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Queen's University
 

University Secretariat

Scholar-Centred Computing at Queen's

Original Endorsed by Senate April 26, 1990
Revised March 30, 1995

Senate Computing and Communications Committee Members: R. Burns; D. Cottee; P. Fites; J. Johnston; D. Keane; J. McKirdy; D. Mewhort; J. Pym; S. Yagi; A. Yu. December 19, 1994

Scholar-Centred Computing Continuing Development


Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Progress to date in Scholar-Centred Computing
  3. The Next Phase
    1. Maintain and improve the network infrastructure
    2. Deliver on the concept of device-independent information service
    3. Improve academic computing
    4. Support information technology in the classroom.
  4. How our plans will affect Queen's University

1. Introduction

Five years ago, Queen's adopted a new vision for computing. The vision, called Scholar-Centred Computing (SCC), described a fundamental change both in the way computing would be used on campus and in the way it would be delivered to the user.

In the early 1970s at Queen's, academic computing was viewed as a technical adjunct to science, engineering, and mathematics. Computing meant number crunching, and number crunching was delivered to a computational elite by means of a centralised mainframe. A decade later, the role of computing was changed by the introduction of the personal computer. The number-crunching requirement remained, but computing also became a general information tool: a resource for a wide range of new research problems, a personal-productivity tool, and an educational tool for teaching and learning.

Initially, the mainframe and the personal computer remained worlds apart. Mainframe tools had the power to tackle large problems but lacked graphics; personal computers had graphics but lacked the power to tackle large problems. Moreover, in the early days of the personal computer, it was hard to mix work across the two kinds of machine to obtain the best of both worlds. Mail remained a mainframe service, and backup of local machines was a disaster waiting to happen.

Scholar-Centred Computing was designed to change all that. The idea was to link the separate systems to deliver computing at the user's preferred location and in the style of the user's preferred workstation. Linking machines would allow users to exploit the best offered both by local workstations and by central machines and, at the same time, to acquire the benefits of centralised service including: automatic backup, world-wide electronic mail, access to remote information, and cost reductions reflecting economies of scale.

In the past five years, the vision of SCC has proven to be sound. Computing has influenced all disciplines and has become an essential tool for all members of the university community. Although we believe the strategic direction is correct, much remains to be done to fulfil the vision. We plan, therefore, to build on the success of the SCC vision. This report reviews the major steps taken since the SCC plan was adopted, outlines the directions for action in the immediate future, and describes the impact on the various constituencies in the university that we anticipate as a result of our action plan.

2. Progress in Scholar-Centred Computing

The SCC document of March 1990 (Scholar-Centred Computing at Queen's The Next Generation, A Supplement to Queen's Gazette, Volume XXII Number 21) outlined a number of issues to achieve the vision outlined by Scholar-Centred Computing. The major topics were:

  • Supporting diversity: a balanced approach
  • Additional specialised support staff
  • Network expansion
  • Maintaining accessibility to computing resources
  • Library growth
  • Network management and services
  • Mainframe transition
  • New initiatives requiring University support

The SCC plan acknowledged that academic and administrative computing should not be separated artificially.

Funding was allocated to those initiatives which had the best chance of ensuring successful implementation of the SCC plan's goals. The funding categories were:

  • Academic mainframe upgrade
  • Networking - connectivity and services
  • Public sites
  • New services: QFS and UNIX
  • User equipment acquisition
  • Staffing and training
  • New technologies.

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Academic mainframe upgrade

In 1990, we combined the administrative IBM 4381 mainframe and the academic IBM 3081 mainframe to an upgraded IBM ES9000 mainframe. In addition to a substantial increase in processing power, the upgrade included increased data storage, a modern tape cartridge system, new communication devices to handle the increased terminal/workstation load, and a Numerically Intensive Computing (NIC) facility. The upgrade provided a number of benefits still enjoyed today:

  • flexibility in balancing the load among academic, administrative, and library computing
  • software packages used by both the academic and administrative communities
  • access to the Internet and to information dissemination and retrieval tools, such as INFOQ, GOPHER, and NETNEWS
  • backup and recovery services for personal computers and workstations attached to the campus backbone
  • vector processor for off-shift computing resources for the research community.

