Sun Ray (part 5) Six months on….

It’s now nearly six months since my first post about the Sun Ray project and the following Faculty Of Health (FOH) deployment and it seemed to me that it would be a good time to have a little look back at what we achieved and see how things are now everything has settled down. I’m pleased to say that from my perspective things have gone very well. We now have around 250 Sun Ray devices deployed around the campus with large numbers being used in the FOH, Academic Registry and IT Services. We also have a number of open access Sun Rays running in the FOH to provide quick access web terminals for the students or visiting staff, I’ll talk more about those in a moment.


First and foremost I’d like to mention how much our back end services have grown as a result of the project. Our Core Services team have worked exceptionally hard over the last six months to build and maintain all of the infrastructure required for the Sun Ray project. To give you an idea of scale, the Sun Ray system alone current requires: 4 Solaris Sun Ray servers, 2 Windows 2003 2X Load Balancers and 9 Windows 2003 Terminal Servers. This represents the single largest growth in new servers since our Novell Cluster went in several years ago.

From a Technical Services point of view we have physically installed the 250 Sun Ray devices, monitors and peripherals. From that point we have been supporting our users in familiarisation with the new system and dealing with any teething problems that they experienced during the implementation. While each Sun Ray might not take as much maintenance as a computer we still have to deal with occasional faulty units and other issues such a network connectivity and printing problems. We have also been very busy fitting the open access Sun Rays in the FOH. If you have been over there you might have noticed them mounted on the back of the seating areas. These were quite tricky to fit as the Sun Rays are mounted under the seating with cabling fed up to the monitors and keyboard. This leads to the quite fun task of lying on the floor under the seating while a colleague tries to feed down cabling inside of the wood seating frame. We also fitted two accessible Sun Rays with monitors mounted on adjustable arms.

So far the Sun Ray project has been a great success, hopefully this summer will see us making them available to other areas around the campus and further expanding our capacity. For those of you who still aren’t sure that a Sun Ray is for you I can tell you quite happily that I’m writing this blog on one right now and that I have been using it for 80-90% of my work (which considering I fix computers all day is not bad at all!). User feedback has been very good and most people are very impressed with their performance. If you would like to try one then go and grab a coffee from the FOH and have a sit down on one of the stations in the cafe. Just to close I’d like to show you a few before and after pictures of the FOH, the before photos were taken on the first day we were able to access the building. As you can see we weren’t the only ones working frantically to get everything done and I think you will all agree at how amazing the finished building looks.

Reception beforeReception afterLecture theater beforeLecture theater afterCafe beforeCafe after

A somewhat belated start to the new year

My word it’s been a while since I managed to get on here. The pace in Technical Services has certainly been high since our return from the Christmas break. January Flu aside everyone has been rushed off their feet pursuing different projects and trying to hold back the ever rising tide of helpdesk jobs. So with a somewhat belated introduction to the new year let me catch you up a little with what we have been doing….

Well the Faculty of Health continues to be a major part of our work with lots of tidying up still to be done. The new building now has wireless coverage, using more access points than any other single area on campus! The lecture theatres alone account for fire wireless access points. That’s more than we currently have deployed in the whole of the LRC. We also have introduced a trial of a new printing system for staff in the FOH, Using HP multi-function printer/copiers. The printers are very impressive and produce excellent quality print outs. They also have built in security which allows our users to retrieve a print job from any of the 3 printers (one on each floor) rather than have the printer automatically print the job out and risk having confidential documents sitting on a printer in the middle of a corridor. We have had a few teething troubles getting these printers up and running and we are expecting a firmware update from the manufacturer to fix the problems that remain.

On the Sun Ray front progress continues nicely. I’m sat in my office working on one right now as it happens and we are looking to introduce them to other areas of the campus. There are a few dotted around different departments as trials to see how people find them compared to their normal computers. We also have interesting developments in relation to student usage, with a raft of Sun Rays to be installed on the back of the seating areas by the ground floor cafe in the FOH. These will allow students to either have a full desktop session on a server (much the same way as our staff do) or to just load up a web browser and get online. I’ll be interested to hear feedback from the students once they start using these Sun Rays. We have also installed Mozilla Firefox onto our staff terminal servers to provide some more options for web browsing. Using our roaming profiles I was very happy to find my custom add-ons and themes travelling from one server to another

The LINC building has finally had its magicnet information screen installed (making it the 6th of its kind around campus!). We’ll be running powerpoint slideshows on there to provide information to staff and students in the building (and sorry folks no sky sports yet!).

