University to rebuild its information highway

06 September 2004

It's not going to put high-end desktops on every desk or even dish up oodles of bandwidth to gambol in. But look out for some big changes as a new project gears up to give the infrastructure (drained and creaking right now) that underpins information technology at UCT a R77.8-million cash injection.

SupaTsela - meaning "light of the road ahead" - is a three-year information and communication technology (ICT) strategy centred on 40-odd recommendations drawn up and presented to Council last year by Prags Naicker, executive director of Information & Communication Technology Services (ICTS). And, as the tagline in the supaTsela logo promises, the project aims to renew ICT at the university.

"By adopting information technology so early, and not being able to keep up to date with developments necessary to move us forward," explains DVC Professor Martin Hall, who chairs the Project Implementation Committee, "UCT may have done itself some mischief."

The university's ICT systems have since been kept intact with a string of annual "band-aid solutions". But now the cracks are beginning to show. "If we're going to be an excellent university, we're going to need good ICT," insists Hall. (He was borne out by speakers at last week's conference on Communication and Information Technology in Tertiary Education [Citte], hosted at UCT.)

Fortunately, Council's approval of a R77.8-million investment signals a quantum shift in attitude, says Naicker. "This project has got nothing to do with more band-aid solutions. It's all about literally redesigning the underlying infrastructure. It's very much about the beginning of a new chapter at UCT."

Naicker's 40-point strategy will be spread out among nine project areas or streams, each managed by an ICTS staffer and implemented by ICTS teams. These streams will home in on a number of services, among these the identification of core ICT services, setting up electronic directory services that will allow the university to authenticate the identity of staff and student users, improvements to the risk profile of the telephone service on UCT campuses, providing data mirroring services for essential services like e-mail and centralised monitoring, and first-line support for servers and networking devices.

The bulk of the budget is earmarked for the Networked Infrastructure Renewal stream, led by ICTS's Pippa Moll. This stream, says Moll, lies at the heart of what supaTsela hopes to achieve. "It's the building block - it's what you need for everything else." The stream will see plenty of technological investments, such as the laying of new cables, the purchase and installation of new network switches, the setting up of clustered servers, and even the installation of a "disaster-recovery" computer room in Bremner, just in case something disastrous or dastardly befalls the main computer room in ICTS. Failures of servers and networks are par for the IT course, says Associate Professor Andy Duncan, project manager for supaTsela. But key areas - e-mail and the like - should not fall over when such failures occur, he points out. "The trick is in how fast you can recover from failures, and to what extent you can, in a sense, disguise that failure from your customers."

According to Leon Alexander, stream leader for Bandwidth Management, the problem in his area is a simple one. "There is more demand for bandwidth than there is bandwidth available." Sorting the problem out may not be that simple, but two kinds of solutions are on offer. The first is a technological one, which is to buy equipment that will allow ICTS to allocate more bandwidth to some key applications, such as access to the Library systems, and less to non-essentials like the downloading of screensavers or MP3s that clog the system. The second solution is one of policy, says Alexander. This will call for plenty of negotiation, but may possibly involve managing Internet access on an individual user basis, limiting access based on the volume that's being downloaded, not the content, says Alexander.

Student systems

Students will be glad to know Council hasn't been skimping when it comes to their ICT wellbeing either. Earlier this year, Council gave the go-ahead for the purchase of a new student information system to replace the in-house designed but straggling Heritage student system, which has been around since the mid-1980s. The new system, PeopleSoft Student Administration, is already in use at some 700 universities worldwide, including, from June this year, the University of the Free State, the first South African institution to run the package. At UCT, PeopleSoft will take over those Heritage functions not already supported by packaged systems such as SAP R/3 (finance and human resource modules) and the recently implemented RMS Housing system and Syllabus Plus timetabling system.

When PeopleSoft goes into full swing in January 2006, it will cover areas such as admission, registration, exam results, tracking fees, financial aid, graduation and even postgraduate bursaries. The approved budget for the purchase and implementation of PeopleSoft, including hardware, consulting, regular upgrades, staff training and user support, will come to R24.8-million over the next three years. In addition to its broad functionality, the package has many other advantages, says Richard van Huyssteen, PeopleSoft project manager at the Integrated Student Information System (ISIS) project. It can be interfaced with systems such as SAP, has been flexibly designed thanks to input from its many higher-education users, and as a web-based system places relatively little processing demands on the PCs of students and staff.

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