notes by Steve Lasley
Streaming Audio from the meeting.
The meeting was run by outgoing ITPAC chairman, Pete Vergot, District Extension Director of the NW District, remotely via Polycom.
Follow-up on web policy matters
Pete began with some follow-up to our last meeting. He mentioned that there has been no progress in moving forward on the UF-IFAS Web Policy and UF-IFAS Domain Name Policy proposals. Pete said that when he raised the issue to Larry Arrington, Dr. Arrington responded that this was not a matter which his committee would address. Joe Joyce asked Pete when that conversation took place because the last Joe checked, the matter was indeed on that committee's agenda. Ashley Wood added that he believed Dr. Arrington thought ITPAC should handle the matter. Joe said that he would get clarification so we could move ahead.
Approval of minutes
The minutes of the last meeting were approved without dissent. Pete thanked Ann Hutcheson for the great job she does in preparing those.
New members were introduced. Joe Joyce noted that Allen Wysocki had graciously agreed to be the new chairman. Al could not make it to the meeting until late today, however. Other new members included Brian Gray (IT Expert representing the Office for the Dean for Research), Sheri Munn (Coordinator Property & Admin Operations for FPO representing the RECs), Mary Anne Morgan (Director of Human Resources, at-Large representative), Steve Johnson (Assistant Professor, WEC at Plant City, At-Large representative) and Brandon Segermeister (student representative).
The outsourcing of IFAS IT to CNS
Steve Lasley reported that the ICC had no new formal recommendations to present at this time. Steve did have one item which he wanted to raise for comment from either Dan Cromer or Dr. Joyce, however. Steve noted that it is getting to be a quite wide-spread rumor that IFAS Administration wants to outsource IFAS IT and that they have negotiated with CNS to see if that is something CNS can provide. Since Steve had not heard any formal statement along those lines, he asked whether there was any validity to those rumors.
Facts and reassurances
Joe Joyce responded that they are continually looking for better ways to do things within IFAS--particularly to save money. If we can outsource a function and provide better service for less money, then we are going to do that. FedEx/Kinko's is a good example. If you can get the same level of service for the same costs then there is little advantage. Obviously, we would never want to move to a situation where we got the same or worse service at a greater cost.
That said, Joe admitted that there are current on-going discussions with CNS to investigate whether they can provide us the same or better service at a better cost. It is Joe's view, however, that IFAS IT has always been way out ahead of the rest of UF. Joe provided the example of Exchange which IFAS pretty much pioneered here at UF. That service has now been picked up by the university and we have joined that effort. Joe stated that this e-mail move was justified because he believes we are getting the same level of service for less money. Steve was not under the impression that this move had saved IFAS any money, and Dan Cromer responded that this is currently costing the same as when we did it ourselves. Dan also stated, however, that we are certainly going to get better service--at least in the sense that the system UF built is much more robust than we could afford to do on our own.
Regarding outsourcing to CNS, Joe then said that his current understanding is that CNS can't really do for us what we are doing now for ourselves--let alone do it for less. Steve mentioned that he would certainly be surprised if they could and Joe agreed. Dan Cromer added the reassurance that he would never recommend something which takes away IT services which we need. He did say that it didn't really matter, however, whether a particular server was run by ICS or IFAS IT as long as we enjoyed the required level of service. Dan said that, at this point, we are just looking at our options.
Budget and service level considerations
Dr. Joyce said that we all know the budget situation is tough currently not just for IFAS and UF but for all Florida government. Regardless, there is a minimal level of IT services which we simply must have. What Dan has been charged to do is to investigate what that minimum might be and hope we never have to go that route. Steve mentioned that one of his concerns goes beyond pure cost. Should CNS come back with a dollar figure, we still need to have our technical people evaluate those proposed services and guarantee that they really are equivalent to our needs and not merely inadequate generic replacements.
