iMeeting: Support for Personal Computing

Tuesday 22 April 2008, 14:00, Conference Suite, 4 Buccleuch Place

Over many years, the School of Informatics has developed an innovative "managed" computing environment - DICE. This provides levels of flexibility, consistency, and reliability which are the envy of many other institutions. This technology is increasingly important in managing the growing complexity of the service infrastructure, including distributed storage, computation, and virtual machines.

However current trends in end user computing are emphasising things like Mobility and Personalisation more and more. Many people do increasing amounts of work on laptops - and not only away from the office. In many cases, it is no longer appropriate to try to separate "personal" and "work" applications, such as calendars and address books.

There is currently little official support in the School/University for this way of working. This is because no straightforward "economy of scale" that applies to laptops and personalised machines has so far been identified. This results in individuals taking on their own system administration duties (such as backups).

The aim of this meeting is to consider ways in which the Informatics computing environment could develop, taking account of these trends. How can Informatics develop its provision of a supported computing environment for staff and students.

Survey - Mobile Computing Usage in Informatics:


Comments, suggestions, requirements

Some issues we might discuss:

  • Support for: non-DICE, virtualised DICE
  • Long-term vs. transitional changes in commodity support
  • Scalable models of support
  • Provision of support for self-managed machines
  • Tradeoff : expanded commodity support versus innovation in research and teaching
  • What is the current (hidden) cost of self-managed support
  • What factors led to limited takeup of DIT DICE and DICE laptops?
  • What are the existing risks from current practice (security, backups, etc.)
  • What should Informatics be doing as opposed to what should central IS be doing for us?
  • Teaching platform - current model is tied down stable platform. How can we provide more flexibility (e.g. teaching material within a virtual machine which students could host anywhere)
  • Supporting the full spectrum of end-user computing abilities and willingness to self-manage
  • Proactive knowledge capture and curation ?
  • Can we mine the support tickets stream to get quantitative data?
  • Can we effectively use "student advisors"
  • Charging model for additional support

Notes from the meeting

Specific Things
  • The Retrospect backup service is great, but few people know about it; can it be expanded and publicised please? (Henry Thompson)
  • Neil Brown recommends VNC. He uses it to connect to the same DICE desktop session from wherever he happens to be and it works very well.
  • Mac printing: lots of people have lots of trouble printing from Macs! It seems to be extraordinarily difficult to get this set up right.

Expert Advice
  • There was a call for a CO to specialise in helping with self-managed machine support.
Software recommendations
  • It would be very useful to have someone providing software recommendations.
    • John Berry was very helpful and recommended software for particular jobs, and that is now missed. (Alan Bundy)
    • When looking for Mac backup software Paul had to do a survey to find the best solution; an informed recommendation would have been very helpful (Paul Anderson)
All-encompassing general advice
  • Jean Carletta wanted to see far more than just software recommendations: what's needed is good models for how best to organise laptops, how to work with them, and how to go about keeping data held centrally as well as just on the laptop. DICE is still central to our computing but we must rethink and clarify the relationship between it and laptops.
Personal one-on-one support
  • Several people voiced the view that personal one to one help was valuable and necessary.
  • Paul Anderson wasn't sure that personal support would be scalable; Neil Brown suggested we try it to see how well it scales now that hardware is more reliable.
  • It was pointed out that when helping with a personally owned machine, a disclaimer will be needed. Chris Adie agreed.
Online community
  • There seemed to be general agreement on the need for some sort of online forum for mutual help with machine management. An essential feature of this forum would be the presence of an expert able to give authoritative answers.
  • Henry Thompson agreed strongly: in his experience a forum with a resident professional expert is by far the most valuable type of online help community.
  • Jean Carletta asked for someone to help translate the current advice and help on the wiki into clearer, less technical language.
  • Simon Wilkinson asked for people who encounter unclear documentation to please approach the author with their problem. Two way communication is really valuable here and authors aren't going to mend their ways if they don't know of the problem.
  • There's also the cost of keeping documentation up to date; it rots. (Conrad)
  • Which is why a forum is best; people don't expect old forum posts to be accurate, but they do expect that of items on a wiki (Henry)

File Storage and Backups
  • Jean Carletta and Henry Thompson both said that a great thing about DICE is the reliable central data storage; people want to be able to use that from their laptops. Centrally held data is both safe and accessible from any device anywhere.
  • Paul Anderson and Conrad Hughes both pointed out that Windows and Mac applications both tend to spread personal data all over the place, rather than putting it in one identifiable location. This makes the task of keeping or copying data to a central location extremely complex.
  • Simon Wilkinson pointed out another valuable category of data that perhaps hadn't been considered, software configuration data. On laptops a lot of software tends to be painstakingly hand-configured; that work can take many hours in total and the configuration data ends up being even more widely spread over the disk than conventional personal data does.

