Tag Archives: HigherEd

IT in Higher Education

After over 15 years working in IT within the H.E. vertical I’ve spoken publically a few times about our corner of the tech industry, with talks at VMworld in 2016 and a recent TechUG meeting and chairing a roundtable at a UK VMUG UserCon. This post covers the highlights some of the content of these sessions, it contains themes that I’ve seen myself at various institutions and have struck a common chord in discussions with colleagues from other Universities.

The HE IT Environment

TechUG Talk November 2017

TechUG Talk November 2017

There are 17,000 IT Professionals* working in the UK Higher Education industry spread across 160 Universities the length and breadth of the nation- that’s a sizable number and doesn’t include those working in IT within Schools and Further Education Colleges. These staff support some amazing research and teaching and have the opportunity to work with some really awesome people and kit in a wide variety of disciplines.

How many IT departments in other environments can support racing teams, particle accelerators, gene sequencers, dance studios, silver-service restaurants, sports centres, and farms whilst looking after residential internet customers, Nobel prize-winners, Rocket Scientists and Brain Surgeons all in a normal day? Dealing with the cutting edge presents unique challenged – for example in most environments the team looking after the wireless LAN doesn’t have to worry about the people in the office next door experimenting with next-gen wireless tech in the same airspace. As well as the cutting edge, there’s also IT supporting the more generic activities, most of which are found in any large enterprise organisation. There is still the need for a projector in the boardroom, a website for marketing, the EPOS in the coffee shop, payroll systems and so on.

State of the Art vs State of the Ark

Probably the most obvious challenge to someone dropped into the HE environment is the age range in supported equipment. There’s plenty of the latest and greatest- if you look round the vendors at any tech conference I’d be surprised if any of them didn’t have product in at least one University. But alongside this there’s usually a plethora of kit that’s perhaps past it’s best-before date but has to be kept running- this is partly down to the traditional grant-based funding model where “services” are funded once but then expected to stay on for ever.

Thankfully server virtualisation came along and helped to keep some of the old operating systems running when the hardware they relied on dies, and the advances in software defined networking have provided the opportunity to secure some manufacturer-unsupported workloads and protect the rest of the infrastructure.

Headcount

In higher education (and education in general) the employee headcount is much smaller than student numbers – UK Higher-Ed has about 400,000 Staff and roughly 2.2 Million students. Compared to a normal corporate environment there is a high turnover of these users because in addition to the regular comings and goings of employees, roughly a quarter of the “headcount” leaves every year as students graduate. This leads to the obvious potential difficulties in handling services such as user accounts – one that most Universities addressed some time ago with automation and integration with payroll and student record services.

It also presents some problems with software licensing- if site licensed software is based on the number of actual users on a site rather than the number of staff this can get quite costly. Most establishments also operate student computer labs- essentially a large scale hotdesking environment. If a software license is per-seat (and not on a flexible concurrent basis) then licensing enough seats for students to use the software in any lab (rather than having to be timetabled to just one for that application) can run up similarly high fees.

Ownership

One of the more bizarre things that a newcomer to the world of Higher Ed will come across is the issue of ownership. Often a Researcher can leave to join another institution and take their in-progress grants with them. This can mean that hardware and data can sometimes leave the company when staff do, and on the flip-side unexpected computer equipment and large amounts of data can arrive with new starters. Imagine in a more traditional corporate setting a developer or salesperson leaving and not only taking their Macbook with them, but also all the code or customer data they had been working on.

It’s an unusual situation, and one that IT departments in Higher Education need to deal with on a regular basis. They need to ensure that they have sufficient storage capacity that if terabytes of data arrive unexpectedly tomorrow it can be safely stored- requiring a flexible infrastructure. They also need to ensure that software licenses and hardware assets that are owned by the company and not part of any mobile grant are retained.  VDI and Application Virtualisation technologies can help with the software ownership and a rigorous asset management system and process is required to keep track of physical devices.

BYOD and UDDC

Staff arriving with computers from their previous employer is only one part of the “Bring Your Own Device” experience. BYOD is, and always has been, the norm at Universities for both students and staff. Thousands of students arrive each year with their own devices, coupled with staff with personal budgets and requirements sometimes choosing what to buy themselves. I’ve joked before that in Higher Education IT we were “doing” BYOD before we knew it was a thing.

But BYOD is not just for personal devices, this extends to the server environment as well- Staff and research students running servers in cupboards or under their desks. “UDDC” (The Under Desk DataCentre) can be commonplace. Add to this the “Bring Your Own Storage” problem everyone in the tech industry sees following the proliferation of large, cheap, portable USB disks and IT has a real challenge on it’s hand to provide the security and resilience that the institution, the business, requires.

Again VDI and App Virtualisation can help to deliver and maintain the software on the plethora of endpoint devices. For the server side, P2V for Under Desk DataCentres is an option. IT can easily show the benefits of a proper server environment and the ability to provide scaling and resilience that’s just not possible with one of these foot-warming server deployments.

