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Notes from August 16, 2007 ITPAC Meeting:
notes by Steve Lasley
Streaming Audio this meeting was recorded via the Polycom RSS 2000 and can (for the time being) be viewed here. Don't try this on a slow connection however, because it downloads a very large file before playing it. We are looking into other alternatives to that.
The meeting was run by ITPAC chairman, Pete Vergot, District Extension Director of the NW District remotely via Polycom. Russ Rouseff joined us from the Citrus REC via Polycom as well. Marc Hoit (Interim CIO), Jan van der Aa (CIO for the UF Health Science Center), George Bryan (UFAD Exchange lead), Dwight Jesseman (UFAD Exchange team), and Patrick Pettus (Academic Technology and IFAS IT) were all in attendance as guests.
The minutes of the last meeting were approved without dissent.
We made introductions around the room because we had some guests and also two first-time new members attending:
It was good to see new faces and we welcome them to the committee.
Administrative IT Issues
Funding IT needs
Dr. Joe Joyce related that comments at our last meeting on funding matters would need to be updated and that the news wasn't very good. As most are aware, there have been budget cuts with the recall amounting to 4.25% of the budget currently. For a variety of reasons, including a number of faculty positions which we had open which are now frozen, we have some salary savings. Consequently there is carry-forward money which may be used to address some of our more critical IT needs, and perhaps some of the Taskforce Recommendations. Joe could not say the actual amount at this time, but he is working to carve out a portion for that purpose.
As part of the hiring freeze, the IT Director position was frozen. Joe said that he was not sure when that might open back up. We do not even know what our real budget numbers will be currently because a special legislative session starts up September 18th to decide those details. After that time we should get some new official numbers.
While there is a freeze on staff positions, those which are deemed critical can get a special exemption. IT has been trying to hire a web developer for some time and that position has been given the go-ahead. Such exemptions are rare, however.
Pete Vergot responded saying that one of the difficulties that extension is having is a reduction in travel funding at the county level. As a result, finding alternatives to travel, such as Polycom videoconferencing and web-based communication, becomes particularly important. Pete encouraged Joe to try to allocate some of our funds to these sorts of IT offerings which can save us time and money over traditional methods--if people are encouraged properly to use them.
Joe Joyce mentioned that Polycom point-to-point videoconferences seem to work fine, but that there are still some issues with using the bridge to tie multiple sites into a conference. When Pete pointed out that we were using the bridge for this meeting, Joe speculated that it was working fine because "certain sites" were not connected to this conference. Joe was referring here to issues with Ft. Pierce in particular which has, in the past, caused problems with bridged conferences.
Steve Lasley reported that the ICC had no new formal recommendations for discussion. He did mention, however, that Doug Johnson, Manager of eLearning Support Services at Academic Technology, had been invited to last week's monthly ICC meeting and that Doug has provided considerable details about what is going on with WebCT. The ICC notes have the details on that should any be interested. The discussion there revolved around the question "Why doesn't IFAS use WebCT?". This mention elicited a good deal of unexpected discussion.
ITPAC member Allen Wysocki asked if IFAS was going to be using WebCT more now, including for extension purposes in the counties. Steve responded that the entire reason for visiting with Doug had been to try and arrive at an answer to just that question. The ICC (our IFAS IT support staff) were instructed by Doug Johnson on how to get access to the system themselves to learn more about it and evaluate it individually. The idea there is that we may be able to evangelize its use where deemed appropriate. The inspiration for that came originally from a previous discussion at the February ITPAC meeting with follow-up at the June ICC meeting.
Steve mentioned that many units currently had a poor perception of WebCT due to past performance issues and/or the learning curve in using it. The performance issues should go away with their new hardware. As Doug pointed out, however, WebCT is not the answer to all delivery needs. It will not handle streaming of audio/video for example; that requires the incorporation of other services which both AT and IFAS IT can provide separately. Regarding the use by extension for non-traditional courses, WebCT provides an option currently whereby a block of accounts may be assigned to a course which then must be managed by the course developers. This gets around the Gatorlink account requirements, but does not address cost recovery issues.
Allen urged IFAS to make use of this resource. He believes the support to be excellent and would like to see the system used much more widely. Steve suggested that faculty who are using it successfully might look for opportunities to show other faculty how well it works for them. That sort of peer endorsement can go a long way towards convincing more folks to try it.
