Duke ITAC - November 11, 2010 Minutes

Duke ITAC - November 11, 2010 Minutes

ITAC Meeting Minutes
November 11, 2010, 4:00-5:30
Allen Board Room
  • Announcements and Meeting Minutes
  • Campus Computing Survey Update (Julian Lombardi)
  • Undergraduate IT perspectives (Michael Ansel, Mark Elstein, Ben Getson)                 
  • Higher education mail services RFP update (Tracy Futhey)


Announcements and Meeting Minutes

Alvy Lebeck called the meeting to order.  With no meeting minutes or announcements to present, he invited Julian Lombardi to begin his presentation on the Campus Computer Project.

Campus Computing Survey Update (Julian Lombardi)

Julian Lombardi introduced the Campus Computing Project as the largest continuing study of the role of eLearning and information technology in American higher education.  Overseen by Kenneth Green, the Campus Computing Project has been collecting data from senior campus IT officers to analyze technological trends relevant to higher education over the last 20 years.

The 2010 Campus Computing Project Survey included 523 two- and four-year public and private colleges and universities, Julian continued.  The data were collected via a web-based questionnaire between September and early October of this year.

According to Julian, some of the most important issues to those surveyed included data and network security, online and distance education, and replacing aging infrastructures.  Regarding the learning management system (LMS) market, the survey showed Desire2Learn, Moodle, and Sakai as gaining share in a market traditionally dominated by Blackboard.  Julian also noted a significant interest in mobile LMS applications and lecture capture.

Julian then showed a graph representing budget cuts between public and private institutions over the last four years, which showed decreases across the board to academic computing and increases in spending for Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems, mobile computing, and network security. Additionally, Julian said, many institutions reported aggressive reorganization of their academic computing systems.

Regarding trends in network security, Julian noted that only 76% of the 2009 respondents were accounted for in the 2010 data, so it is difficult to make meaningful conclusions about patterns in security incidents.  That said, Julian observed an increase in reported identity management issues, a decrease in reported spyware/virus incidents, and relative stability in the other categories.

Julian then discussed emergency notification services across surveyed campuses.  He observed that private universities were much more likely to use mobile phone technology for these notifications than their public counterparts.   Additionally, there is a general trend in notification strategies to move from opt-in services to opt-out.

Julian then turned his attention to the LMS market, observing that LMS use has trended upward each year for each institution classification, with the exception of private universities who have trended upward each year until 2010, when indications of LMS use dropped slightly.  Julian did not feel this indicated a loss of interest in learning management systems, but rather suggested that this dip may be attributed to some universities favoring a “best of breed” approach, rather than committing to the integrated systems included in the survey.

A graph of LMS usage showed Blackboard holding a 57% majority, with 16% of institutions using Moodle, 10% using Desire2Learn, 5% using Sakai, and 5% using other.  Only 7% of institutions responded that they did not have a standard LMS.

Noting that LMS use differed by institution classification, Robert Wolpert asked if a corresponding survey was available for these trends among private research universities such as Duke.  Tracy Futhey commented that a recent Common Solutions Group (CSG) survey evaluated the situation as well, and may be of interest.

Julian continued with a slide on transitions in the LMS market over the last four years.  More campuses than ever are using hosted services, he mentioned, and institutions appear to take necessary system upgrades as an opportunity to review current services and consider alternatives.  The impact of increasing competition on LMS mobility services, Julian said, remains unclear.

Regarding mobile MS apps, Julian asserted that these applications are an important part of our campus plan to enhance instructional resources and campus services.  Among private universities, 31.5% do not yet have a mobile LMS, while 26.7% of universities are currently reviewing options for implementing one.

Julian also noted that wireless classrooms are on the rise, and there is a widespread trend to phase out public computing labs.  According to Julian, tools such as VCL somewhat eliminate the need for deploying specific tools on public computers.

Lecture capture is an important part of our campus plan for developing and delivering instructional content, Julian commented, and as Duke embraces more and more international programs and initiatives, lecture capture will provide opportunities to extend educational resources at a distance.  This commitment to lecture capture systems appears consistent with Campus Computing Project survey results, which show gains in both lecture capture and podcasting.
Other trends Julian observed from the survey were an increase in outsourcing email services, as well as an increased emphasis on ePortfolios and eBooks.  According to Julian, 80-95% of IT officers responding to the survey indicated that they either agree or strongly agree with the idea that eBooks will play a major role in higher education in the future.

Robert Wolpert commented that it seems that universities are waiting for a breakthrough in eBook pricing structure before committing to widespread eBook use, a sentiment with which Julian agreed.

Julian ended his presentation with an examination of distance education as a CIO priority at many universities.  He also encouraged anyone interested in reading the full survey results to visit the Campus Computing Project website at campuscomputing.net.

Tracy Futhey thanked Julian for his analysis, and noted that although Duke seems to be ahead of the pack on most trending topics presented, it is important to consider national tends when establishing our own technological strategies.