Work has also started investigating Office 2007 with a view to a campus wide rollout this summer. I know that a lot of staff and student home equipment is running the latest version so it’s important for us to ensure that our software has the highest levels of compatibility for people bringing in work from the newest software packages. Hopefully with the promised release of service pack 1 for Windows Vista we will be able to look at it’s suitability as a desktop operating system for our users. I wouldn’t get too excited thou as a large Vista rollout is very unlikely this year.

We also have a lot of exciting things to look forward to with demolition well under way on the site of the new development (I have a lovely panoramic view of the building site from my office as it happens.) I have no idea of any anticipated completion date but I’m certain that our team will once again be heavily involved in both staff and student IT provision within the building.

Right then I’m going to go and prod our Core Services team into writing some updates about all their exciting work on VMware and other projects as I see they have been slacking on the blogging front too! Expect another update a little sooner than two months this time.

Sun Ray (part 4) Day 2 in the FOH

Despite the challenges of Monday everyone was in high spirits Tuesday morning as we went over to continue our work. I think we had all been surprised how quickly we had got through the offices, with nearly half the building done in the first day despite the hold ups.

The first port of call was the admin offices on the ground floor. We had electricians in there most of Monday fitting extra power sockets so the first thing on the agenda was to re-cable most of the admin staff Sun Rays and get them all powered up and running. I spent the first hour of the day under various desks in there trying to make some sense of the cabling. Despite the extra power we still had some really long runs where our standard power leads were too short. This lead to much debate from myself and the other techies as to how we could get everything plugged in. Krypton factor challenges have nothing compared to lying on your back under a desk and trying to visualise the power requirements of the desks above you while running the cables around. I think a few of the admin staff had a surprise when a techie suddenly appeared from under their desk!

Solstice Sun RaySte in solstice
It didn’t take us too long to get admin up and running with quite a few of us working at it. I decided to take a wander downstairs and see how Solstice were running and check on their printing. When I got there I found out that because of issues with floor mounted power being in the wrong place they still had nothing up and running!! I got on my mobile and called for backup and started plugging in the Solstice (and LTD) computers. I should mention at this point that as the staff there do a lot of development work they have some quite fancy computers and these were moved over from their offices in the LINC. With the work they do it wouldn’t have been appropriate to use Sun Rays but I still felt that they should get the chance to use some so I spoke the Derrick and we arranged to have three sent over. By the time I had spoken to Derrick my re-enforcements had arrived in the form of Ste, Paul, Neil and Adam from Core Services. The left photo shows Ste doing some cabling under one of the desks, you can see the floor mounted power units on the right. Before long we had most of the computers up and running and I had used the lessons from Monday to programme most of the telephones in the office. We had some lunch and then went over and put in three Sun Rays in the Solstice office (pictured right), I’ll be interested to see what the staff there think of them.

Printing was the name of the game in the afternoon. I have come to the conclusion that there are several tiers of IT requirement for most users, the bottom tier consists of a computer and a login, the next tier is email and internet. The next tier calls for office applications and other software, after that the tiers include things like printing and usb pen drive support. Think of it a bit like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs for the computer user! The fact that we had reached the printing stage so quickly suggested to me that everything was going well so far and that the Sun Rays were working as expected.

Printing on the Sun Rays works a little differently to a normal computer. Usually you would have just the printers you use installed on your computer but because the Sun Rays are actually using printers from a server we need every printer that can be used by someone on a Sun Ray to be available on that server. Originally we had just manually installed all the printers on each server, having to do it six times as we have six servers! As we started deploying the Sun Rays to some of our own staff we decided that having every printer available was confusing so the Core lads came up with something new. Using Novell Iprint we can assign users to a printer, this printer can follow the user to any pc (or terminal server) and will always be available if Iprint is installed. This works really well and means that you can have people all sharing a big office but only able to print to their teams printer. Installing one of the other printers for a user is as simple as adding them to the specific group for that printer.

JennyNeilSte, Tony and PhilPaul
By the end of the day we had virtually all of the Sun Rays installed in the building. Thanks to all the help from the different teams with IT Services and the ease of deploying the Sun Ray workstations we had got through an incredible amount in such a short time! We still have a lot to do before we are finished with wireless access, information screens and all sorts of other things left to do over the next few weeks but I hope that we have made the transition a little easier for the Aintree staff by getting them all setup so quickly. Above are a few more photos of various colleagues from our different teams at work around the FOH, as I mentioned it was a real team effort from the whole department.

