Are you making use of your web space?

website2
Did you know that anyone with a Sussex ITS username can set up a personal website on the University’s servers..?

Look – I did it. Take a look, as it gives some suggestions as to what you might like to use your web space for. You don’t have to have any fancy coding skills – I have the coding skills of an 8 year old – because documents that you put into the right folder are then automatically available online.

First, you need to set up your web space. Once you’ve done that, a folder will appear on your N: drive called public_html. Documents in this folder will be available online, providing they’re the right file type. PDFs, pictures and any browser-friendly text files will sit nicely up there.

To make a really simple text file that will display as a web page, open any text editor (but NOT word processing software, like Word) – on a PC you can use Notepad and on a Mac, it’s TextEdit. Write a simple document in there and save it as a .txt file. Drop it in your public_html file and you’ll get something simple that looks like this.

To add formatting, you’re going to need to change it into an HTML file and add HTML tags to make it look pretty. Here’s the difference – I’ve just used one HTML tag to make a section bold. You’ll notice I’ve lost my line breaks, because that’s what happens when you use HTML; you need to use HTML instructions to get any kind of formatting. There’s a world of stuff to go into and this blog post isn’t really going to suffice as an HTML for beginners class, but there’s loads of information out there if you want to get started. There are loads of video tutorials on the internet that could help you put a good webpage together if you want to take it on.

So without doing any fancy coding, you can put up an introduction to yourself, or display a message about files you’ve made available on your webspace. I’ve done something along those lines for you to see just using a .txt file, created in Notepad and saved in the public_html folder, and it will also show you what the web link to your documents is going to look like.

Otherwise, you can stick documents into your public_html folder that you want to share with people, and send them the link so they can access it through a web browser. It’s worth remembering however that people can be rightfully wary about clicking links in emails so make sure that your audience is expecting to receive it, or that the email is reassuringly genuine-looking!

For more information about these personal web spaces, see our FAQ on publishing information online.

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ITS Desks part 2

Information Delivery Manager

The desk of an Information Delivery Manager

I like having a few reference books around and I refer to some of them quite a lot. As I’m often writing copy for websites and publications, Fowler’s Modern Usage is the busiest but I check some of the programming manuals regularly too.

My desk is always littered with various test devices. I’m endlessly checking procedures, websites and apps as part of my job, perhaps in order to write instructions, troubleshoot problems raised by users or just to check that things are working properly.

The colourful spots pinned to the backboard are from the new brand design guidelines. Over the next few months, we’ll gradually be changing all of our printed and digital materials to adopt the new designs, including a slightly different colour palette. I haven’t remembered all of the hex codes and CMYK values yet but maybe I will by the time of the next rebranding.

I use a Mac as my main office computer. I do quite a bit of image manipulation and illustration work and the Mac is best for that. But I also have to try out websites and applications on PCs and so there are a couple of old Dell PCs nestled at the back. These have reached the end of their production life but are still useful for testing.

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A Look at Linux … part 1

blog

Q: What do Amazon, this fridge and the Hadron collider have in common?

 

A: They’re all run on Linux.

 

We all know that one person, right?  That one person who has more computers than they surely need, who says derogatory things about Microsoft as often as possible (and you learnt AGES ago to not even mention Steve Jobs to them…) and they probably hang out with Anonymous every Friday night and write indecipherable things on a black computer screen with green writing.  When someone drops into conversation that they run a Linux machine, you think to yourself “Ahhh, one of them; I won’t possibly understand anything they say about computers” and direct the conversation to The Office/Peep Show/Stewart Lee instead in search of common ground.

However, really, Linux is all around us. It’s not as unusual as you might think. Linux is no longer just the toy of those who, you know, know how to make computers from scraps of metal and cables. Linux dominates the world of supercomputers and is the backbone of many major services that we all use on a daily basis such as Google, Facebook and Twitter.

But what is Linux, where did it come from and what can we do with it?