Undergraduate IT perspectives (Michael Ansel, Mark Elstein, Ben Getson)                 

DSG representatives Ben Getson and Michael Ansel introduced themselves to the council, crediting fellow representative Mark Elstein (not present) for contributing to their presentation.

Ben began by recapitulating last year’s DSG presentation, wherein the three representatives named convenience and flexibility as the two qualities students value most in IT services. He also noted that the evolution of student complaints from year to year is an indication of successful efforts by the administration to address student concerns.  For example, Ben said, thanks to the creating of The Link and other initiatives, students no longer wonder how to get in touch with OIT, though this was a common complaint three years ago.  Michael cited wireless access as another former area of complaint that is no longer a concern for students.

Ben and Michael then shared some concerns that they frequently hear from fellow undergraduates.  One major area of frustration is the ePrint system, which appears to break and be fixed in a rather opaque manner.  According to Ben, students are curious about the triage system for ePrint and would like to be educated about what causes jams or other interruptions of service.  There is a belief among some students, he continued, that duplexing can be blamed for the majority of jams.  This results in many students disabling the duplexing feature,
Another concern among students is television at Duke.  According to the representatives, undergraduates are sometimes frustrated that cable television is expensive at Duke when other schools such as UNC offer the service for free.  Students are also frustrated when Duke systems are not compatible with new television technology that they would like to use; for example, Ben said, both launch configurations for GoogleTV require HDMI input, which is not supported in Duke residence halls.

Tracy Futhey observed that this is a rapidly changing problem, and as our cell phones increasingly take the place of computers and our computers increasingly take the place of our televisions, she wondered when we can count on students preferring computers to deliver television content, in order to better anticipate what sorts of hookups would be a good long-term investment for residence halls.  Ben responded that when watching television is a social experience, students typically favor televisions.  Considering this, Michael suggested that perhaps such improvements could be piloted in commons rooms.

Ben and Michael then addressed a third concern: cellular phone signals. According to Ben, cell phone reception seems less reliable than last year, with frequent complaints about reception in von der Hayden Pavilion, the stairs leading to CIEMAS, areas between Central Campus buildings, and Campus Drive.  Stefano Curtarolo wondered if perhaps an increased number of iPhones on campus might correlate to more complaints about reception, as ATT (the service provider for the iPhone) has been known to have weak coverage on campus.

On the subject of mobile phones, Ben and Michael agreed that the DukeMobile application is a great resource for students.

The representatives’ final concern was communication between OIT and students.  Ben explained that students often feel in the dark with regard to new technological changes or problems – for example, he said, sending an email to the student body at the onset of the recent WebMail problems would have been informative to both students affected and unaffected by these problems, as well as to faculty attempting to communicate with students experiencing problems.  The representatives felt that a general assumption that OIT knows about each outage or other technical problem discourages students from approaching OIT with problems they encounter.  The problem, they said, is that students are so accustomed to having problems fixed behind the scenes with no mention, that other problems at times persist for weeks, likely because no one has notified OIT of the situation.  DSG would like to see better communication about students’ role in communication of technical problems in conjunction with better availability of documentation about known issues and their statuses.

Ginny Cake mentioned Duke Alert being available via RSS, DukeMobile, and the OIT website, and was curious to hear how the representatives would improve this service.  Ben shared that he has frequently checked Duke Alert for problems, only to find that his specific problem was not listed.  He has also frequently seen Duke Alert advertise “-1” new alerts.

Tracy shared an initiative over the past year to get even the most minor outages into OIT’s Outage Alert webpage.  The challenge, she said, was getting all the information they have been collecting streaming onto the site.

Michael mentioned that the alerts are sometimes very vague, to which Tracy responded that alerts are posted as soon as a problem comes to OIT’s attention, often before the exact nature of the issue is known.  These alerts are updated periodically as more information is known.  Michael also felt that it would be nice to have more follow-up information on the problem once it is resolved.  Kevin Davis agreed that this might be useful and that OIT would work to increase the details provided in the reporting of incident closure.

Michael then demonstrated logging into a Teer computer lab, explaining that he was pleased to see a notification upon login that VCL is up and running. According to Michael, this is a great example of communication targeting exactly the appropriate audience.  The ResNet/Wireless NAT migration could have benefitted from a similarly targeted communication strategy, he continued, as the initiative did not affect many students but did temporarily affect some of his computer science classes, as even some professors were not aware of the switch.

DukeMail performance                               
-    Amy Brooks and OIT staff

Amy Brooks began with some background about recent issues with the DukeMail system, beginning with periodic outages in August and September.  At the time, Oracle representatives suggested an operating system update, which was performed very conservatively to avoid introducing new problems. The update seemed to stabilize the test servers, and so the changes were applied to all DukeMail servers.  Things appeared stable, Amy said, until about six weeks later when server activity spiked without warning and deadlocked.  OIT immediately put some of its best technical people on the problem and engaged the Oracle technical team last week for additional support.  After a number of weekend conference calls, OIT began to move some users to an additional server in order to reduce load on all the production servers.