Joe said that this discussion really has two aspects. One is the budget issue and the other is the service level. If you are looking at this from the budget standpoint and you see that outsourcing would increase costs, then the matter will end right there. Steve asked for confirmation that the budget was the incentive behind this current outsourcing investigation. Joe responded that budget was certainly part of it. The other part relates to cooperative services such as we have done with Exchange. We provided Dwight Jesseman's position plus monetary resources [totaling roughly $110,000 per year] for UF to provide us Exchange e-mail services. Joe asked if we have seen any decrease in service from that deal and Steve replied that in the process we had indeed lost manpower for many of the other functions which Dwight used to provide us (beyond e-mail).
Steve mentioned that there is a lot of movement at UF to centralize a number of IT services. The Wall-plate is one example for which there will be considerable direct unit costs for joining, and "same or better at lower cost" doesn't seem to apply there. There are both cost and level of service issues to consider in recommending any such transition.
Joe said that Dan has had his best technical folks [Chris Leopold] involved in the discussions with CNS and that they will definitely be looking at both the costs and the level of service that CNS might provide. Joe re-iterated that it looks to him that outsourcing will not be an attractive option at this time. Steve pointed out that CNS currently has no real Windows experience and therefore no track-record which we can use for evaluating their ability to supply needed services--regardless of whether they end up making an offer.
Video Conferencing Updates
Polycom deployment progress
Dan Cromer told the committee that the deployment is not going quite as well as he had hoped. Some counties, Volusia being an example, refuse to let their network host the Polycom. Offices are looking at putting in direct DSL circuits to get around this issue; that can take a number of weeks to accomplish unfortunately. Other county offices are being quite cooperative, however. Dan estimates that we are about 80% done with the deployment currently. Pete Vergot's NW District is done. The South District was the last to begin deployment and Kevin Hill has been working on that this month.
There are two remaining REC sites which have to be updated with the new hi-def units: Balm and Plant City. Tom Hintz intends to visit those sites in about two weeks to finish that up. When installing the hi-def units, our people ran into a number of cabling difficulties, but those have all been overcome (except for these remaining two sites). Ft. Pierce wanted to keep their older iPower Polycom unit in place until Spring classes were over, but the new system is set up and operational in a separate room.
Recent problems with the bridge
Dan mentioned that there has been a recent problem whereby some connections have been dropping at roughly 5-minute intervals from bridged video conferences. This was first noted at the January ICC meeting and Pete Vergot mentioned having seen this himself for the last couple of weeks. Discussion ensued related to UF Video Services being too quick to blame the remote connections (private IP, DSL and PVX) for such problems. Dan Cromer has made it clear to Patrick Pettus as of yesterday that there is some issue at his end and that we need to aggressively locate and solve the issue. They are pursuing that, but it is a very difficult problem to diagnose.
Note from the future: Dan Cromer noted at the February ICC meeting that he now believes the problem is with the Gatekeeper and not the Codian bridge itself.
Steve asked Dan Cromer if he had heard any movement on a UF-level Video Committee. Dan replied that he thought that was a good idea, but that he knew of no movement.
WAN connection upgrades
Dan noted that we now have a number of RECs and remote units which have been or are being upgraded to high-speed Internet. This came to Apopka in the Fall and to Plant City and Balm about a week ago. Lake Alfred is due imminently. New wide-area networking (WAN) opportunities are coming available on a regular basis and we will continue to look for ways to improve our WAN connections around the state.
Polycom endpoint certification
One of the plans for making our video conferencing system more reliable is endpoint certification. This involves providing VCS with location and configuration information, making sure your endpoint is registered with the Gatekeeper and providing the administrative password to the device. Along with this, we want to appoint a person within each unit who has the designated responsibility for maintaining the endpoints. Dr. Joyce is going to send out a message to unit heads saying that they need to formally designate their local video endpoint technical contact. The plan is that, if your endpoint is not certified, your priority for assistance will be lower.