  • Conrad asked for more virtualisation. He's in Five Computer Hell and would very much like to make some of them virtual.
  • Alastair replied that although DICE wasn't designed for disconnected operation, DICE in virtual machines is being worked on.
  • Is virtual DICE available on net-connected machines? (Conrad)
  • Yes, that's being worked on at a high priority (Alastair)

Automated Management
  • Aren't there economies of scale to be had in automating the management of Windows and MacOS machines? For instance local large banks seem to cope with hundreds of thousands of PCs? (Henry)
  • We've tried automated management with Windows and it's very difficult. And bank PCs tend to have a small amount of software with a low rate of change; neither is true for us (Paul).
  • Surely people want personal control of laptops, not central control (Stephen Quinney)
  • Have both: overlay a fresh machine with a large layer of centrally managed software, then allow the user to add their own software on top (Don Sannella). Agreed. (Henry)
  • Remember that we would need to keep all that software working, not just install it and forget it. (Paul)
  • The Managed Desktop Project can help here; it's been tremendously helpful in enabling the University to manage as many Windows desktops as it does. (Chris Adie)
  • However it's not so good with laptops as it wasn't designed with disconnected operation in mind. (Chris Adie)
  • Various remarks followed about delegated authority over MDP machines.

  • COs look down on Windows but some of us just have to use it. We need more help with Windows. (Henry)

DICE laptops
  • Talking of automated management - what happened to DICE laptops? Why aren't they [more widely] used? (Jean)
  • We tried hard with them but hardware support proved far too difficult - far more than with desktop PCs (Alastair)
  • Also, DICE was based on the machine staying connected to the network - it was very difficult to get all the software and services to behave properly in multiple network contexts.
  • Simon Wilkinson commented that Ubuntu's laptop hardware support now seems as good as Windows'.

Macs and Mac servers
  • Mac servers had one enthusiastic supporter, who pointed out some advantages: the laptop doesn't need to be pre-configured, just use a network-based account so no local configuration is required. Also you can make it a mobile account to gain automatic synching of data between laptop and server.
  • Great, except this makes non-Macs second class citizens (Simon Wilkinson)
  • However automatic synching is coming in AFS (the filesystem we're now using for home directories) (Simon).
  • Mac/Linux integration can get very complex (Conrad)
  • But we do need services to be just as accessible from Macs as from Linux please.

Abandoning DICE?
  • Why do you want to abandon DICE? We gave up lots to adopt it and now you want to throw it away? (Henry)
  • We're trying to react to and plan for the ubiquity of personal computing (Paul)
  • We need to explore the boundaries between personal and Informatics computing (Henry)

Privacy and Data Protection
  • Data protection is going to be a big problem in future (Conrad)
  • Yes, we need help with encryption for instance (Mark Van Rossum)
  • Backing up encrypted data is another very troublesome area (Conrad)

Steve Renals' Summary
  • No immediate action. We have a new building to sort out first!
  • We just want to start building a framework in which we can examine the problems and come up with solutions.
  • This meeting had poor attendance from non-computing staff; probably not even every institute was represented. Possibly this was exacerbated by our soon-to-be-abolished geographical spread.
  • However the survey had a great response. We'll try another survey. We need to find out more.
  • It seems clear that we need some sort of support forum for Windows and Mac users.
  • Meanwhile please do add things to the wiki here to contribute to the debate.

Meeting summarised by ChrisCooke.

-- SteveRenals - 10 Apr 2008

Topic attachments
I Attachment Action Size Date Who Comment
pdfpdf iMeeting-mobile-talk.pdf manage 57.2 K 23 Apr 2008 - 07:57 ChrisCooke Paul Anderson's slides
Topic revision: r10 - 02 Oct 2009 - 13:29:56 - AlastairScobie
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