Officially speaking, Linux isn’t an operating system (it’s what’s called a kernel) but it’s most easily described as one, standing in defiant opposition to Mac OS and Windows. It was developed by a Finnish chap called Linus Torvalds back in 1992 – see where it got its name?

Pronunciation is worthy of a paragraph all to itself, but I’ll stop at just mentioning that a) no-one is really sure how they should say it the first time they do so in knowing company, and go “Hey, do you use Linnux, Lie-nux, Lee…” until they go “Linnux, yeah, why?” and b) there’s actually no official line on this and c) his name gets pronounced Lee-nus, and it’s not generally pronounced Leenux, so d) it’s generally agreed to be Linnux.

So the kernel was created and then let loose; Torvalds intended Linux to be a free and unrestricted basis for developers to work from and have almost total creative license to make of it what they wanted. Let’s put it this way – Torvalds grew up in a radical left-wing household and whilst he doesn’t ascribe to any politics himself, Linux is the computing world’s socialist against Microsoft’s capitalist. Linux has created a community of impassioned developers who work, across the world, to change the way that people can not only access but create the computing world around them.

Line User Interface

Command Line User Interface

If you want to use Linux, you get hold of what’s called a ‘distro’ – and that’s shorthand for distribution, which is in turn some sort of code for something you can use which looks like some manifestation or another of an operating system. Ubuntu you might have heard of, and that’s a distro. It’s often debated, but Android is also really a Linux distro. The distro can have a graphic interface, so it will look like a desktop that you and I regular computer users are accustomed to; you will have icons of things that are clickable, menus, windows and so on. Alternatively, the distro can have a command line user interface, so something that operates via commands typed line by line. That’s an extremely powerful tool for computer users as it gives you huge flexibility with what you can get your computer to do.

That said, the Linux community now often puts the hard work in for us by preempting the things we’d like to be able to do so the average computer user can now, without too much fuss, use a Linux-based computer in the same way as you would a Windows machine, and you’re going to be able to do quite a lot with it very cheaply.

So what can you do with it?

Well, those above-mentioned regular computer users (I should call us RCUs; it sounds good) might be a little reluctant to get on board, but running Linux is not as daunting as it sounds.  Firstly, we’ve all had those laptops which have just ground to a halt, or become really frustratingly slow.  A good thing about Linux is it can run from a CD, so if you can still get your laptop on, you can run Linux and rescue files that might be drowning in the quagmire of a dying laptop.

The next thing you can do is … carry on using the laptop!  Run Linux, use Linux, immediately have a working laptop again.  It’ll look a bit different and won’t be able to do everything the old one can do, possibly, but it will still be able to do a whole lot.  You can download a lot of open source software such as OpenOffice (free software that does much of what Microsoft Office does for you), media players to listen to music and watch movies, web browsers, email clients, PDF readers.  You’re good to go, basically.

If you’re feeling adventurous, or you have more technical knowledge than us RCUs (it might catch on, you know), there’s very almost, nearly, no limits to what can be done with a Linux machine because it provides the blank page – and the big world wide internet harbours the instructions – to create anything from basic to absolutely not basic automated devices.  If you combine the versatility of a Raspberry Pi – something that looks like a tiny computer that went to school without putting its clothes on, and is very, very cheap) and a good Linux distro you have something that you can program to water your garden, feed your pets while you’re away or you know, make your own smart phone.

What do we do with it?

SAGA (GIS software) running on Linux

SAGA (GIS software) running on Linux

We have a lot of Linux users on campus, and here in ITS we have a growing department dedicated to looking after our Linux systems.  Our main users dwell in the realms of maths and physical sciences, so chemistry, physics, life sciences, astronomy and so on.  We’ve also got some Linux users popping up in geography now as they make use of GIS (geographic information systems) to capture and analyze data.