Software

I’ve touched on Application virtualisation (and written in more depth on the subject) and there’s a lot of software used in Higher Education, a noticeable proportion of which presents a challenge to deploy and manage in the enterprise environment. IT are dealing with thousands of devices but the individual researcher wants to just download an app and get on with their job.

In Higher Ed (and Research in general) there’s a lot of little applications out there that another researcher has popped on the web (possibly back in 1994). Todays academics just want to download and use them, often with the expectation that everything will just work. However accompanying the download file there’s often no installation instructions, or instructions that remind you of the cover of a Led Zepplin album– there are so many steps. If anyone reading this ever finds themselves writing a manual don’t presume that just because someone has a Nobel Prize in Quantum Chemistry they are adept at editing the Windows Registry.

There’s also a lot of scientific applications just not designed to work in an enterprise environment. IT try and live in a world where users’ don’t share a login, and don’t require full administrator rights on their local workstation just to use it. It’s not just the freeware downloads that fall foul of these expectations- similar issues can often be found in expensive commercial research applications.

To aid this IT can invest in deployment methods- packaging through platforms such as SCCM, or virtualising the package (using ThinApp, XenApp, AppV, or Cloudpaging etc..) , or presenting the app through a virtual desktop infrastructure minimises the number of times an awkward installation process needs to be repeated and potentially allows some flexibility of the end-user device. User Environment Management plugs in here too, letting users escalate permissions without blanket issuing of admin rights across the estate.

hat-1217913_1280-pixabaySummary

So, to summarise, the big difference in a University environment to a traditional corporate one is the great variety of disciplines and activities, almost all of which require some form of IT. IT has become more and more central to almost every workplace over the past few decades and Higher Education institutions- themselves large enterprises- have at the same time adopted more and more of the practises and processes of the commercial sector. The Information Technology departments at Universities today faces many challenges common to their corporate counterparts in addition to some some unique to the sector. Thankfully modern technology is helping IT Pro’s rise to these challenges.

 

*HESA (Higher Education Statistics Agency) report for 2014/15 shows 16,900 staff categorised as “Information Technology Technicians” or “Information Technology and Telecommunications Professionals”


Advert:

OneDrive, Placeholders, and shared PCs.

OneDrive now with Files On Demand

At their annual Build conference, Microsoft announced that OneDrive was getting a new feature called “Files On Demand”- basically a replacement for the placeholders feature that was present in Windows 8.1’s OneDrive client. The official Office blog goes into more detail about the new features, and there’s a detailed writeup by Paul Thurrott which also includes the history of OneDrive placeholders, but I’d like to discuss the advantages for the education vertical- in particular Student PC labs.

Microsoft kindly offer OneDrive to University students for basically nothing, so it sounds like an ideal replacement for traditional on-premises network file-shares. Rather than the IT department struggling to provide 50 or 100GB of space per student from their budget, they could just point students at the 1 TB of disk Microsoft is providing for free.

Sync Good

A sink. Not a sync

Not this kind of sync


With a single regular user and enough local hard disk space a sync client without placeholders is fine. All the users files are synced to the local disk and available instantly whenever they are required. The selective sync in the current Windows 10 client helps on devices with smaller disks, but is still only really beneficial on a PC with a single regular user.

Sync Bad

On the students personal devices this works great- we’re back at this 1 user:1 device ratio. However in a student PC lab environment there are potentially hundreds of desktops and each of tens of thousands of users could log into any one at any time. We have a x,000:1 user:device ratio. Students don’t want to login to a machine at the start of a class and then wait whilst half a terabyte of data they don’t need syncs before document they need appears. Additionally IT don’t want to have to tidy up all this synced data after every user logs off.

Student Computer Labs

It’s technically possible (although can be a little fiddly depending on your infrastructure) to map your OneDrive to a drive letter using WebDav and then access it as you would a traditional “Home” drive, but this is unsupported by Microsoft. There are third party solutions that will map the drive, basically providing a front end and a support contract around this, but they’re often costly and may require infrastructure changes.

Placeholders FTW

Placeholders (or “Files On Demand”) is the ideal solution here. The student now sits down at the shared lab machine and all their files are listed. They then open the file of their choice and there’s an invisible, seamless, download in the background. When they save the file it’s synced back to the cloud. The user is happy as they no longer has to wait for all their files to sync before they can work and can take advantage of the large capacity (and sharing facilities too). IT are happy because they don’t have to fund (and support, maintain) as much storage.

I know many IT Professionals working in Higher Education will be looking forward to this release in the autumn.

The Amazing World of IT in Higher Education

There are around 17,000 IT Professionals working in the UK Higher Education industry supporting world-leading, cutting edge research and the development of the next generation of minds. They are also stewards of the (slightly less glamorous) systems for HR, payroll, email, printing and so on.
Whilst much of this environment will be familiar to those employed in a more corporate setting, there are a number of striking differences to IT operations found elsewhere in both the public and private sectors which Higher Education straddles.
This quick talk from VMworld Europe 2016 covers some of the surprises that encountered in a HE IT organisation, and how Virtualisation can save the day.