Windows 7 – The tip of the iceberg

Whenever Microsoft first release a new version of Windows there is always a massive debate on the subject. Is the new release an improvement or is it just a fancy new interface filling the cracks? Unfortunately Windows Vista was widely regarded as a step in the wrong direction and industry and education alike were unenthusiastic to replace the tried and tested Windows XP. Vista was somewhat of a system resource hog and many institutions weren’t keen on migrating as a lot of desktop hardware would have to be replaced or upgraded just to provide the same desktop performance in Vista that XP users expected. As with most organisations Edge Hill evaluated Windows Vista and concluded it wouldn’t be a worthwhile change while XP was still an option so the decision was made to depend on XP and hope that the inevitable Vista sequel is a game changer.

Fortunately Microsoft were very aware of Vista’s shortcomings and there were soon alpha releases of their latest OS circulating the internet. Soon dubbed Windows 7, the new version carried the many hopes for businesses who were facing the inevitable end of Microsoft support for XP. Windows 7 turned out to be the answer to our collective prayers. Keeping the majority of the positives from Vista but maintaining the stability and performance of XP, Windows 7 was soon on the agenda.

IT upgrades in Higher Education are usually saved for the summertime when the majority of full time students are on their summer break. With term time only staff and a lot of the academics also on leave it is the perfect time for any significant changes to be made. Windows 7 came too late for us to perform the upgrade during the summer of 2010 so it was pushed on to 2011. We spent the time in between testing software packages and getting up to speed on what needs doing to make the upgrade as simple as possible. As it happens the back end systems were also being reconsidered and our Core Services team started investigating the replacement of our Novell Edirectory services with Microsoft Active Directory. With Novell support for Windows 7 unlikely to be adequate for our deployment we could well be looking at our Windows 7 desktop deployment being supported by a Active Directory server 2008 infrastructure.

Needless to say there is a lot of work ahead for all the teams in IT Services and a very busy summer to look forward to. I’m sure there will be a lot more to post on here once we have a final schedule arranged and we can begin work on a live Active Directory environment.

Office 2007 upgrade part 1:

office 2007 logo Over the next few weeks IT Services staff will be putting the finishing touches to our Office 2007 installation packages with a view having upgraded the majority of staff and student areas by August. Here is the official IT Services statement:

IT Services Update: Microsoft Office 2007 / Vista Operating System

The Information Strategy Group agreed at the last meeting in March that the University would upgrade to Microsoft Office 2007 during July and August this year.

MS Office 2007 has a significantly different look and feel to MS Office 2003 which is currently in use. Colleagues in Staff Development will be offering awareness sessions in due course for University staff.

There will be a phased roll-out by IT Services, including aninitial MS Office 2007 installation in one of the LINC IT rooms. This will provide an opportunity for colleagues to familiarise themselves with the product early on.

Please note that in line with other Universities, we shall not be deploying Vista this year, but will retain the XP Operating System as the standard University desktop environment. However, a small number of Vista installations will be available for staff engaged software evaluations, research and development, and those involved in supporting use/access from off-campus and non-university devices.

If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact the IT Services Helpdesk on 01695 584424.

I wanted to post something to explain a bit more about the why and the how of this upgrade. As far back as I can remember Microsoft have consistently released new versions of Office every 2-3 years. I’ve used every version released in the last decade since Office 4.0 on Windows 3.1 and I have to admit it has changed quite a lot. So why is it constantly changing? How different does the application has to be to justify a new release and really do we need all these new improvements just so that we can type out a memo?

Office features have come and gone over the different versions (remember the annoying paperclip?) but the core components haven’t changed that significantly. Whatever version of Office you run you’ll be sure to see the familiar shortcuts for Word, Excel, Powerpoint and Access. The applications might be called the same thing from one version to the next but there can be some quite drastic differences. Office 2007 introduces the first major rethink of the user interface in a long time, the new “ribbon” system shows a quite drastic redesign of all the menu systems everyone is familiar with, so why did Microsoft change it?

The Word 2003 user interface:
Word 2003

The Word 2007 user interface:
Word ribbon

Well as with most changes that have been made to software packages over the years, the main goal of this redesign was to rationalise all of the additions made over the last few versions and make the whole interface much more logical for new users. While this might mean that users of previous versions might take a while to get used to the interface, most people should find it easier too use and less time consuming to master. These changes are likely to be a part of Microsoft’s long term software strategy and from recent press releases it seems that the ribbon system is not only here to stay for Office but likely to become a core part of all new Microsoft software. With that in mind it makes good sense for everyone to become familiar with the new interface style sooner rather than later.

I’ll be posting some more information shortly and outlining some of the differences between Office 2003 and 2007, along with some of the benefits we can look forward to from the new release.

“The strongest principle of growth lies in human choice.” – George Eliot

Continuing our series of summer updates I’m proud to announce the forthcoming release of Mozilla Firefox onto our corporate desktops. For a long time we have only provided support for Internet Explorer but with there now being a viable alternative we are going to be giving our staff and students a choice about which browser they use.

