Some say one of the most important aspects of running an IT department is getting the chemistry of the staff right. It’s certainly a view to which University of Salford CIO Derek Drury firmly subscribes.

“For me, the success of an IT team is about getting the right skills and the right people with the right motivation. If you can do that stuff, the technology is the technology – it might need the occasional spanner taking to it but most of the time it’s fairly sound stuff,” he told silicon.com.

Drury knows all about chemistry having worked in the pharmacy industry – with Boots and Lloyds Pharmacy, among others – for close to 20 years before switching to IT management just over 10 years ago.

When Drury’s then employer Leeds Co-op Pharmacy merged with National Co-op Chemists (NCC) in 1999, he moved over to build up the IT department and redevelop a lot of the systems that the new company would use.

Drury was well suited to this move despite a career in pharmacy management, as technology was always in the background.

“I’ve been programming since programming was invented – so I wrote programs in assembler and hexadecimal for machines you won’t have even heard of… and I never gave up programming. I still play now. So I’ve always had this interest in computers,” he told silicon.com.

The University of Salford is undergoing a technology transformation

The University of Salford’s new datacentre will bring its technology infrastructure into the 21st centuryPhoto: University of Salford

When NCC merged with the Manchester-based Co-operative Group, Drury ended up managing the IT for a pharmacy division of the group with more than 800 branches. He was soon given additional responsibility covering the travel division.

Current Co-operative Group CIO Ian Dyson – interviewed by silicon.com in January – was Drury’s boss for 18 months following the 2007 merger of the Co-operative Group and United Co-operatives.

Drury also worked for a time with the London 2012 Olympics Organising Committee CIO Gerry Pennell when Pennell was CIO for Co-operative Financial Services and the Co-operative Group.

Drury then stayed in the Manchester area when he moved to the University of Salford as CIO in September 2009.

He recently spoke to silicon.com about the University of Salford’s tech transformation and datacentre project, as well as how his department is working to serve the changing requirements of students.

Essential skills for a university CIO

Drury’s role is about defining strategy and managing projects rather than dealing with “wires and boxes” and, with 84 technology projects currently underway, one can understand why…

…management skills are key.

As for strategy, Drury is looking ahead to address the changing needs of the university and its students by getting the right technology in place and the right people in to implement and develop it.

“It’s about seeing what’s coming over the horizon, making sure you’re in a position where you can cope with that and making sure you’ve got a team around you that can deal with the plans that are coming up. And that inevitably means that sometimes you have to change the team, you have to move the skills around. If you can’t train them in, you’ve got to buy them in.”

He added that ensuring the IT department has the right skills as different technologies ebb and flow in importance is also a key part of his job.

“It’s about getting that mix right. There’s no doubt about it that the skills mix we’re now dealing with, to where we were two years ago, is totally different, just by changing the technology. Did I have anybody in the team [two years ago] who knew anything about virtual servers, for instance?”

IT transformation through a new datacentre

The University of Salford is preparing for a big jump in its technology capability with a major transformation project.

Much like his former boss at the Co-operative Group, Ian Dyson, Drury is overseeing the construction of a new datacentre to provide a technology infrastructure suitable for a 21st-century university.

Drury admitted that IT investment had previously been patchy at the university, with the single existing datacentre delivering poor service and “in great danger of collapse”.

Having just a single datacentre also meant there was no failover, so more than 20,000 students and 3,500 staff would have no service if the facility went down. “To run all that through one datacentre with no failovers was a bit tricky at times, to say the least,” Drury said.

The university therefore took the decision in June 2009 “to go for broke” and build a new £5.7m datacentre with Unisys and to modernise the existing facility to put in place a more resilient and functional infrastructure.

The new datacentre is located at the university’s health campus while the original facility, located at the university library, has been stripped out and filled with new equipment.

The two facilities are located far enough away from each other – separated by a couple of roads and a railway line – to provide adequate distance if one them becomes inaccessible for any reason.

