not obvious that each campus computing support group knows enough about what others are doing and their needs. That's a requirement before anyone's work can be sufficiently generalized to help others. A second requirement is the staff time required to create utilities in ways general enough to help others. Building something that works for everyone can be substantially more work than building something that meets just one's own needs.

    In the case of our decision support information systems, we'd need program access to registration data for all students to expand their utility beyond the School.

  5. [Same question as (2) above, but with the follow-up questions added.] Where do you see overlap of IT services among the Faculties, Academic Support units, and IST?
    1. What services do you provide that you feel could be effectively provided centrally?

      If we could afford it, and IST had the capacity, we would like to see all data backups provided by a central service. The cost to clients would need to reflect the true cost of the backups, which we believe should result in a net reduction in cost for a given volume of backup data.

      Electronic door access should be provided by the same group that provides key access, with distributed control such as that provided in ONA and Maintain.

      We would like to see IST provide a single VPN service for remote secure access to the campus network.

      Co-ordination of major IP network changes (moving IPv4 addresses into net blocks by constituency and allocationg IPv6 address space) should be managed centrally.

    2. What services do you feel are unique to your area, requiring local support?

      Research and instructional computing in the School are highly specialised and require local support. The Instructional Support and Undergraduate Operations staff create and maintain software and databases which require systems and database design and programming support.

      Researchers, especially in CS, often have to work with cutting-edge technology and will require support of such.

    3. Are you happy with the level of attention you are able to give to your local service requirements?

      Not at present. CSCF is currently short four FTEs and cannot continue to provide the quality of service expected by our clients in the long term if this situation is not addressed.

      Once we are back to a full staffing complement, we believe we will be able to provide excellent service in both the short and long term. The research support group funding model allows for near-automatic scaling of staffing levels to match client needs.

    4. Are there services you've considered up-loading to IST?
      1. Have you considered doing so in the past?

        Yes: backups, DHCP, and wireless.

      2. What prevented you from doing so?

        Backups haven't been up-loaded for financial and network bandwidth reasons. We are considering encouraging our larger backup clients to move to IST's backup service, provided the network infrastructure can handle the amount of data involved without degrading service.

        The CS inventory system from which we automatically populate our DHCP service is not yet integrated with IST's DNS and DHCP management service (Maintain). When that integration is complete, we hope to reduce our need for a local DHCP service to a handful of private (not routed across campus) devices.

        Once CSCF and IST came to an agreement to meet CS requirements for wireless usage, wireless networking was up-loaded to IST.

      3. If you are considering doing so now, what obstacles do you expect, and what could be done to ensure success?

        Support for Blackberry e-mail may be best done by IST rather than CSCF. It ought to work, given the apparently large amount of resources being applied to a central Exchange service. IST should have sufficient resources to keep user documentation and support up to date for a high level of service.

        Central DHCP support should be possible once we finish modifications to our inventory system to update the central DHCP service.

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Topic revision: r17 - 2012-09-06 - BillInce
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