We deploy CentOS v6 as the distro on campus, but some of our more widely used services such as Lecture Capture run on Ubuntu 14.  CentOS is more associated with scientific functions, whereas Ubuntu is a popular distro with a more comfortable user experience, as it’s more straightforward.  (As an aside: we’re considering deploying Ubuntu 14.04 lts on campus more widely, so please contact us if this would be of interest to you…)

Our high performance cluster is run on Linux servers, as is our central database.  Around 80% of all of our servers in our data centre are running Linux which includes our home directory (where your files are stored), the campus directory and our application delivery service, Exceed onDemand.

Linux commonly forms the backbone of IT Services delivery like ours as it’s basically a more customisable way of doing things; we have more scope of control to adjust things to work exactly how we need them to.  Also, by having a Linux server at the back end of things, it means that we’re able to have them work in such a way that they can communicate with Mac, Windows and Linux systems.

What can *I* do with it?

Now that’s a very good question.  In the not too distant future I’ll publish part 2 of this article, in which I detail what happens when an RCU meets Linux and attempts to restore an old laptop to a decent state, and depending on how I get on, I may or may not try and do something interesting with a Raspberry Pi.

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PA55W0rDs ar3 Ch@ng!ng

The wisdom is simple; a strong password is a long password (and more rhyming fun later in the post).  That’s why, from February 24 2016, new ITS passwords created must be ten characters or more.  Currently, Sussex ITS passwords have to be exactly eight characters long but we’ve been trialling ten character passwords and we’ve made sure that all our systems can now accept them.

Passwords still:

  • are case sensitive
  • need to start with a letter
  • need to contain one character which isn’t a letter (a number, a space or any of these accepted characters)

How to make a strong password

It’s long been recommended that a good strong password involves some clever substitutions of letters for non-alphabetical characters and mixing up large and small letters, meaning, for instance that ‘password’ could be come P@55W0rD.  However, with the clever hacking programs that exist out there nowadays (apparently) this sort of password can be, in fact, extremely easily figured out.  Software, for example, could run millions of tests for a password in a second, speeding its way through normal dictionary words and substituting letters for their oft-used non-alphabetic counterparts.

Screen Shot 2016-02-12 at 14.00.58

https://xkcd.com/936/

Now it’s recommended that you use a nice long password of completely unconnected words.  This is much, much harder for hackers’ software to chance upon, and it should be easier to remember.

If you want to give this way of concocting a password a go but you’re struggling to come up with some memorable words, there are a couple of ways to generate some nonsense streams for yourself.  One way is to look at a picture and use the first four words that come to mind.  For more randomness, use Flickr’s interesting images from the last 7 days (randomly selected, high rated images) and use four words that picture inspires.  A nice picture of the Chicago skyline gave me Chicago tall white centre which, according to this handy password strength checker is a “very strong” password with a rating of 92%.  Stick a random number on the end and that goes up to 100%.

Alternatively, someone’s realised that we’re really, really good at remembering rhyming phrases (I bet you can all remember what year Columbus sailed the ocean blue in).  Marjan Ghazvininejad and Kevin Knight are two clever scientists who have worked out that while the above correct horse battery staple idea is good, a 60-bit password is better – simply as software is getting better and better and faster and faster at cracking passwords – but potentially difficult to remember.  Based in the Department of Computer Science and the University of Southern California, they wrote a whole paper on the subject.  Not only that, they made a website that generates a random little poem for you, one which creates a 60-bit password.  And not only that, but it’s helpfully in iambic pentameter – the most memorable rhythm, apparently.  Have a go.

Again, I had a go.  I couldn’t not.  I can’t actually share with you the first poem generated, because it contains such a delightful coupling of words that it has instantly become my go-to password.  Sorry.  But some of the next (yes, you will generate multiple password poems because it’s too fun not to) were good, and, endorsed by afore-used passwordmeter.com, they would make very strong password poems.

SO pleasingly, one of my randomly generated poems went as follows (I added my own punctuation):

Professor, married, celebrates;
Unwanted striding emanates.