The project has consolidated the 300 physical servers in the original datacentre down to 45 through the extensive use of virtualisation. However, several physical servers remain, because they run high input-output databases and other systems that would be slowed down by virtualisation.

The university has spent about a further £3m upgrading other parts of its infrastructure to make sure it can get…

…the most out of the new datacentre facilities.

Upgrades include a new network for the Media City campus in Salford Quays, the eventual location of much of the BBC’s operations. With a lot of media data being moved around this particular campus, a 10Gbps network has been put in place.

Although not the main objective of the project, the university planned a reduction in carbon emissions and energy use into the project. “Well you can imagine with 300 individual servers, we were burning power like there was no tomorrow,” Drury said.

The university’s carbon-management team predict the new, more efficient infrastructure will save between £150,000 and £200,000 per year in energy costs compared with the old set-up.

The University of Salford's Media City campus has a new high-speed network

Salford’s campus at Media City has a new high-speed network to make the most of its datacentre infrastructurePhoto: Peel Media

Most of the physical kit is now in place in the two datacentres and Drury’s team will soon take control of the hardware and start the process of migrating its 106 applications onto the infrastructure.

This migration process should be completed by the end of August and the new platform available for the beginning of the 2011-12 academic year.

Providing new services

The new infrastructure puts the university on “a very firm footing going forward”, according to Drury, allowing it to provide services that were previously limited. “There’s a lot in our strategy that is predicated on having that infrastructure in place,” he said.

“It will enable [us to have] the student services – particularly in mobile learning and distance learning – that we need to put in because of the changes in expectations of the students but also in terms of the climate. There will be more people who want to stay at home and learn and we’ll have to address that,” he added.

Drury said the expectation of users has risen in terms of access to services – which range between digital content capture, lecture streaming and videoconferencing – on any device, anywhere and anytime. “So we have to be in a place where we can deliver this stuff,” he said.

The use of collaborative tools such as SharePoint, wikis and blogs will also become more commonplace in the university due to the increased capability of the infrastructure.

SharePoint will initially be used for more business-related tasks but will become integrated into the technology students use next year. The university already uses Microsoft’s Live@Edu webmail which features some aspects of SharePoint.

“It gives us a new platform to work off. What it does is it gives us a nice open platform on which we can build this stuff, because we’ve put it in with this sort of thing in mind,” Drury said.

The new infrastructure – and particularly the fact that it’s virtualised – should also boost what the university research departments can do.

“The great thing about having virtual technology is if a researcher wants a particular server with so much space, rather than having to go out and buy one, I can give them one at lunchtime because we can just build one on the infrastructure. And when [the researcher has] finished, I can have the resource back. It makes it far more flexible for us,” he added.

Researchers are able to request test areas within the datacentre separated from other parts of the infrastructure, allowing the IT department to…

…provide technology support for research staff and students in a more efficient way.

Another element of the new infrastructure has been the consolidation of payroll, HR and finance processes, as well as improvements to information document management and shared workflow – all of which will drive further efficiencies.

The potential to share infrastructure

As well as providing services for students, the university is also considering sharing its spare capacity with other institutions and is talking to several organisations about providing shared services.

In some cases, these services could be for disaster recovery but there is also the possibility that virtual learning environments could be shared with other organisations.

With university funding likely to be squeezed in the next few years, avoiding the expense of paying multiple licence fees and taking advantage of economies of scale could become increasingly attractive.

The university is also looking to take part in the Janet education and research network for higher education and work with Jisc, an organisation that encourages innovative use of digital technology to boost the UK’s global standing in education.

Desktop virtualisation

Another significant technology implementation on the cards is desktop virtualisation, which could have a major impact on the university’s 5,500 PCs.

“There’s only one driver [for desktop virtualisation] and that’s cost isn’t it?” Drury said.