The increase in the mainframe's capacity has enabled growth in academic (200%), administrative (200%), and library (250%) processing. The additional on-line storage was used in all areas; in particular, it doubled the library's on-line data capacity. The current mainframe's resources are almost fully utilised.

Networking connectivity and services

A fundamental requirement identified in the SCC plan is the ability to connect the Queen's community to other universities and major research centres. We met the requirement by joining the Internet. The Internet is the "Information Highway" that has become the topic of much discussion in the media.

Access to the campus backbone network is available to all the major academic buildings. There are about 4000 personal computers and workstations connected. Off-campus access to the backbone has been increased to 120 dial-in lines.

The network has become an essential tool for a wide range of work. The result is that the university cannot afford to have it fail for any appreciable period of time. Because of its importance and because of the large number of devices attached, network management and control has become a major issue.

An initiative to upgrade the campus backbone network is underway. The upgrade will allow the network to handle both the current load and future applications that involve graphics, images, video, and sound.

Public Sites

The upgrade program for the public and semi-public sites has placed over 400 devices (PC, MAC and UNIX workstations, printers and scanners) at twenty sites on campus. The upgrade program is administered in consultation with the Deans and Department Heads, and in recent years, has focused on the use of technology in teaching.

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New services: QFS and UNIX

The Queen's File System (QFS) was conceived as a mechanism to enable centralised computing services in a distributed-computing environment. Representative services include backup for files stored on personal desktop systems and centralised access to data, programs, and other information. Currently 400 desktop systems and about 40 servers (each servicing a multitude of desktop machines)are using QFS for backup and recovery. Common storage space has been allocated for information to be acquired either by FTP or by search tools such as GOPHER or MOSAIC.

A number of new UNIX based services have been introduced to the campus:

Jeffery Hall Sun Lab

  • (5 servers, 30 workstations, X terminal software)
    • 3000 accounts currently created

QLINK

  • dedicated service to provide electronic mail and Internet access for all Queen's students
    • 7200 accounts - December 1994

Telnet Server access

  • off campus dial-in access to campus backbone

FTP Server

  • a general-purpose general file server

Gopher Server

  • a search tool for both on- and off-campus information

News Server

  • Usenet news groups

POP Mail Server

  • Post Office Protocol (POP) mail service for faculty and staff

Many of the PC and MAC desktop systems on campus can access the UNIX services as X-Window clients. One new service, QLINK, deserves special mention. Use of QLINK in its first two months of operation exceeded all expectations.

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User equipment and acquisition

The faculty connect program has connected 250 additional faculty to the campus backbone network. Current policy allows all faculty or staff to connect to the campus backbone for a flat fee of $300; there is no ongoing charge for use of the campus backbone.

The departmental server program has provided the campus with a distributed and de-centralized approach to providing computing resources for the campus. The server program started by distributing servers to units with a substantial number of campus backbone connections, and all the major faculties have received servers. To date, fifteen departments in the Faculty of Arts and Science and five departments in Applied Science have received servers. Several Humanities departments within the Faculty of Arts and Science currently share a server with the Faculty of Law and the School of Business. In addition, servers have been provided to both the Faculty of Education and the Faculty of Medicine.

Staffing and training

We were unable to add staff. We were able, however, to expose the campus to new technologies and to train existing staff by importing guest speakers and by using satellite conferences. Training was also provided for Library staff. Given a no-growth situation for computing staff, special attention must be given to maintaining expertise.

New technologies

Several new technologies were implemented (or are in the process of being implemented) including a networked CD-ROM, a CD-ROM pressing unit, a colour laser printer and scanner, a high resolution laser printer, digital video-capture equipment, touch-screen monitors, and multi-media software. The new technologies are used in both teaching and research. We need to make the availability of the technologies better known on campus.

The Report of the Audio Visual Review Committee (November 2, 1993)identified the need for an Instructional Technology Unit. The unit is intended to take several responsibilities including:

  • monitoring developments in new media suitable for instruction
  • demonstrating new resources and possible applications
  • offering both individuals and Campus Planning and Development technical help with new media
  • making specialised equipment available for small-scale exploratory and production work by faculty and students.