I can see the prof in my head – he has tweed trousers and his hands are in his pockets, despite his jubilation.

One pitfall of these poetic passwords is that for some purposes, they’re going to be too long. Some password-box designers will have set the character limit to less than these couplets allow. Never mind; modify. For this case, Prof,Married, alone has a strength score of 97%, so consider a truncated version for variation.

 

Keeping your password safe

I don’t need to tell you this, but don’t use the same password for multiple sites, however tempting it is.  Instead, consider a password manager app like LastPass, KeePass and 1Password.  The idea of having all your passwords behind one master password often rings alarm bells, but on balance it’s much safer than using one password for many different accounts here, there and everywhere.

Don’t let your password manager be your desk drawer or your diary; don’t write your passwords down and store them “somewhere safe.”  We store your passwords very securely; you should too.

If you ever get an email purporting to be from ITS asking you to enter your password, don’t.  We’d never do that.  It’s yours, and we’ll never ask you for it.

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Tweet Tweet

Screen Shot 2016-02-12 at 10.30.36Harness the power of the little blue bird

As I see it, there are two ways to use Twitter at uni. For arguments’ sake, I’m going to name one the student life approach, and the other the academic life approach. That’s because there are probably two ways to see university really, isn’t there?  There’s the one where you go because it’s a rite of passage and it will help get a probably fairly unrelated but fun and lucrative job in, say, advertising. Then there’s the one where you go because it’s a life in academia for you or you’re one of the lucky ones who’ve always known what you’ve wanted to do, and your degree is the next paving stone on that particular path.

Many of the tweets from the former are actually beyond the limits of my understanding due to the, er, swift evolution of English colloquialisms, and I think that’s intended, and that’s fine. For these purposes, I’m going to look at how a good academic focus on Twitter can help you get more out of #unilife.

There’s a lot going on out there on the Twittosphere. There’s a huge amount of academics on Twitter, and the reasons why aren’t in the least bit mysterious.  (Shhhh: academics seem to like to get their point across.  And procrastination isn’t just reserved for undergraduates you know.)  Through the use of hashtags and some crafty wordsmithery, Twitter can connect you with a whole customised, tailor-made world all revolving around your particular academic endeavours. Others who use related hashtags will be sharing relevant articles and other readables, and inevitably getting into discussions.

Screen Shot 2016-02-12 at 10.30.36

Be an excellent academic tweeter

As always, first impressions do, I’m afraid, matter. Twitter has become more and more customisable so take some time over getting your profile looking right, and represent yourself as fully as possible by using a relevant banner image for the top of the page, choosing an appropriate (don’t read this to mean boring) profile photo and consider your short biography carefully. You can now include websites, tags and Twitter handles in these bios, so use this spot to make a statement about your reason for being on Twitter. Are you a #historygeek? Tell them. #WomaninSTEM? Tell them here. If you’re associated with any research groups, add their Twitter handle in your bio or simply show your affiliations by including your School’s handle. Sum up your academic interests as succinctly as possible to help make the most relevant connections, but don’t forget that we’re all human and we have some unrelated interests as well. Likely to throw in some tweets about music/Star Wars/cats/canal boats? Add a hashtag!


And hashtag your life away.
Twitter is the birthplace of the hashtag. They’re often overused, so use sparingly (or, alternatively, hilariously). Hashtags are searchable too, so a search of #theoreticalphysics, #anthropology or #ArtHistory, for example, is going to immediately land you amongst peers. There are several useful hashtags that bring students and academics together. #ECRchat stands for Early Careers Researchers, #PhDChat and #PhDLife do what they say on the tin, and #AcWri is used to identify tweets about academic writing. #studentlife, #unilife and #SAchat (student affairs chat) generally, but not exclusively, identify and collectivise undergraduates, and find other people sharing your pain with #dissertation, #thesis, #finalyear, and so on. Join some academics lamenting the end of the weekend (and talking about more relevant things, presumably) by using #ScholarSunday.

