IT update | Your questions answered
A summary of the questions and answers from an open meeting with the IT Exec Team on 28 July 2022.
The Q&A is split into the following sections:
What are your plans for the next 12-18 months?
Please see the attached slides, which give a summary of our IPE (Integrated Planning Exercise) submission. The first slide summarises the journey we are on. About a year ago we secured a business case to modernize IT. We have two programmes of work – Digital Enablement, about building the digital foundations for the University, and Be Safe, our cyber security program. They will be running over the next two to three years.
In addition to Digital Enablement and Be Safe, there are other activities that are taking place that will help us digitise and transform the University and move to more modern ways of working. These include the Digital Transformation Strategy, Digital Learning Accelerator, Corporate Process and Systems (CPS) programme and the Student Lifecycle Programme (SLP).
The second slide shows our strategic priorities, and we are working with colleagues across the University to deliver them. These include:
- The IT Operation Model (ITOM) which is modernising the way we deliver service, to meet the changing needs of the University.
- Recruitment – we are expanding IT, planning to grow by around 80 people, plus (subject to approval of a further business case) looking to add approximately 40 additional people to support our research IT provision.
- Replacing equipment – over the next 12 months we will be replacing approximately 10,000 desktop and laptop computers. As part of that, we’ll be rolling out the latest software such as the latest version of the Microsoft Office suite (Microsoft 365).
- Research IT – currently we are rolling out a project that will give researchers access to admin credentials in a secure way.
- Faculty and professional services local support – we are implementing a hub and spoke support model for local support and building faculty aligned IT support teams. These teams will report into central IT and will operate aligned to central standards. However, the teams will allow us to build stronger relationships with colleagues across the faculties, and help us to gain a better understanding of the science we’re supporting.
Projects I am involved with have stalled due to IT capacity issues. When will IT have additional capacity or clear existing work to allow new projects to commence?
Projects have not stalled – we are working on over 50 projects now to deliver digital change, with not only the core IT staff working on them but also an additional 150 temporary staff.
With a customer base of circa 60,000 people, we know we cannot meet all requirements and expectations for change. We are focusing on the University’s strategic priorities, and we will continue to deliver a significant amount of change.
We recognise this can be frustrating. As part of the new IT operating model, we are looking at a new way of delivering smaller changes (work that takes us less than 10 days to deliver) to keep these flowing. This involves working with colleagues across the University to prioritise these changes, so we’re always working on the highest priority changes for you.
What is the sustainability approach to minimising the footprint from IT?
This is an important question for IT. We are looking to simplify our estate as much as possible, removing equipment that we don't need, and modernising equipment we do need, as modern equipment often uses a lot less power. There are thousands of pieces of IT equipment across campus, some as much as 20 years old and very inefficient, and we’ve already made lots of progress, decommissioning tons (in weight) of old legacy equipment over the last year. We are also replacing a lot of desktops with laptops, which generally use less energy.
We are looking to use more cloud services, as these services have very good sustainability models and many of them are already net zero. The new data strategy we are developing will have a strong emphasis on sustainability. We are developing a data integration platform and a central data repository, which will allow us to be more effective and efficient. This will help to reduce the computing power needed to process and manage the data.
Can we have some more visibility/transparency to users/IT reps of project plans for initiatives such as N drive migration?
Yes, we need to make sure our plans are more visible. We are working with the Transformation Office around a single plan showing our strategic projects and we want you to have visibility of this. The Transformation Board is chaired by Hai Sui, one of our Deputy Vice Chancellors (DVC), and has most of the DVCs and the Chief Financial Officer sitting on it. We are accountable from a delivery perspective to that board. The Transformation Office are building a communications plan to keep you updated.
At LUBS we had a decentralised IT service that ran more smoothly. Now the support process is so lengthy, and often refers me to self-help links which, during busy workloads, I have no time to deal with. Why do we not get faculty level IT experts back?
We’ve recently had a significant consultation with the research community, run by RedOak. One of the pieces of feedback that we received was that you felt there was no relationship with people in IT, making IT support much less effective.
We are addressing this as we recognise it is important that we understand your work and requirements. So, we will be creating faculty aligned support teams. These teams will be able to build that personal relationship with you. It will be a hybrid approach, with a single IT service and teams managed from the centre, but the teams will be sitting in faculties. We are currently recruiting to ensure we have the staff for these teams.
We do still need you to take a self-help approach where possible – with 60,000 people to support we can’t provide individual support for everything. We recognise that the current IT knowledgebase (it.leeds.ac.uk) isn’t good enough and are investing to improve it.
Is there any provision for local admin accounts for technical support staff?
As part of the Be Safe programme, we are currently deploying software called Delinea Privilege Manager to all the Windows and Mac computers IT manages.
This solution will let you run an application on an elevated (ie administrator) basis when required, in a secure way. This can be used to apply software updates. In most cases, this will allow most Researchers to manage their computer environments in a self-serviced way.