Ashley Wood, Director of IFAS Communications Services, spoke of his perception that the lack of Gatorlink accounts for Extension clientele was a major roadblock to using WebCT for non-traditional classes. Marc Hoit responded that mechanisms are there for handling that aspect. The bigger issue is the cost model. WebCT licenses were purchased on the basis of student enrollment in traditional courses; adding enough licenses to cover all of the IFAS extension clientele needs would be prohibitive. Allen wondered how the GNC University accounts were handled/paid for. Dr. Hoit did not know the details, but Steve suggests that Doug Johnson could answer those questions. Marc also mentioned that a project is underway to account for all off-book courses in order to allow billing to go through the UF billing systems. There is some interesting work going on there; Marc didn't know specifically how this was affecting extension but was confident that we were being included in this.
Joe Joyce said he was confused about all the options, including WebCT, Elluminate and Polycom. He wanted to know if there wasn't some duplication of services happening here. With scarce resources, we need to identify which services can provide the most "bang for the buck" and concentrate on those. Dan Cromer, Acting Director of IFAS IT, stated his official recommendation as being that on-the-book courses which want to use the web (all or in part) be done in WebCT. This is our most robust option for doing that. For non-traditional courses, such as those needed by our extension groups, Elluminate and other options may be required. Even though we have a mechanism for charging clients for course access to WebCT, we don't have a sufficient cost model currently for going ahead with this on a wide-scale. The cost being discussed is $30/seat and that may be prohibitive. According to Dan, Mark Rieger of CALS and others are looking to Elluminate at approximate $5/seat to fill this void. Dan believes Dr. Arrington is going to pursue Elluminate, at the cost of about $15,000 per year, as a solution for extension.
Steve wanted to emphasize that, although these various technologies overlap in capabilities, Polycom is the only technology which addresses group to group video communications. Each of these technologies has an appropriate use.
Ashley Wood pointed out that Dan neglected to mention Articulate Presenter which is being used by the IFAS Bookstore to provide twenty different courses. They also have the Accordent Presenter which Ashley said is a very close competitor to Elluminate. Ashley believes Elluminate is quite good and easy to use, but he was concerned about security issues and whether it could support a testing environment. This latter point was the problem they had with Articulate; they had to expend considerable programming resources to add that piece. Such a component will be critical to supporting extension needs.
Michelle Quire, Administrative Assistant for the Department of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences stated that she believed Elluminate was mentioned as having a testing component, but Allen Wysocki said that this was not his understanding. (Note: Steve researched this a bit after the meeting and found that the Academic Edition does have a "Quiz Manager" component that "enables an instructor to conduct interactive quizzes and surveys, load and store tests, and collect result statistics".)
Marc Hoit suggested that this matter be discussed with those at Academic Technology responsible for Elluminate so a solution to any testing needs is addressed centrally for all. Ashley suggested that such a discussion should be part of Dr. Arrington's negotiations with AT over use/costs of Elluminate. Marc wanted to caution folks that Elluminate does not provide all the features of WebCT. Though additional functions can be added on, it may not be the best idea to try to shoe-horn Elluminate into the WebCT mold. Open-source alternatives are being investigated as another possibility there, but Marc urged us all to work as a community in order to develop solutions that may be widely supported and deployed.
Michelle had understood that there were considerable hardware requirements for implementing Elluminate, but Marc Hoit responded that this is being outsourced, so no hardware will be necessary.
Dan Cromer re-stated that we are moving forward on hiring a content management system web developer for Solutions For Your Life.
Dan also distributed an IT Personnel Exit Checklist Supplement as discussed previously at the ICC. This matter is very important for cleaning up access settings after people leave (folks leaving IFAS but staying at UF may still be able to get to networked resources inappropriately if that is not addressed) and for reassigning responsibilities for (or removing) resources such as websites, databases and listserv lists.
Michelle mentioned that she would like a hiring check list for IT as well. She mentioned that she has had to stumble through the last three years in learning what is needed to get people plugged into IT resources upon arrival. Dan said that IT had been focusing on the exit aspects because such procedures were totally lacking; when folks need access to resources they eventually find out how to accomplish that. Dan did agree that a hiring checklist would help, however, and said that we are working on that.
Joe Joyce asked how someone would find that checklist of things they would need to do to obtain access to our IT systems. Dan Cromer suggested that this could be done via the FASP group. This group is made up of the unit office managers, where a lot of the administrative work gets done. Most of them are directory managers and liaisons. Michelle, however, noted that such meetings can missed by busy office managers. She felt that this would need to go through the personnel office and be advertised widely with information being made available via the web. Joe Joyce asked Michelle to talk with Mary Anne Morgan, Director of the IFAS Office of Human Resources about how to best plug these checklists into our system.