Joe Joyce said that these discussions have been leaning toward denying access to non-certified endpoints. Joe thought such a mandate was too extreme and the committee concurred. Dan Cromer mentioned that one of the things VCS wanted for certification was that the machine is plugged-in and turned-on 24/7. We have a number of sites with mobile units for which that will be somewhere between difficult and impossible.
Joe and Dan have a meeting on Monday with Fedro Zazueta on this matter and Joe intends to convey the opinion of the committee that a mandate would be too extreme and that 24/7 exceptions must be allowed.
Michelle Quire mentioned that she is the sole staff member for her department and even a one-time request from IT is overwhelming to her. She has all sorts of folks asking her to do numerous things and she simply can't address them all. There is no IT person at her unit and there won't be any time soon. If she has to make a decision between addressing IT issues and issues with their $6 million of grants, the grants will win out every time. It is not uncommon for Michelle to put in 80-hour weeks and she now has to move her Biological Scientist off of state dollars onto grants. She cannot ask them to do IT stuff in that instance, because they would get in trouble if there was an audit.
As for leaving the units on 24/7, she had an instance where a private conversation was eavesdropped on via the Polycom. Steve mentioned that there is a setting for the Polycom which causes it to mute the microphone on automatic connection; this should be set for her unit. Michelle responded that someone needs to come out and set that or show her how to. Steve pointed out that VSC could do that remotely if they had the admin password. This is an example of why VCS wants certification of all endpoints--it will allow them to investigate and correct settings remotely.
Dan said that he wasn't going to do into great detail on this because you all should have gotten many notices about the fact that the IFAS Exchange e-mail system is being migrated into the new UF Exchange system.
A migration schedule is available on the web at http://www.mail.ufl.edu. You can look at the migration schedule to note when your unit will be moving. Please notice that IFAS is not the only group participating in this migration.
The main concern is the handling of managed folders (Inbox, Sent Items, Junk Mail and Deleted Items) which has been documented. Dan noted that the http://www.mail.ufl.edu website has a good deal of information on using the new system.
Another thing to note is that upon migration your mobile access device will be reconfigured and you will need to set up a PIN number that you will use to access that device. The intent is to protect sensitive UF information from getting into other people's hands. Pete thought this information needed to be shared in more detail as he was with someone who had been putting in their entire UF password every five minutes. People need to know that those can be shorter.
Dan also took people on a quick tour of the Barracuda web interface at http://spam.mail.ufl.edu, discussing how we now have an extra layer of spam protection that may be configured by the end-user.
Dan noted that UF's practice of gray-listing, which sometimes caused large delays in receiving messages from outside UF, is being turned off. Steve also made folks aware that there have been discussions about modifying the spam scoring settings because the defaults may cause some messages you wish to receive to be blocked and you would never know.
Dan fielded a question from the ITPAC student representative, Brandon Segermeister. Brandon works at the UF Help Desk and they had been recommending that IFAS folks use the @ifas.ufl.edu e-mail addresses in order to get around possible gray-listing issues. Dan Cromer responded that all IFAS is supposed to use "GatorlinkUsername@ufl.edu" as their official business e-mail address as per official policy. Brandon was not aware and will pass that along to his fellow support persons.
Web Updates (SharePoint)
Dan expressed his appreciation to Benjamin Beach who has developed a SharePoint site for IFAS, basically in his spare time. Ben's primary role is NE District IT Support. Dan wanted Ben to demo that for the committee because it will be in official production after tomorrow, assuming that the ICC has no objections. SharePoint will provide us a web-based location for collaboration among all the various IFAS groups and locations. It supports file and calendar sharing along with discussions and even an easy means of creating and managing surveys.
Ben took the committee on a tour, beginning at http://my.ifas.ufl.edu. This system is actually divided across multiple sites including IFAS as a whole, IFAS Administration, IFAS Centers, IFAS Departments, IFAS Extension, IFAS Research Centers and IFAS Services Units. Each level contains a shared documents folder and a shared calendar. At the http://my.ifas.ufl.edu level, anyone in IFAS can view or modify those and everyone at UF running system joined to UF Active Directory (UFAD) can view those as well.