Firefox is one of the biggest software success stories of recent time. When it entered the market Microsoft had pretty much beaten back Netscape and the other 3rd party browsers with only Safari (due to it being the standard on Apple Macs) showing any kind of competition. Development of IE had slowed down significantly and versions 5-6 showed no massive changes except for security features. It was at this stage that Firefox entered the arena and proved an instant hit in the IT technical community. It’s wonderful features such as modular add-ons and tabbed browsing made IE 6 look completely outdated and soon had Microsoft racing to compete again.

During the time before IE7 was released Firefox took a large market share away from Microsoft’s browser and showed that people really did think about what they wanted from their web surfing tools. Despite this Firefox still remained quite fringe with the majority of home and corporate users unaware of their options or content to stick with what they knew. The lack of support for roaming bookmarks and limited security lockdowns made Firefox difficult to deploy in a business environment, until recently that is…

After lots of discussion and trials IT Services are finally in a position where we can offer Firefox with the same security as we provide for IE. While we still haven’t achieved success using roaming bookmarks (favorites) we feel that we can now offer Firefox up as an option. IE will still remain the default browser but staff and students will be able to pick Firefox from their network programs list if they want to use it. As Mike showed in his recent post Firefox usage is still growing significantly in some areas, it is our hope that we will see a lot of users trying it out. A lot of companies are now looking at Firefox as an option, even Dell are considering pre-installing on the computers they sell.

In my personal opinion Firefox is a fantastic browser, I still use Internet Explorer for a few things but I tend to use Firefox 90% of the time both in work and home (I’m using it right now to write this post actually!). My advise would be: Exercise your choice, try Firefox!

Campus instant messaging

MSN, ICQ, AOL, Yahoo, Skype, the list goes on and on! Instant messaging (IM) has become one of the most popular online services over the last 5 years. From the early days of plain text chat rooms and IRC people have been using the internet to communicate in real time rather than via email. Recently there has been a massive rise in online social networking and more people now use some for of instant messaging service than ever before, research last year showed that 82 million people used instant messaging in Europe alone. With IM being so popular surely there must be a use for it within education?

IT Services have been looking at an open source instant messaging system called Jabber with a view to providing a University wide instant messaging system allowing staff and students to communicate in real time via the web. After lots of testing and with hard work from Web Services to implement the back end systems we are finally ready to deploy this system.

We have decided to use a Jabber client by the name of Spark. While not as feature rich as clients such as MSN messenger or Skype, Spark offers us a great deal of flexibility as it supports an open source plug-in system which means we can develop our own features for it. The back end system is also very flexible and integrates into our network allowing us to use network login for the Spark client.

So what does all this actually mean? Well from September onwards we will be deploying Spark to all computers at the Ormskirk campus and to other areas off site. Users will be able to launch the program from their desktop and login using their usual Edge Hill username and password. Because the system is integrated you can add contacts using their Edge Hill ID so for example I could be added just by typing in goulds in the add contact field. The person you add has to accept your request before you can start sending messages (after all John Cater doesn’t want 4000 people in his contact list pestering him endlessly!).

In our trials it proved a very popular way of keeping in touch for our department as you can get information quickly without the hassle and formality of email and unlike a phone call if the person isn’t around you can see that they are offline or set to away and either leave a message for them to see when they come back or wait until they are available.

I’m quite looking forward to see how Spark performs and what the uptake is like from staff. The new GO portal will also have a jabber plug-in and I can see it being a very popular way for students to communicate with each other. Of course their are implications about its use in classrooms and potential abuse but we will have to take that in our stride as we finally start testing out in the real world.

Here is a preview of what the spark interface looks like, as you can see it’s quite similar in design to popular IM software like MSN and Yahoo Messenger: (click for bigger picture)
Spark client

If you go down to Woodlands today…

.. you’re sure of a big surprise, sadly it doesn’t involve picnics. I was down there yesterday with the Education ICT Support team (Howard, James C and James W from Learning Services) reconfiguring some of the IT equipment. We managed to get through a lot despite a few little problems that took some time to sort, luckily the LS boys know their software image back to front and were able to create an innovative solution there and then! I spent most of my time working on the Woodlands wireless network. It’s now reconfigured to match the settings from Ormskirk so that laptop users from both sites are able to roam between the two networks without having to change settings every time. Howard’s team re-ghosted the classroom machines and they are all now been updated to the latest software image with all of the summer changes on, the laptops updates are soon to follow. It was quite a long day and we didn’t get back to Ormskirk till nearly seven. Here are a couple of pictures of the Woodlands classroom mid-ghosting.

woodlands 2 woodlands 1

In other news Stephen Timson is departing our team to go and work in a new role with the Core Services team. Ste looked after all of our images and the zenworks software delivery and his flair for creative problem solving will be sorely missed. Best of luck to him in his new job from everyone in Tech Services!

We have some other news about updates that are going on with the software images that I’ll put on in the next couple of days.