Regarding the exit checklist item relating to e-mail disposition, Dwight Jesseman asked if this would cover details of providing archives of mailboxes for those needing that. Dan said that this was the case and added that retiring faculty would be allowed to keep their mailboxes as long as they want. We encourage other people to provide a forwarding address. Marc Hoit mentioned that these are the sorts of questions which will be addressed by the Exchange Policy Advisory Committee. The procedures around ownership of personal vs. work-related e-mail need to be worked out and are non-trivial. Dan mentioned that due to the mission of IFAS, the majority of our information is public information. With the exception of student information, we have much less to worry about there than many units, such as the Health Center, might.
Joe Joyce mentioned another issue concerning retiring faculty being dropped from various lists to which they should remain subscribed. Marc Hoit said that this was a tricky matter, but they are looking at controlling list membership centrally, based on automatic procedures. This will not happen anytime soon, but they are looking into it and have that as a goal.
Contact and critical function information
Dave Palmer, Extension Agent for Hillsborough County asked who was responsible for updating contact information. He was unaware of available information concerning unit UF Directory Coordinators and IFAS Directory Liaisons. Joe Joyce mentioned that for information technology, facility and financial issues, IFAS is working on developing a list of critical functions at the unit level. This is an attempt to help the unit heads understand what functions have to occur and how to go about doing that. There is currently no documentation on such matters; with the turnover we have, much of the accumulated knowledge of our procedures gets lost or must be re-discovered. These materials being developed will include the training opportunities available to address needed functions (such as the Pro 3 Series).
Video Bridge Updates
Before covering the new equipment, Patrick Pettus emphasized that our old Radvision bridging infrastructure remains in place and we have actually expanded our capabilities rather than replacing anything. The gatekeepers for joining conferences by ISDN or phone are all still intact and everything works the way it did before.
New Codian equipment
With the acquisition of Codian equipment, Video Services has roughly doubled their overall videoconferencing capacity. In addition, they have also made the system redundant pretty much from top-to-bottom (gatekeepers, MCUs, etc.). They now have the ability to stream and record conferences both via a new Codian IP VCR and the RSS 2000 Polycom unit purchased by 4-H. We will be able to handle the recording of up to 10 conferences at one time. The live-streaming aspect provides an exciting new way to join an on-going conference via the web in an end-user initiated ad hoc fashion. The Codian and RSS 2000 web interfaces are available currently in a test mode. Once the documentation is created, a more formal access route will be announced. The ability to watch a stream live is automatic; the recording part will be available on request. Joe Joyce saw an application for this with job candidate interviews, if access could be controlled or if the conference could be recorded for secure distribution after-the-fact.
The new Codian MCU uses a separate port for each connection and each port can have its own bandwidth and video/audio codec optimizations without the need for the transcoding that proved problematic with the old Radvision. The unit can handle up to 200 unicast connections for streaming and can handle multicast as well. Participants watching a live-stream via the web can even participate to a certain extent by texting to the screen--something which Patrick demonstrated. If a PowerPoint were being transmitted, they could use drawing tools directly on the content as well. Further, a pre-recorded conference can be added-in to an on-going conference as another participant!
Steve asked where we were in regards to delivering H.239 People+Content at all our distance education sites. Patrick said that most had the capability now and that the live-streaming could fill in for the rest until they can get that. Consequently, we should be good-to-go with that.
Conferences will be either "scheduled" or "ad-hoc" with the former category including "automated" (which requires a request be made three business days in advance) and "user-dialed" (which requires a 24 hour advance request). Ad hoc conferences will be much easier with this new infrastructure and will be available any time there are unscheduled resources. Conference loads are getting to the point (687 unique conferences in February, ~75% of which were IFAS) where they must enforce such policies in order to provide the services we all require.
Inclusion in critical functions list
Joe Joyce said that videoconference operation details needed to be included in Dan Cromer's critical functions list. We need to make sure that people at each unit have the knowledge they need to make good use of this system. Joe said that a corollary of that is informing everyone of the new capabilities. Patrick said that they were working on documentation to help in addressing that. Each unit will need to have details particular to there own site as well, however; we have a wide range of components and configurations all across the state.
Patrick also mentioned that they would like to have a certification process which could help assure that a particular installation met certain standards. Obviously, a well-organized and maintained single-source of accurate information would go a long way to solving these matters as well. Http://video.ifas.ufl.edu has some good information, but it is maintained separately from http://video.ufl.edu and that can be problematic.
Ashley Wood asked if the bridges allowed dial-in audio conferencing. Patrick said that they certainly did and that those were used by 4-H regularly. It was pointed out that many/most were not aware there is no need to handle audio conferencing separately--that there is a number which can be called to join an ongoing conference via phone. The gateway has a capacity of about 23 lines for this use at this time.