Can you allocate more staff or resources to the issuing of IT equipment for new starters?
We know we have a backlog and are working hard to address it by ensuring we have enough staff in that area and creating a more streamlined process. One of the reasons for the backlog is that we were not able to replace equipment during the pandemic, and now have 10,000 laptops and desktops to replace that would have been replaced on the annual cycle in the previous two years. People are requesting an upgrade on an ad-hoc basis, which has created the backlog.
We have changed our policy, so that going forward we will only provide new standard Windows laptops and computer equipment for new starters or where equipment has broken. Upgrades will be managed by a project over the next 12 months. Windows 7 machines will be updated by January 2023.
In the longer term, our ambition is to be able to deliver standard laptops that are shipped to people within two days of the request. We can’t offer the same timelines around more specialist equipment but will be working to improve those processes as well.
I have a computer that was brought in 2017, but I'm told I should buy a replacement when the warranty expires. Am I allowed a device as standard?
We need to differentiate between a standard University laptop, and a research machine which requires more graphics processing, higher capacity etc. Standard University laptops will be replaced on an annual basis, as part of a project. The project to upgrade Windows 7 machines has funding for around 4,000 devices, replacing like for like (ie a desktop for a desktop, or a laptop for a laptop). If a department wants a change, for example to replace a desktop with a laptop, the department will need to fund the difference.
Computers that are already running Windows 10 are included in faculty and service budgets, and our Business Relationship Managers are working with them to ensure the right provision is in the University’s IPE (integrated planning exercise).
In the future, we will have an annual refresh cycle where 25% of the computers are replaced.
Why are PCs being scrapped rather than upgraded just because they are over 5-years old?
There are several issues to consider around sustainability:
- Newer computers are much more energy efficient, especially laptop computers compared to desktop computers.
- We need to ensure computers are fit for purpose. Although it may be working at the moment, it is more likely to stop working suddenly the older it gets, which could have a massive impact to your work. Older computers tend to perform less well too.
- Older computers tend to have security vulnerabilities – both in the software and sometimes in the hardware itself.
- Old computers are not just thrown away, but we have a contract so that they are recycled or reused.
Is there some way that we could get some out of warranty laptops from IT for our robotics lab, installing Ubuntu and maintaining them ourselves?
This is something we could explore with you. If they are no longer receiving security updates, we would need to ensure they are not allowed onto a network where they could be a vector for attacks.
Why are we still using Office 2016 in 2022, even on brand new laptops?
The update to Office 2019 would have happened during the pandemic, so it was delayed while we addressed all the other issues the pandemic raised.
We are now implementing the latest version of the Microsoft Office suite (called Microsoft 365). New equipment is now starting to be delivered with Microsoft 365 installed.
Microsoft 365 includes some additional advantages - you can already install up to five copies of this free of charge on your personal equipment. Microsoft 365 will also be kept up to date on a regular basis, meaning we will not fall behind in the future. We call this an evergreen approach.
Can you please review the apps that are on AppsAnywhere and remove apps that don't work well?
If you have issues with a piece of software on AppsAnywhere, please let us know, giving as much detail as possible. For example, what computer are you running it on, exactly what feature were you using, etc?
AppsAnywhere works by streaming the software to the computer it is being used on. Some features of the software may not be available immediately. However, there are things we can do to improve this, this might mean it takes longer to start but then runs more quickly. It may also be that the computer you are using is not high enough spec to run the software well.
Do we have a timescale for upgrading the HPC (high performance computing) system i.e. ARC5 or equivalent? Will there be a staff consultation on the hardware we would like?
We have completed a large consultation with researchers about the future of Research IT and the report from this is available. Based on this consultation we have put together a business case for research IT, requesting around £30 million. This will go for approval in September.
Subject to business case approval, we are addressing this in two parts. Firstly, we will be expanding the existing system with what we are calling ARC 4 Plus, which we are starting this calendar year.
We will also be going out to market for ARC 5, aiming to have a full service by the beginning of 2024. We plan to augment this using the cloud, so we have a hybrid solution which we can expand or contract as we need.
How is IT planning to improve service delivery, especially for research which depends on ad-hoc hardware/software changes?
As above, there is a business case for Research IT going for approval in September. It focuses on three things which came out during the consultation:
- Delivering better service – including more research software engineers and research infrastructure engineers and training to make the most of the new technology
- More storage
- Improved HPC (high performance computing)
Local priorities for research will be supported through field support teams, so that we can be responsive to your needs and involve faculties in prioritisation. This will include ‘presales support’ where we can help you engage with external companies at the grant stage to get the costs right and understand what costs can be recovered.
In terms of software changes, please refer to the “Is there any provision for local admin accounts for technical support staff?” above.