To respond to the need identified by the Audio Visual Review Committee, we have redistributed responsibilities among the current staff. We hope to be able to act as a clearinghouse for information about learning technologies, both on and off campus. Our aim is to help those involved in instructional development; the work will be stillborn, however, unless our initiative is followed up vigorously.

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3. The Next Phase

In the present climate of financial constraint, it is imperative that we protect our current investment in a responsible fashion. We view development in four key areas to be the minimum required to sustain the current environment.

  1. Maintain and improve the network infrastructure

    The network is at the heart of the SCC plan. Without a solid network, distributed access to information will fail. It is crucial, therefore, that we maintain good network performance. By good performance, we refer to both the speed and the reliability of the network. There are three aspects to the network: the backbone distribution network within Queen's, the link to the external world, and the ability to use the network off campus. The internal network has a bandwidth of 10 megabits per second (MB/s); the current bandwidth of the external link is 512 kilobits per second (KB/s), and we currently have 120 dial-in lines. New Internet information services offered by the Stauffer library have put a severe strain on the internal network. Improvements to the backbone have been initiated, but technical difficulties have delayed successful implementation. We expect that use will continue to grow and that further improvements to the backbone will be necessary within the next three years, but it is too soon to suggest the form that the improvements will take.

    Our external link is a fraction of the internal bandwidth, and increased demand has limited the practicality of several services. It is impractical, for example, to share library information with other universities, if our link to them is too slow. Given the current level of use, our present connection to the external world is too slow. We need to increase the speed of the link from the current 512 KB/s. The cost of the next higher speed link is currently high. Unfortunately it will remain high until there are changes in the telecommunications regulatory environment, therefore additional funds are required to implement acceptable service.

    The demand for basic off-campus dial-in service appears to be almost unlimited, and we expect demand for higher speed dial-in access will increase. Unfortunately, dial-in access to the network is expensive. The almost unlimited demand for more (and for faster) dial-in access to the campus network is a major cause for concern.

  2. Deliver on the concept of device-independent information service

    With the basic network infrastructure in place, our first efforts were to help users take advantage of central services on local machines. An example is centralised backup, one of the first services to be delivered over the network. The next step is to deliver information from diverse machines to the user's workstation in a consistent way. The idea is to maintain a consistent user interface that hides the technical details of cross-platform work. The problem of hiding cross-platform work is more than a question of operating across systems, however. When we depend on the network for confidential material, it is important to handle security so that users can see or alter the information to which they are entitled and only that information.

    Fortunately, other universities are working on the same problems. In particular, a consortium of universities in the USA is developing sophisticated software to link the end-user to a variety of platforms. Queen's may be able to benefit from their work. One way or another, we need to make good SCC's promise to deliver computing at the user's preferred location and in the style of the user's preferred workstation.

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  3. Improve academic computing

    The role of the mainframe is changing: instead of a general computer server, it is becoming an information server. Almost all academic numerically intensive computing has moved to specialised servers. We want to move more academic work to specialised servers, and we anticipate three advantages of such a move. First, such systems are more scalable financially than the mainframe. Hence, by moving academic work to specialised servers, we can respond to changes in load more quickly. Second, we can improve the quality of the service; we can, for example, deliver graphics to the user's workstation from a UNIX server more easily than from the mainframe. Third, we can avoid a major mainframe upgrade by saving the mainframe for that portion of the university's work for which it is especially well suited.

    As noted, almost all numerically intensive work has been moved to specialised servers. Several years ago, two (then) high-speed UNIX machines were installed to take the numerically intensive computing load. The machines are no longer able to meet the demand. If computing intensive research at Queen's is to be competitive with work at like research-intensive universities, the current numerically intensive computing facility needs to be upgraded.

    A sub-committee of the Senate Computing and Communications Committee (SCCC) has discussed how to upgrade the facility. Because of the speed with which the field is moving, a major problem is how to meet the requirement while preserving the investment over an extended period. Their discussion calls for a scalable parallel computer and specifies several key parameters to preserve the investment in a new facility.