“The replacement cycle on [thin clients] is much longer, the kit is cheaper and the power usage is significantly lower. So when you’re running 5,500 desktops, if you can halve your power usage then you’ve made a tremendous impact on the green agenda for the university,” he added.

A pilot of 200 PCs will commence once the IT department has full access to the new datacentre infrastructure. The pilot will use virtualisation technology from Quest and initially stick with the Windows XP image already in place.

Depending on user feedback, the technology will be rolled out to 3,000 desktop computers – mainly in learning labs – over the course of the next 18 months. The other 2,500 PCs that won’t be virtualised are used for specialist work such as 3D graphics, which is less suited to virtualisation.

As well as the cost and environmental benefits of desktop virtualisation, it will also mean the management of the desktop estate should be easier.

“By making the most of [the PCs’] virtual desktops we can control it, get the best out of the licences – so there’s a whole management thing as well as a cost thing there,” Drury said.

Tablets and the cloud

Drury’s team has been looking at the potential of cloud computing and already runs the Live@Edu software-as-a-service technology for the university email system.

“The impact [of using Live@Edu] on the students has been absolutely tremendous – they’ve got huge amounts of space, they’ve got a very reliable service and they’ve got an interface that looks like it’s in this century,” Drury said.

The department is currently working out…

…where else cloud technology could play a role. “I think cloud’s great but I think it’s like everything else in the computing world: it’s what fits your business. It isn’t ‘one size fits all’ and everybody should do it, and everybody should do it completely,” he added.

However, Drury said it’s unlikely the university will use cloud computing to support business–critical systems such as finance.

“There’s bits of [cloud computing] where I’m a great advocate of it if it fits the business. If it fits the business model and there’s distinct advantages, then great; if it’s just today’s buzzword, well, let’s not play that game,” he said.

Turning to tablet PCs, Drury said there hasn’t been a huge demand for the devices so far but there is clearly demand for applications for mobile devices, including Apple and Android devices.

“Again, it’s an expectation that some of this stuff will be available on my phone, or my iPad or whatever device I’ve got. So that’s the stuff that we’ve got to keep up with – it’s about having that sort of flexibility in the mobile technology because I think that’s where everybody’s head is at the moment.”

Students will become more demanding of technology

With tuition fee increases and funding cuts, new students are likely to become more demanding of technology Photo: University of Salford

Drury has development teams working on mobile applications such as campus maps and timetabling. Some departments are also interested in using the Apple iPhone as a means to collect data for research.

“There’s a lot going on in that space and it’s something we need to keep our eye on,” Drury said.

The tech challenges of a changing higher education sector

Drury said one of the big challenges in the higher education sector is making sure institutions are able to keep pace with technology developments and that people are going to use new technology that’s brought in.

“We’ve spent close to £10m on putting this stuff in and I think the biggest puzzle for me is making sure that we get good value and we get people using it properly and making sure that investment drives through to a customer satisfaction and a customer advantage for the university,” Drury said.

“It’s not about if I plug that into there will it explode or will it run – it’s about making sure that we can drive the benefits of the investment and I think that’s the real hard question that, as a university, we’re now grappling with,” he added.

However, Drury doesn’t envisage the cuts in university funding – due to come in 2012 – will provide too much of a challenge from an IT perspective.

“Providing the books balance, then I don’t see that that’s going to lead to huge cuts in IT. And to be honest, if organisations have looked at this, then they’ll realise that IT is actually where they need to be putting their investment to drive out efficiencies and make sure they’ve got an advantage for their customers.”

However, he added that the rise in tuition fees could present other challenges as it will make students more discerning and demanding about the services they can access at university. “If anybody is lagging behind in IT now would be a good time to start making those investments,” Drury said.

The rising costs of going to university is also likely to see people studying remotely to avoid paying accommodation fees or studying part-time to take advantage of the more favourable student loan options.

“I think that will drive a different learning approach so we’ve got to be prepared for this and we’ve got to have the stuff in place to drive that through when the demand comes on,” Drury said.