phd hashtags

Hashtags commonly used with #PhD

Talk (tweet) to people!  A lot!  Academics on Twitter are surprisingly responsive, and Twitter gets more and more interesting the more you get into exchanges with people. Talk to people with common interests, regardless of their level of expertise.  They’re likely to respond.  You’ll find you get more followers that way as well, if that’s what you’re after. (Anecdote: I once challenged Ben Goldacre of Bad Science/Bad Pharma fame on a tweet of his about risk, and ended up having a decent discussion with him and gaining 25 new followers.)  Enlarging and strengthening personal and professional networks is only ever a good thing and on Twitter, those networks are just out there for the taking.  You really never know where each connection might take you in the future.  If you’ve read an article and have something good to say about it, see if the author is on Twitter and send them a few nice words.

Eavesdrop on events. If you can’t get to a particular conference, find out its hashtag (clue: it’s probably the initials of the conference and the year it’s taking place in) and follow it while it’s on. Many conferences now have someone responsible for live tweeting during the event, highlighting salient points from speakers’ spiels and delegates themselves take it upon themselves to keep the world up to speed with what’s going on for those lucky few with the conference name tags. (Be warned: you’ll get pictures and full reviews of the free lunches and the evening antics too.)

 

Make some lists. These lists are a bit like those that you might find on IMDB where people (with too much time on their hands) compile a list of their favourite comedy movies, or films that averaged a score of 50 or less on Rotten Tomatoes that were set in a desert in 1969 with a certain actor in. These lists are ultimately more useful for others, so it’s quite a philanthropic thing to do but it does make you look like you know loads. See this chap, for example. He knows loads of sociologists – way more than you know. But now you can know them all too. Hunt some lists out, find 600 new – and relevant – people. Then later, make some lists – probably when you really, really need to write a paper.

 

beyonce

Remember, academics can be funny people too.  Check out #AcademicsSay for proof.  And never fear, of course there are also plenty of cats in this corner of the interwebs; #AcademicsWithCats even gave rise to this year’s inaugural Academics with Cats Awards.

 

 

For more info on how to make best use of Twitter, check out (buy) this eBook written by the University’s very own Dr Catherine Pope: http://thedigitalresearcher.com/new-ebook-making-the-most-of-twitter-a-step-by-step-guide-for-academics/

Oh and, of course, naturally, follow us on Twitter.  Find us by searching @ITServices (or click the handy link).

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Training Courses

flickr photo by Eric Norris shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

flickr photo by Eric Norris shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

Do you wish your Excel skills were just a little bit sharper? Want to make a truly stunning research poster? Or get to grips with Photoshop?

We have a long list of training courses coming up over the next few weeks which are free for staff and students to attend. It’s easy to equip yourself with a full complement of IT skills by booking onto these courses; click the links for more information and a simple booking procedure.

For more information about year-round training opportunities, visit our training pages.

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The demise of Internet Explorer 9 and the rollout of IE 11

Automatic Upgrade for Staff

Ie_11_logo

January 2016 will see Microsoft discontinuing support for its older web browsers, including the widely used Internet Explorer 9. IE 9 was initially released in 2011 and although it has continued to receive updates, Microsoft announced last year that the browser’s lifetime was now running out.

The discontinuation of centralised support for the older browsers means that they will no longer receive essential security updates which are vital for the safe running of the software. Without these updates, the browsers are left extremely vulnerable to hackers and malware attacks.

To avoid these problems, we will be automatically upgrading IE 9 to IE 11 on computers that are still continuing to run it. Although they introduced a new browser, Edge, earlier this year, Internet Explorer 11 will continue to be supported by Microsoft until at least 2023.

Compatibility issues

Whilst the performance of IE 11 has received high praise especially with regards to speed, security and privacy, it is recognised that many websites are not yet ready to function correctly on Internet Explorer 11. In anticipation of users facing these difficulties the new browser features a compatibility mode that allows the use of old websites and web applications in IE 11. If you regularly use a website that isn’t opening as expected in the new browser, you can add it to a list of websites that will always be opened in Compatibility View by adding it to a list under the browser’s Tools menu.

