Thursday, 19 June 2008

Wither computing in universities?

So what of the future of university computing?

In earlier posts I've expressed my view that student labs will go virtual. And that increasingly student computing provision will a combination of services and facilities, basically an enhanced LMS, filestore, access to printing and access to specialist software and services - we don't expect students to fork out for expensive software, nor do we expect them to have a Sun V440 in the basement of their share house.

But students are only half the equation. Universities also contain academic staff. (They also contain administrators, but they need fairly standard business systems that any enterprise requires).

Now why do we provide computing services for academics?

Well most universities don't. They provide services. Most academics buy their computer out of some sort of funding and do their work on it. It would be quite possible to be a historian and live out of one's laptop with little or no use of university computing provision, except in relation to the LMS and teaching.

And this is to do with the nature of what university computing was, and what it now is. Originally computing was expensive and it had a resource, the central computer, that was shared between staff and needed specialist staff to look after. The central facility was used primarily by people in numerically based disciplines, although you did get people doing analyses of language usage and word frequencies in anglo saxon texts and statistical analyses of neolithic tomb orientation.

Then these pesky pc's arrived and the initial attempt was to support them like mainframes, but gradually the focus moved off to the shared components of the infrastructure such as the network and filestore. Standard operating environments were thought to be a good thing, but more often than not by the centre as it made enduser support simpler, than by the users who wanted to do things. This view was a continuum - the English faculty, despite their irritations with a  SoE preferred a degree of standardisation as they needed either to buy external support, or spend budget employing their own support staff, which was totally unlike Physics, who had an endless supply of geeky computer literate graduate students to provide in house support.

And now everybody has a computer, and that computer is relatively powerful, what most academics need is a set of services:

  • filestore and repository services - where work in progress can be stored with the assurance it can be backed up and a place for the long term storage of published work, be it papers, seminar videos or whatever
  • access to lms and allied teaching systems
  • access to discipline specific network resources - be they online journals, specialist datasets, or whatever
  • email and web access - including resources such as collaboration servers

and that's about it. Notice no mention of network. There's a reason for that - network provsion can be bought from anyone, universities only provide ther own as it's (usually) cheaper than outsourcing it. And no mention of SOE's or enduser support. Anyone can buy a computer, anyone can install software. And no mention of big numerically intensive computing. Sure it's still around but it's used by a small number of researchers. Our general staff login server averages fewer than six concurrent logins. And the rise of linux makes it as easy for people to run computations on a box under their desk as on a central system.

And realistically, with facilities like Skydrive from Windows live and google docs, not to mention google itself most humanities and social science academics can do without central resources, and the scientists have enough tame geeks to run what they need themselves.

So basically computing lives to support the corporate function, plus provide a small number of specialist services, such as collaboration and repository. The rest can be sourced at minimal cost from elsewhere. 

The concept of university computing as something distinct is essentially dead. University computing takes place on students and academics laptops, in google, in the cloud, like shared editing in google and zoho, or under people's desks.

1 comment:

sww said...

What an poor world you live in! In my institution the centre has fought back. What was once the body that operated the mainframes, and so was immensely powerful and heavily staffed, went through a brief period of withering away, until waking up. Inventing a "need" to make computers equivalent to telephones - if yours breaks we swap in another in 30 seconds - we have rebuilt the empire. Or at least struck back.
Wrap your full profile including all data storage, desktop and extra software into a bag that can be moved around the network and re-installed at login time and look at the service you provide!
True we have to root out pockets of dissent that insist on subversive devices like Macs, Linux machines, PCs too old to run the corporate environment and so on, but progress is its own reward.
Some reactionaries point out that secure network storage is all that's needed, and the computational and staff costs of preserving a desktop across machines just in case one breaks is too high for the dubious rewards. And that it makes people need a new machine to run the additional software load.
They just don't understand.