Sun Ray (part 3) – To the desktop! Day 1 in the FOH

It’s 8.05 on Monday morning and despite my best efforts it appears that no amount of coffee or toast can prepare me for the day ahead. I’m stood in a large store room literally surrounded by telephones, specifically there are 150 Alcatel voice over ip phones covering every available surface within sight. Next to me is Pete Stein our telecoms guru (he’ll like that guru comment.) who is somehow getting all of these telephones into a trolley with amazing TARDIS qualities (in that it is obviously much bigger on the inside than it looks from the outside!). You might wonder what I’m doing messing around with phones when there is a whole building crying out for Sun Rays, well the answer is very simple. Now that we use VOIP technology the network for your pc (or Sun Ray) will be run through the telephone. So if we are deploying any kind of computer or terminal that needs a network connection it makes sense to put the phone in first rather than have to turn off the computer when the phone needs installing.


More phones!

Pete’s magic trolley

So we packed up our trolleys full of telephones and headed over to the Faculty of Health building. I was instantly amazed with how much it had come along since Friday night and there were teams of builders and cleaning staff frantically tidying up the little bits and bobs. Our first port of call was the admin office on the ground floor, we popped all our phones in there and I headed upstairs to the Deans office to try and get them up and running. So I unboxed a Sun Ray and plugged in the telephone… and… nothing! The phone couldn’t connect! In went the Sun Ray… it couldn’t connect either! Disaster! It was the perfect start to the day… I made my apologies to the staff there and got on the phone to the rest of our guys. It was quickly determined that we had a network connectivity issue and Chris our Network manager was contacted to take a look. Chris quickly determined that it was a problem with the 10 gig Fibre optic connection between the FOH and CMIST (sidenote time.. the link between CMIST runs at 10000 megabits a second, our usual desktop speed is 100 megabits and most home broadband is only 2-8!). Chris was able to resolve the issue and we were up and running.


I went down to admin and found colleagues from the IT Services Helpdesk, Core Services and Learning Services all busy shifting Sun Rays and phones into the building and starting to get them out on the desks. Unfortunately we had another problem.. In the admin office power and data (network) points had been mounted on the pedestals under the desks so that the staff could have an open plan office. Usually this is fine but in this case there were a number of desks where it was literally impossible to make a power cable reach from the wall socket to the Sun Ray. Soon we had an electrician in there working on changing the sockets around to sort it out for us but at the expense of us having no desktop power in that office for the majority of the day.

Gary under a desk

With nothing more we could do there our teams split up and we started working on the smaller offices for the FOH academic staff. I was working with Tony (our techie for the Aintree site) and Gary (from our Helpdesk) installing Sun Rays and telephones for the majority of the day. Here is an exciting photo of Gary doing some under desk cable management!

There is still a lot to do but with our small teams working like crazy for the whole day we managed to get the majority of the offices set up and running with their Sun Ray desktops and a lot of the telephones installed and ready to go. There is still a lot to do and tomorrow will be the real test when we finally have a large number of users running on our Sun Ray system. Expect another update soon!

Sun ray (part 2)

As I mentioned in my previous post IT Services staff have all been working their cotton socks off to get our new Sun Ray system up and running for the new Faculty of Health building. The project got into full gear a week ago when our servers finally arrived. I was spent all Saturday locked in the CMIST basement seconded to assist my colleagues from Core Services get everything ready for a week of insanely hard work. While they racked up the new servers and got everything ready I worked on some of the network cabling which involved running meters and meters of cables from the new servers back to the main network core. Here are a couple of pictures of our work. The first one shows the cable management system all opened up and our boxes of 15meter cables that we had to feed in. The second picture shows our nice new Sun Fire servers all racked up and ready to install.

server roomSun fire servers

I won’t bore you with the details of what we had to do but by the end of Tuesday we had 6 Terminal Servers up and a load balancer running. By the middle of Wednesday they were all talking to our 3 Sun Ray servers and the load balancer was spreading our users out so that no server is taking too much traffic. We were finally able to plug in our first Sun Ray workstation and give it a try. I have to admit I’m very impressed with them, they look fantastic and the server performance is exceptional. Racing one against a desktop computer was interesting. Needless to say with only minimal load on the system from 2-3 users the Sun Ray left the pc for dead and I was logged in and checking emails before the pc had reached the login screen. So here is a look at one of our new Sun Ray stations for all those of you who were wondering what this magic box was all about:

Sun Ray with monitorSun Ray

The left picture show the Sun Ray workstation (which is around 12 inches high when sat on its base) it’s very compact compared to a normal computer and takes up hardly any space. I’ll try and do a one for one comparison with how it compares to a computer in my next post but suffice to say that it doesn’t really process anything, rather it just connects your keyboard, mouse and monitor to a remote server which does all the hard work instead. The second picture shows a full Sun Ray workstation with a Sun keyboard, mouse and monitor all attached. I think they look very nice myself!

