Duke ITAC - September 2, 2010 Minutes

Duke ITAC - September 2, 2010 Minutes

ITAC Meeting Minutes
September 2, 2010, 4:00-5:30
Allen Board Room
  • Announcements, introductions and meeting minutes
  • Web services sourcing and Duke Today (Mike Schoenfeld, Denise Haviland, Samantha Earp)
  • Email, spam and network registration metrics (Sanjay Rao, Joe Lopez)
  • Collaborative higher education mail services RFP (Tracy Futhey)
  • Summer lab refresh and VCL update (Samantha Earp)

Announcements, Introductions, and Meeting Minutes   

Alvy Lebeck called the meeting to order, requesting feedback pertaining to the August 19th meeting minutes distributed on Wednesday. Noting no objections, Alvy announced that these minutes would be posted to the ITAC website.  He then introduced the semester’s new ITAC members, including Ashutosh Kotwal, Stefano Curtorolo, and graduate school representatives Yang Yang and Brian Kiefer, and thanked all ITAC members for their continued involvement.

Kevin Davis announced some IT security training sessions to be offered by SANS in October.  Normally $195 each, these sessions can be accessed for free with the use of a discount code to be distributed to the ITAC mailing list.  These sessions include “Future Trends in Network Security”,  “Securing the Human”, and “Protecting your University Data for Execs”.

In other announcements, Kevin shared some performance issues experienced with the Blackboard system this week, noting that not all students were affected and relatively few service calls were received.  Kevin noted that OIT staff hoped that an application server restart around noon that day would clear excess sessions accumulated during the problems on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, but added that staff were continuing to monitor the situation.

Web Services Sourcing and Duke Today                                       
Mike Schoenfeld, Denise Haviland, Samantha Earp

Mike Schoenfeld began by thanking the group for inviting him, Denise Haviland, and Samantha Earp to speak. 

Mike described the initial conception and most compelling component of the new web services sourcing group as an effort to reduce and rationalize communication costs as first envisioned by the Duke Administrative Reform Team, or DART.  In addition to streamlining costs, Mike sees this initiative as an opportunity to develop and strengthen how the university presents itself to its various audiences.

Mike said he considered the Office of Marketing and Strategic Communications as an internal consulting group of sorts.  It serves many functions, he said, including strategic planning and execution of communication media, research, audience identification, and branding initiatives.  The group works with print, online, audio, video, and other media channels.

Mike named three key players in this initiative as Denise Haviland, Director of the Office of Marketing and Strategic Communications; Tracy Futhey, CIO of the university and head of OIT; and the Office of Procurement, which Mike says is vital in purchasing communications and planning.

Mike then explained that under Denise’s leadership and with the help of Samantha Earp and Duke Web Services, the group has developed and distributed a style guide to help individual units within Duke produce sites that were with Duke web standards. Additionally, the team is in the process of adopting tools and templates for both online and print use across the university.  These tools aim to be flexible enough to be employed in various applications, and according to Mike, the community has responded to these resources with very strong interest.

The next step in this process, according to Mike, is the creation of a vendor licensing initiative for vendors who provide communications-related services, such as web designers, print designers, and videographers. Mike noted an interest globally in first seeking to negotiate better deals (in terms of both cost and service), explaining that Duke tends to establish vendor relationships with outside vendors on a one-off basis. As a result, the institution is paying more for these services than necessary and missing opportunities both to scale/economize and establish consistency across the Duke brand.

To remedy this problem, Mike said, the initiative proposes identifying vendors, working with internal units, and establishing creative and technical standards so that individual departments can better avoid the scenario of spending money on a product or service that will be difficult to integrate into Duke’s technical structure.  Though this is a difficult undertaking, Mike said, the group understands the importance of collecting all relevant data and finding resources that will be conducive to advancing the goals of both Duke as a whole and the specific Duke entity.

Mike stressed that this service is strictly voluntary; it is entirely up to the individual schools or units to decide whether they could benefit from these services, but Mike mentioned that the group has already gotten far more business than initially expected.

John Board asked how many vendors the university is currently dealing with.  Denise responded that among the hundreds of vendors used for media services, web-specific vendors are better measured in dozens.

Robert Wolpert asked whether the group was making efforts to reach out to small web businesses to communicate what they would need to do to get into the door with Duke.  Mike responded that such vendors are absolutely encouraged.

Graduate student representative Brian Kiefer mentioned that student groups often outsource web work for their organizational websites, and suggested that perhaps they, too, could benefit from consulting with the group.  Mike responded that the group is not yet prepared to expend to the student audience, but noted that as Alvy suggested, there is certainly potential for putting students in touch with partner vendors who could provide reliable service and perhaps special rates.