Tracy Futhey clarified that only two of the original four servers were responsible for this behavior.  Amy confirmed this, noting that there was no apparent connection between server load and these problems arising.

Amy continued that Oracle identified this behavior as a known bug, and has sent patches to correct the problem.  Between OIT technical workers and additional engineers from Oracle, these patches have been applied to the offending servers and will be applied to the others as well.

Mark McCahill then provided some history of the DukeMail system.   In order to address architectural problems with Cyrus Mail System’s monolithic mail server, Duke selected to replace the Cyrus application with the Sun Java System Communications Suite in the spring of 2008.  Offering a feature set congruent with Cyrus’ (such as shared folders, sieve filters, and large mailbox support), the Sun Java System Communications Suite was implemented in August and September of 2008.

That fall, Mark continued, it became clear the Duke’s use profile is unlike the corporate usage for which the Sun system was attuned.  Duke looked to Sun for ongoing support to stabilize the DukeMail system via performance tuning of the ZFS file system.  Between the spring of 2009 and the summer of 2010, Duke experienced general stability with 100% availability in May, June, and July.  Through this time, mailbox growth continued, and Sun Microsystems was purchased by Oracle.

Mark then showed some graphs with data pertaining to DukeMail availability.  Kevin Davis provided some insight into these graphs, noting that the monitoring system used to provide these data points tracks application level testing.  The graphs show a steady, seasonal user base, with fewer users than before as some on campus have turned to third party services such as Gmail.  Despite the decline in user numbers, Kevin continued, total mail storage has significantly increased.

Debbie DeYulia observed that very few support tickets have come in for DukeMail, and said that those that do have generally been for password resets and other general help until last week.

After a long period of stability, Mark continued, DukeMail started to experience brief (between 5 and 55 minutes) mail server hangs in August and September, isolated to a single server.  Oracle has offered configuration change suggestions and application patches, which were applied after extensive testing.  On November 3rd, two mail servers began to show slowdowns and crashes.

According to Mark, OIT is working hard to find what might be triggering the server deadlocks.  Duke has been loaned a test environment to create tests that mirror production use (i.e., thousands of concurrent sessions and actions).
In the meantime, Mark said, OIT is continuing with migrations to Exchange 2010, and will be interested in considering options that come out of the CSG RFP process to be discussed by Tracy Futhey in the following presentation.

Alvy Lebeck mentioned the discussion about ZFS, and asked about the general structure used for Exchange.  Mark responded that Exchange runs on hardware RAID with a pair of mailbox servers architected for failover.  With DukeMail, he said, that level of redundancy is not supported. 

Amy noted that the service classification for mail systems is resulting in OIT allocating more resources to these services.  Kevin Davis explained more about the service classification effort, identifying “essential” and “critical” services as the top two service tiers.  Applications in these tiers are built to have automatic or very fast failover, but unfortunately the DukeMail system predates the service classification effort and has some catching up to do. Exchange, on the other hand, was built to be very compatible with Duke’s standards for failover.

Higher education mail services RFP update (Tracy Futhey)

Tracy Futhey then gave a quick update on her work with the Common Solutions Group (CSG) effort to distribute a common Request for Proposal (RFP) to various vendors of email/calendaring/collaboration tools in order to attract proposals tailored to the needs of research universities such as Duke.

The resulting RFP represents 10 schools (accounting for as many as a million individual accounts) and includes a list of commonly agreed-upon non-negotiable requirements pertaining to federal legal compliance issues, intellectual property rights, identity management, multi-platform support, anti-spam virus protections, data ownership, and data migration capabilities.  According to Tracy, the RFP was issued to 7 potential vendors on September 22nd.  As requested, the vendors responded to the CSG with their questions by October 6th.  Responses to these questions were issued on October 13th.

Tracy then explained that 5 proposals emerged from the original 7 vendors invited to participate, and 3-4 of these vendors will be invited to present their services to the CSG.  Meanwhile, each proposal received is currently being evaluated by technical, legal, and business teams. 

According to Tracy, vendors will be selected by November 18th to present in early December.  The 10 universities, referred to as the Issuing Group, will select one or more vendors by December 17th in order to proceed with contract negotiations.  The group plans to announce the winning vendor(s) by February 4th, 2011, to allow a subset of participating universities to pilot the chosen vendor’s program beginning as early as March 1st.  Tracy explained that the group has agreed to such a tight schedule to allow time for some universities to migrate their emails systems as early as next summer.

Tracy’s update was followed by a group discussion about the initiative.  John Board mentioned an institution that outside of the RFP project that credited CSG documentation with smoothing over contract negotiations.  Tracy commented that the Issuing Group plans to make anything accomplished in this project available for use by other universities.

Terry Oas asked if the proposals received represented mostly cloud-based or traditionally outsourced services.  Tracy responded that the proposals are really a mix.  She also clarified that neither Duke nor any other institution is obligated to accept any of the proposals.