In reference to some of the questions I’ve been asked about the Sun Rays and those on the previous post from Jeannette, to the best of my knowledge:

Each Sun Ray has usb slots on it for taking pen drives. We had tested it with lots of different makes and models and they work really well.

The Sun Rays do not have any CD or Floppy disk facilities. I gather there will be CD Writers available to staff by other means but I don’t know the details at this stage.

Each Sun Ray connects to a Windows 2003 server which runs a desktop almost identical to Windows XP. Because the server is share between users we have to restrict the software to essentials and users won’t be able to install their own packages on the server. More details will be available about that as we deploy the Sun Rays next week.

Printing is an interesting one. Again I’m not certain of all the details but there will be printers available on each floor and all the staff printers will be available from the Sun Rays. Smaller printers are also being looked at, especially in terms of small desktop colour printers and we hope to have support in place for these soon.

reception desklecture theatrecafe

Next week the nearly the whole of IT Services will be in someway involved with the new building deployment. We have 150 Sun Rays boxed up, labelled and ready to go! It’s quite scary the amount of work involved so I hope everyone will bear with us and we get it all sorted. The good news is that we took several trips over to the new building and our Network and Telecoms guys have their stuff all sorted so we can just drop Sun Rays and telephones on the desk and get everyone running. For those of you who are interested I took a few snaps of the new building last week while I was over there. It’s not quite finished in these pictures but it’s already looking really impressive! Expect a (tired) update in a few days.

Sun Ray (part 1)

I haven’t had the chance to talk much about the Sun Ray project yet but with it’s impending deployment I thought I should give a bit of a Tech Services run down on the desktop side of things. Paul from Core Services has already talked a little about the benefits of the system and I’m sure he will be writing more as the back end systems are deployed so I thought I’d give a bit more information on the client side of things.

Sun Ray is a type of “thin client” system. Thin clients aren’t an especially new idea and the concept dates back to the original text based dumb terminals of the 1980’s. Recently thin client technology has become very popular once again and there are a lot of new products (such as Sun Ray) that are having great success in the corporate world.

The first thing most people ask me in regards to Sun Ray is how it differs from having a computer. Well the immediate answer is “not that much!”. On the surface people who are using a Sun Ray will still have a box on their desk, a screen sat next to it and a keyboard and mouse to control it all. You will still have to login using your Edge Hill ID and password and be presented with a familiar Windows Desktop environment (more on that in a moment..). Microsoft Office is there on the start menu right next to Internet Explorer and all the regular things you would come to expect from your computer. So I’m sure by now you are thinking.. “well.. what’s the big deal then?”.

At first glance there are very few obvious differences for the end user between running on a normal computer or on a thin client device. It’s the subtle differences and lot of things going on in the background that gets the IT geeks amongst us all excited. Let us have a little look at what they are…

We’ll begin with that oh so familiar Windows Desktop, everyone knows that. There is the start menu in the bottom left with all of your applications, your my computer icon on the desktop to get access to all of your drives. But hold on a second.. this isn’t Windows XP (or Vista for that matter!) so what is it? Well if you sat at a Sun Ray then the answer will be Windows 2003 server edition. The desktop you will be seeing is actually running on a server that is sat in our server room (probably in CMIST) you will be connected to it using something called Terminal Services. I’ve heard many different descriptions of what Terminal Services actually is but I find the easiest way to describe it is as follows: If you are using a Sun Ray then you are effectively remote controlling the desktop on the windows server in much the same way as the IT Services helpdesk remote control the staff computers when they are fixing problems.

The difference between connecting to the Terminal Server and our remote control of your desktop is that the server supports multiple simultaneous connections from many different locations. This means that you can have ten, twenty, maybe hundreds of people all remotely connected to one server. Unlike our desktop remote control the sessions are independent and each user has their own remote desktop to control (well it would be a bit difficult with twenty people all fighting for control of the mouse cursor wouldn’t it! The real strength of Terminal Services lies in the processing of the applications you are running. Because you are launching Word or Excel on a powerful server rather than your local computer it has a really impressive performance, even if there are lots of people connected to it! The other obvious benefit of this is that if we need to upgrade to a new version of Office or other new software all we have to do is upgrade that one server and everyone connected to it will get the new package. If we had to visit dozens of individual computers it would take much longer to roll out that upgrade to everyone.

This is only a taster of what is involved with the Sun Ray project and I’ll be writing more as we progress with it. Once we have it all up and running and I have the time I’ll write a walk through of the Sun Ray desktop and explain some more of the differences. Keep an eye on the Core Services blog and I’m sure you will see lots more updates about the server side of the project.