    As more services are moved off the mainframe, the departmental servers will play an increasingly important role. It is imperative that we continue the distribution of servers to departments. Departmental servers are not static facilities; they need periodic upgrading. Hence, it is imperative that we extend the server program so that we can refresh the existing departmental servers.

    Although many students own their own computers, the public sites provide students' chief access to computing on campus. Like departmental servers, the public sites need periodic hardware upgrading.

    Upgrading hardware is not enough, however. Hardware is only as good as the software it runs. The business world has come to expect knowledge workers to be able to use standard software tools. To meet that expectation, we need to improve the quality of the software tools available at the sites. We want to ensure that Queen's students have the opportunity to exercise best-of-breed personal-productivity tools, tools considered essential in the business world.

    Finally, the QLINK service will require a minimum of three times the current resource to provide an acceptable service for all Queen's students.

  4. Support information technology in the classroom

    We recognise that information technology has started to play an increasing important role in teaching and learning. We expect it to play an especially important role in distance education.

    Use of current information technology is greatly limited by the state of classrooms on campus. For that reason, classroom use of information technology at Queen's remains experimental. It has found its first successes at Queen's as an enrichment tool in ongoing teaching programs and is unlikely to replace existing programs in the near future.

    Development of course material that depends on new information technology is expensive, and it front-loads the cost of course development. Nevertheless, many universities are experimenting with information technology in the classroom (for example in the USA for remedial work with a Spanish-speaking constituency).

    The advice from experiments with new information technology in higher-education is that successful applications are driven by academic innovation, not by technology. It is important, therefore, to avoid techno-dazzle and, instead, to put in place an environment that encourages faculty to use technology to solve clear academic problems.

    Technology cannot be used effectively in teaching, however, until individual faculty members have access to the technology and understand it well enough to apply it in their particular fields. Keeping track of information technology, unfortunately, is a full-time job. Hence, we need resources to support technology in the classroom. As part of the initiative, we want to ensure that a central technical authority is available to advise campus planning about information technology in the classroom, to set technical standards for the classroom of the future, and to equip key classrooms with appropriate technology.

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4. How our plans will affect the University

Networking is at the heart of the SCC system. Without good network connections all aspects of SCC -- mail, central backup, version control, computing-related library services, and a host of related services -- will fail. It is important to all constituencies that we maintain and improve the network infrastructure. Failure to improve the network would be a disaster. New initiatives would be impossible. Current growth would bring all services to an unacceptable state.

The ability to deliver computing at the user's preferred location and in the style of the user's preferred workstation is central to the vision of the SCC plan. It is fundamentally an efficiency issue. If we do not provide information in a consistent way across platforms, we force users to master each system that supplies the information they use. It would be counter productive for the institution as a whole to step away from the goals of the SCC plan.

Plans to refresh academic computing at all levels (i.e., the departmental servers, the public sites, and the numerically intensive computing facility) represent ongoing maintenance of the computing infrastructure and the learning environment; they are an essential investment for education and research at Queen's. Our students cannot take part in the information age unless we provide them with first-class facilities. Likewise, Queen's cannot be a research-intensive university without adequate support for numerically intensive computing. Finally, because parallel technology is a new direction for computing, it is imperative that we acquire institutional know ledge of that technology.

We believe that information technology can improve the quality of instruction and can support effective distance education. Our proposal to fund an instructional technology initiative is aimed at helping Queen's faculty to learn how to use information technology in the classroom. It's main impact is for the future -- improved teaching will benefit both our future students and our institution's international reputation as an effective higher-education provider.

The SCC plan has had remarkable success. Perhaps its most visible accolade is the success of the Stauffer library. If the university had not endorsed the SCC vision in 1990, the library's on-line catalogue and Internet information service would not have been possible. Our plan continues the development of the SCC vision for all constituencies. Failure to build on the plan would compromise 5 years of work and the investment underlying it. Moreover, unless we continue the SCC initiative, Queen's ability to function in the information age and, more critically, to attract and keep high quality students and faculty will be eroded.

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