The instructions for dial-in are at the bottom of the MCU instructions page:
Policy for Application and Database Approval
Dan let members know as an informational item that he has set an internal policy for his staff that new requests for web applications and databases undergo a review process. This has become an issue with continuity and support of services. We want to ensure that centrally supported services are implemented in a supportable and maintainable manner. Dan was open to discussion on whether this needed to be formalized via an IMM.
Steve asked if there were any written criteria which he had given to Mark Ross (webserver admin) or Matt Wilson (DB admin) to use in such evaluation. Dan said that it is too early in the process for them to have written guidelines; those exist currently in the minds of those two. Steve clarified that another primary emphasis of this is to accumulate records regarding responsibility for various web and database resources. Ashley responded that David Palmer has written a good portion of such a policy which could be used as a starting point. Joe Joyce suggested that Ashley work that back through the ICC for further consideration.
Use of Listserv
Pete Vergot raised the issue that many IFAS-ALL-L messages would be more appropriate to other lists. He asked Dan if there was anything that could be done to inform folks of the better options that are available, some of which are documented within the IFAS Directory site.
Steve would like to mention that such information dissemination regarding IT matters are continually discussed going way back. It is a simple fact that this can be readily addressed by deciding it is important and dedicating some resources to the solution--one version of which has long ago been detailed by the ICC and approved by ITPAC.
Jan van der Aa related how lists are handled at the Health Science Center. They have a non-optional list containing all personnel that has strict guidelines for posting and which is moderated by non-techies. That list has perhaps one message per month and everyone better read those because they are important. They also have various opt-in announcement lists; if people do not wish to receive postings from those they can simply opt-out. Marc Hoit mentioned that the new technology for this is RSS feeds which allows people to select categorically what information they are interested in receiving.
After Steve mentioned that a moderator could redirect postings as appropriate, Joe Joyce mentioned that we don't having anyone who is willing to monitor the IFAS-ALL-L for content. IT is moderating it currently only for spam.
Ashley mentioned Stu Hutson has been working on a "Need to know" button for the Inside IFAS site which would allow you to send out announcements from news items there to subscribe folks to that site.
New support page for Remedy requests
Dwight wanted everyone to be aware that http://support.ad.ufl.edu is now available for tier-two computer support to report service outages and the like. It is not for "I can't login" or "I can't configure my e-mail" type matters. This uses the Remedy ticketing system for reporting and tracking issues. End users would still go through normal IT support channels to report issues.
Exchange Project Progress Updates
George Bryan, Project Manager for UF Exchange, gave a quick overview of the project--similar to what Dwight had done previously for the ICC. He mentioned that Dr. Hoit is the Executive Sponsor of this project and a critical part of the management team. The project is governed by three major groups. The Management Team consists of Dr. Marc Hoit, Dr. Mike Conlon, Tim Fitzpatrick, and Dr. Fedro Zazueta. There is a Project Team consisting of UF Active Directory and UF Exchange, CNS, and the Help Desk. Finally, there is an Advisory Committee that is being formed and announcements are going out now for that. The Project Team is responsible for configuring and implementing the service. Along with that they are putting in Help Desk deliverables. The Management Team is helping with guidance and decision making at the top. The Advisory Committee will be helping with decisions on policy.
The project lifecycle involves three phases. Phase One will go live sometime in December and will include early adopters such as IFAS, Fine Arts and the Museum of Natural History. Phase Two will begin in January of 2008 and will be termed the enrollment phase. This will involve those who wish to participate via an application process. Phase Three will involve the addition of students and will involve a cost-benefit analysis.
Someone asked what Exchange entails. George answered that it covers e-mail, calendaring along with mobile access to those. For IFAS there is really no change other than an upgrade to the latest version of Exchange Server. IFAS actually allowed UF to begin this project via the donation of our existing Exchange resources. George said that this is going to be a premier service for UF. A hidden benefit is that this will be run by a support team that is MS certified in many areas and who have been doing this for a very long time. They will also have MS consulting support involved in this; it will be a "Cadillac" operation all the way. George believes this will be the start of something really wonderful here at UF--something which IFAS has already been a leader in supporting for a number of years.
Dr. Hoit thanked IFAS for providing the support that has made this project possible. George said that they can provide a more detailed plan at the next ITPAC.
Our next ITPAC meeting is to be announced, but likely will be scheduled for sometime in November.
last edited 19 August 2007 by Steve Lasley