Can we please retain some Linux Desktop workstations and bring them up to date? I have a Windows laptop but, the desktop has the tools for processing data and fast permanent connection to the network where data resides. It is unreasonable to transfer 100s of GB to a laptop (no room) for local processing especially over Wi-Fi connections.
When we launched the single device policy, we made it clear that research workstations would not be included in this as we recognise that there can be a good reason for these in addition to a Windows productivity laptop.
We offer researchers high-powered laptops with more storage and if required, GPUs.
We still encourage researchers to adopt a single device for sustainability and cost reasons.
I've heard there are plans for better University-wide support for Linux systems - where are we on that?
We have just finished a project in IT called the Linux next generation platforms project. This is particularly focused on having a single University build for Linux machines, rather than different builds in every area, so that we can support it more effectively. This also ties into other work we're doing for example, having a single type of storage provision and appropriate security.
This is now coming into business as usual, so that all new Linux laptops and new workstations will have a standard build and a standard way of being prepared.
Are we intending to deliver research IT internally in the long term? An email went round the other week that suggested research IT was being lined up to be tendered to 3rd party contractors.
The Research IT business case includes around 40 extra people, demonstrating our commitment to growing the service, and we expect it to grow further over the next five years.
For other elements of the Research IT service, we are considering if we could tender for a service, for example the archive service, where we are looking to buy software that will let us archive data to the cloud.
We currently have an arrangement with a company called ANS, who manages an element of on-campus infrastructure. They are moving away from doing that, so we are considering how best to manage it. We do know there is a core research requirement for the provision of local computing, local virtual machines, and we are discussing whether we should work with a third party or do it internally. We don’t have the answer yet.
My department is in need of a database fit for capturing and managing clinical research data. I am interested in using RedCap for this purpose but I need a host. Is IT in a position to offer this service?
We have looked at this in the past and concluded that this is an example of where IT staff need to prioritise on working to both the highest University strategic priorities and where they can add the highest value. Our teams are currently working with LIDA to use externally hosted and managed instances of RedCap which meet information governance requirements whilst delivering a pool of RedCap expertise we couldn’t match at the University.
Can you please provide an update on the need for teams to move files from the N:drive, particularly for SES (Student Education Service) and student records?
Yes, we are moving away from the M and N drives to SharePoint and OneDrive. We first need to analyse the N drives to understand the type of data they contain. Files on personal (M) drives will go to OneDrive and those in shared (N) drives to SharePoint or Teams sites. We do not have definite timescales yet but would expect it to be over the next 18 months, if not sooner. We took a short paper to the Transformation Office Portfolio Board on 28 July to request that they release funding to set up a project to migrate M&N drives to SharePoint/OneDrive/Teams and this has been approved. This project will provide training and best practices for ways of working.
Regarding current student records, for now, these should remain where they are. We are aware a lot of records are stored in Documentum, and we also have a partner in to help us understand the requirements around that and develop a corporate document management solution over the next couple of years. We need to make sure that data is held in a structured way that is easy to find.
There's a massive proliferation across the University of Teams and channels, plus files being inconsistently stored in SharePoint sites versus OneDrive, attached to emails, chat messages on Teams etc and it's incredibly difficult to find things - search doesn't necessarily help as there's rarely consistency in naming conventions. What measures are IT taking to help address this, e.g. producing or signposting guidance, running training for colleagues etc?
Microsoft Teams uses SharePoint as its storage, and just sits on top of it. We are looking to provide guidance on creating new Teams and for team owners and their delegates. Teams came into widespread use at the University at the start of the pandemic, so the focus was on rolling it out quickly to keep the University working, hence some of the issues.
Permissions have always been an issue on shared drives, not just SharePoint, so we need to ensure that permissions are correct and you, the data owner, have control on how the data is shared.
As part of the new central data service, there will be a team concerned with data governance and data quality. While they won’t be specifically looking at how to find data, they will provide advice and support best practice. We are working very closely with the Secretariat around data governance.
Given the importance of online collaboration for students (both for group work assignments and for informal study groups and 'cohort identity'), would it be possible for students to be given permission to create their own workspaces in Microsoft Class Teams rather than requiring them to request this through a member of staff, which is both inconvenient and notably at odds with the emphasis in HE on students' self-directed learning?
This area is delivered by the Digital Education Service. We are collaborating to investigate a new integration between Teams and Blackboard which will make creating these workspaces much easier. We will make sure that your feedback is considered as part of this collaboration.
We need more owls for hybrid meetings. When will we have those?
An Owl is a device that sits on the desk in a meeting room and has a camera and microphone (more information is available on the Owl website). It helps give a meeting room experience to all participants in hybrid meetings. They work very well, but we need to ensure that they are installed correctly and do not pose any security risks. Once that has been addressed, I think we will see more of them. This is an area which spans IT and Facilities, and we are collaborating with them on a plan to support hybrid meetings.