Dave Richardson mentioned that as the Duke brand continually evolves, technical concerns surrounding maintenance and bandwidth always seem to surface.  Dave asked Mike to what degree does this office deal with the technical side of communications.  Mike responded that this is where Duke Web Services becomes involved in the process, to support these projects from a technical standpoint.

John Board observed that with cost-cutting efforts over the past few years, many groups have been holding off on new web and communication projects.  He asked the group whether they felt that this may account for a surge in the near future of new projects needed to be done on a budget.  In Mike’s opinion, this is very likely explained by both John’s observation and also by the  costs of the strong trend to move from print to digital media.  Mike cited this year’s discontinuation of printed athletic media guides as an example; while this will save money for Duke for years to come, there is also an associated cost with putting new content online to replace materials no longer in print.

Mike added that the team is not quite ready to talk about the forthcoming DukeToday redesign in great detail, and promised to return later in the semester to address that piece.  He mentioned that the next release of Duke Today would have some big layout changes that will be highlighted in that presentation.

Email, Spam, and Network Registration Metrics                             
Sanjay Rao (email and spam), Joe Lopez (network)

Sanjay Rao began by demonstrating the architecture of spam protection at Duke.  The slide depicted Spamhaus’ blocked listed database as allowing for the weeding out of mail from known spammers in real time before email is filtered through Sophos PureMessage, which marks an additional 15-18% of incoming messages as spam.  Microsoft Forefront, which has processed a million emails in the past ten days, found 12% of emails to be spam.

Addressing a common concern that legitimate email is being marked as spam by these systems, Sanjay provided the results of investigation into three tickets filed to this effect.  In the first ticket, a Fuqua user’s outgoing email was blocked as spam.  Research into the problem revealed that the user’s email signature featured image icons for social networking sites, one of which appeared to link to a twitter account but actually linked to another source.  As this is a common technique used by spammers, Forefront/Cloudmark blocked the email.  In the second and third cases of wrongly blocked email, Sanjay explained, the emails in question included fax or telephone numbers that had been reported as spam by users.  As Sanjay explained, this does not constitute unexpected activity or a malfunction on the part of Duke’s spam filters.

Alvy Lebeck shared that Duke’s Computer Science department also uses Cloudmark and has found them very helpful in responding to concerns about legitimate emails being filtered when matched to keywords.  Cloudmark promptly removed the keyword from the department’s spam filtering settings.

Several ITAC members inquired as to whether it is possible for a user to access his or her quarantined Duke mail, as many providers allow.  According to Sanjay, once quarantined, the current version of Forefront does not allow the re-sending of emails.  A ticket was opened with Microsoft to this effect, but as Sanjay reported, the company does not intend to enable this functionality at present.

Sanjay then outlined two strategies for managing spam at Duke.  The first is the current implementation, which quarantines any message Cloudmark determines to have a Spam Confidence Level (SCL) of more than 5. According to Sanjay, 99% of email with an SCL of 5 or more is truly spam, but this option does not allow for the delivery of these messages if a user does want to review them.

The other option described by Sanjay involves the disabling of anti-spam services, sending all messages (spam or otherwise) to users.  This option places responsibility for spam identification on the user’s email client, such as MacMail or Outlook.  According to Sanjay, effectiveness of spam identification varies greatly between clients, and the user typically will experience an increased chance of spam in his or her inbox, as well as legitimate messages delivered to the JunkMail folder.

In response to a third proposed option– delivering mail marked as spam by gateway scanners for users to access if desired – Sanjay explained that such functionality is not possible in the current version of Exchange.

A group discussion ensued regarding campus filtering policies, server-side rules, and user experiences with spam filtering tools.  When there were no more questions, Sanjay turned the floor over to Joe Lopez to discuss network statistics.

Joe began with access statistics for the new guest wireless network.  While 300 concurrent connections is the daily average, freshman move-in peaked at over 800 connections utilizing over 20Mbps, with spikes as high as 40Mbps.  Outside those peak periods, the guest wireless network’s bandwidth use so far is averaging about 11Mbps inbound and 2Mbps outbound.

The council expressed interest as to whether primary network usage has been affected by the introduction of this new network.  Joe indicated that the differential in usage between the two networks is so large that it would be difficult to show the primary network usage with such granularity as to plot it against the usage of the guest network, much less establish any sort of causation between shifts in activity among the networks.