Tom Fasulo, for example, could put his "UF/IFAS Presentations" announcements here and forego IFAS-Announce-L e-mails. All interested parties can go to the site and set an action to be notified of changes. That way, whenever Tom posted a new document, only interested parties would receive an e-mail notification containing a direct link to the document.
The calendar feature works similarly. Anyone in IFAS can post to the main calendar and may set the system to provide them an e-mail alert when a change is made. These calendars can be viewed and modified from Outlook as well. There is a "Connect to Outlook" action on each calendar which will add that to the shared calendars there.
These features work at all organization levels throughout the IFAS hierarchy. There is a calendar in each sub-site down to the most granular level. At the end-unit level individual owners can then extend their own sections to include still more granularity to add any number of collaboration sites which may be used and accessed under local control.
Unfortunately, there is currently some one-time browser configuration which must be done to avoid receiving login prompts while accessing and traversing the SharePoint sites. Ben is working with Andrew Carey to see if that can be handled automatically via login script. Manual addition involves adding each of the seven sites to Internet Explorer's set of "Local intranet" sites. The details of doing this are covered within the "Log-on Problems" section of the "Frequently Asked Questions" which is accessed by clicking on the "My IFAS Help" tab within the SharePoint interface. If you are not on our network, you may connect via VPN and these IE browser "Local intranet" site settings will continue to allow access without prompting for credentials.
The "My IFAS Help" section is actually a wiki that will allow people to edit the help system themselves. When someone finds a new solution they can add that to the documentation.
Ben can also modify any site to allow non-Gatorlink authentication over SSL. Brian Gray is already using this for collaboration with other universities.
The system has been configured to send an e-mail notification when a particular site, document or calendar entry has been inactive for 30 days. If the owner chooses, that object will then be automatically removed. This management aspect will help us actively age out information that is no longer needed. Not only that, the system can keep multiple versions of documents as well.
Michelle mentioned that http://files.ifas.ufl.edu did not work for her with Vista. She wondered if this system could substitute for workgroup shares on the file server. Ben answered that the SharePoint site works fine on both XP and Vista and has a file upload size limit of 50MB. As long as your files are smaller than that and do not contain executable files types then yes, SharePoint can replace the file server for document collaboration. Michelle asked about backup frequency and Ben responded that backup is done weekly. Also, everything placed on these sites goes into an SQL database which is completely separate from the server.
Dave Palmer asked how Windows SharePoint Services (WSS) compares to Microsoft Office SharePoint Server (MOSS) which we had been looking at previously. Ben responded that whereas MOSS is rather expensive, WSS is essentially free (excepting the hardware needed) because we already have the necessary client access licenses from the Microsoft Campus Agreement. Feature comparisons between the two products are available on-line. Dan Cromer mentioned that there have been some discussions at UF about a UF-level deployment of MOSS, so that is something which we might be able to participate with in the future. Dan, however, did not want to wait on UF and decided to try and move ahead on our own via WSS.
Ben went on to mention that the shared calendars can and are being used (by FSHN) for room and equipment reservations.
As Ben covered more and more features, various committee members mentioned that training is definitely going to be an issue. They were getting a bit overwhelmed by all the new information which Ben was supplying. While there is a good deal of training available on the site itself (FAQs and Training Screencasts) we are likely going to have to help each other to get going with this. It is not clear that IT has the resources to provide formal training at this time.
Dan said that his initial hope for SharePoint is to replace the e-mailing of attachments. The system offers many opportunities which we may make fuller use of down-the-road as well.
New ITPAC Chairman
Since Al Wysocki had arrived late, Pete performed one last official function as ITPAC chairman in passing on that role to Al. Pete seemed very happy and Al looked a bit like he was wondering how he got himself into this. :-)
Our next ITPAC meeting is to be announced, but likely will be scheduled for sometime in May.