In general network statistics, Joe explained that there is a trend on campus toward wireless use in place of wired connections.  Since the beginning of the academic year, he said, 317 new wired computers were registered with ResNet vs. 3264 new wireless devices.  Joe then showed a chart showing registered devices by type and audience (student vs. non-student). 

Tracy Futhey commented that freshman computer registrations showed a staggering 91% percent of incoming Duke students to arrive to campus with a primary computer made by Apple, a statistic supported by the overall high number of Apple machines registered to students.

Collaborative Higher Education Mail Services RFP                         
Tracy Futhey

Tracy noted the groundwork for this initiative was laid 3-4 years ago as universities began to venture into the world of cloud services.  According to Tracy, Duke has engaged in many discussions regarding whether university mail services would be better provided by a cloud provider. Many of these discussions have taken place in the context of the Common Solutions Group (CSG), a group of research universities that meets to discuss common IT challenges in higher education and identify solutions. 

Since many member institutions have mirrored Duke’s interest in cloud email services, Tracy has been leading a CSG subgroup intended to design a group Request for Proposal (or RFP) with the hope that such a document could help facilitate a group negotiation of terms with one or several desired vendor(s).

According to Tracy, this CSG subgroup was established in May 2009, and since then, other universities have signed on to the effort.  By this summer, she explained, the original draft of the RFP has been thoroughly vetted and expanded by legal, technical, and procurement experts to become a 30-page, full RFP, developed to represent these schools’ shared requirements.

Today, the RFP working group includes one or more members from each participating university, a legal working group, a technical working group, a procurement working group, a project manager, multiple project leads, and an RFP steering group, which includes six CIOs, project leads, and a project manager.

Tracy explained that this effort is not vendor-specific, but aims to issue a single RFP to multiple vendors who appear likely to be able to accommodate the technical requirements established by the group.  She added that bids from other vendors asking to be included will also be considered..

Tracy stressed that this initiative does not aim to create a new organization or single purchasing collective, but rather strives to empower individual institutions with common service goals to present their shared needs to vendors and select among the resulting bids.  The effort also seeks to create efficiency and commonality in how the vendors work with the universities, but focusing discussions around an agreed-to set of issues and functions rather than each university approaching vendors separately and with their own variations on the issues and feature set needed.

According to Tracy, all CSG schools have been invited to join these negotiations using the finished RFP, possibly increasing the total count of participating universities.  These institutions will be expected to sign off on the RFP as-is by September 14th in order to participate. 

Tracy explained that the group expects to have vendor bids available for review by November 2010 and plans for vendor selection to be complete by the end of the year.  In Duke’s case, this should allow a pilot of the selected service to be available mid-February 2011.  Tracy reminded the council that for the time being, Duke has only listed undergraduate student accounts in this RFP and will consider future negotiations on the basis of how successful the initial implementation turns out to be.

DSG representative Mark Elstein asked if this RFP would become public upon agreement(s) with vendor(s).  Tracy explained that the group has already made the RFP available to EDUCAUSE, which has agreed to serve as the steward of this and similar documents.  According to Tracy, the RFP subgroup hopes to treat this project as you would an open-source software project; other institutions are welcomed to modify the document for their own needs.

Summer Lab Refresh and VCL Update                                        
Samantha Earp

Samantha Earp provided a brief update on Duke’s progress in implementing DART recommendations about how to more effectively deliver computer lab services.  Showing a Google map demonstrating computer labs eliminated this summer, Samantha explained that hardware has been upgraded in the remaining labs with the idea of increasing the overall quality of lab resources. 

According to Samantha, an ITAC working group will reconvene this fall for evaluation of next steps in this effort.

John Board inquired as to the total reduction in seat count for campus computer labs.  Samantha estimated the reduction of seats to be around 60, or about 20% of the original number of seats.

A discussion followed between Samantha, DSG representative Mark Elstein, and ITAC guest Evan Levine regarding the new format of Central Campus computer labs.  Central Campus’ Alexander computer lab has been moved to Mill Village, but as Evan explained, there is still an ePrint station available in the original location.

Samantha then provided and update on the Virtual Computing Lab (VCL) initiative.  Following a pilot phase of the VCL, she says, the primary concerns about the VCL pertained to service speed, wireless capacity, and time required to initiate the service.  According to Samantha, results from load tests have aided the group in tuning the storage side of the VCL as well as identify a need for more bandwidth.  She explained that plans are underway for adding between three and five more wireless access points to better serve VCL users.

Samantha mentioned that the group is encouraging students currently connecting remotely to Teer and Hudson labs to start using the VCL instead.