Agresso

The upgrade to Internet Explorer 11 will not result in any loss of critical functionality to Agresso Web Users, however the option to copy and paste report results into Excel (‘Copy to Clipboard’ function) is not available in IE11.  If you need this option please contact the Agresso helpdesk rt-finance-agresso@sussex.ac.uk.

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Hey, do you know what DreamSpark is?

No? Well, I’ll tell you … It’s software and it’s free and it’s for students… mainly for students who like programming and stuff…

dreamsparkBack in 2008, presumably when Microsoft were beginning to feel the heat of the force of Linux and other open source software that allowed budding techies to get developing & programming cheaply or even for free, DreamSpark was released. And on since it has rumbled, but as it fulfils quite a specialist role it’s not that widely advertised or even known of. Primarily geared towards STEM-area students (science, technology, engineering, mathematics), DreamSpark is a scheme subscribed to by the University through which students can download and use a variety of software development tools for free. DreamSpark prides itself on creating an arena whereby students can not only access these tools but use them to develop new technology using the Microsoft platforms, and then find a community to share these with and enter into regular innovation competitions.

The cynics amongst us might think that maybe this is just a ploy by Microsoft to promote the creation of new applications on a Windows platform and thereby keep competitors at bay, but it certainly does seem like a good treasure trove of tools aimed at everyone from proficient programmers to those just taking the first steps towards a technical career…

What’s included …

A suite of tools are available such as:

  • Azure – users can nab a hefty chunk of cloud upon which they can both develop their app and host it on their cloud-based servers, cutting out the hassle and expense of buying and running their own
  • Visual Studio – an integrated development environment which supports many different programming languages. It’s used to develop computer programs, web sites and web-based apps.
  • Xamarin – a C#-based mobile app development tool
  • Github Student Developer Pack – loads of development tools all in one bundle, including affordable domain registration & hosting, 24/27 programming help, cloud hosting, game development tools, tools to add to your website like Stripe payment processing, databases, email … and loads more
  • Robotics Developer Studio 4 – All you need to progam your robots …
  • Kodu Game Lab – A simple program to help to build and design games.

And there’s more (such as SQL server tools, Windows itself, tutorials and certifications, OneNote…) but this is already going on a bit. See the list for yourself in the product catalogue.

Useful tools for newcomers to programming

A BBC Micro Turtle – the original introduction to computer programming
Photo: http://www.classicacorn.freeuk.com/8bit_focus/logo/logo_8.jpg

There’s also stuff there for the motivated newbie: never done any programming before but want to see what it’s all about? Well, if you’re of a certain generation you may well remember the BBC Turtle and you may have remembered that you just about got it to draw a square on the floor by telling it how far to go in one direction before it turned a certain number of degrees and carried on along its journey. If you were clever enough to make it write a rude word, not only did you get to spend the rest of the afternoon with the head teacher but you were also well on your way to becoming a programmer extraordinaire. By downloading Small Basic (BASIC is a computer language, Small Basic is a stripped down version of it) and just going through the accompanying tutorial PDF, you’ll soon find your BBC Turtle-esque programming skills coming right back to you. This software really does help demystify the programming experience for beginners and also provides an interesting playground for the more advanced.

National and global competitions

Imagine Cup 2015.jpg-550x0The Imagine Cup also has something for everyone – it’s a whole network of competitions that at their most basic involve encouraging your average no-experience Joes to get a really simple website up on Azure to nab a monthly prize of $1000. At the other end of the spectrum teams of students compete for an annual, global prize of $50,000 by bringing an idea for software, an app or a website all the way from concept to reality. First, teams compete on a national basis in various categories (Innovation, Global Citizenship and so on) and then winners are invited to Seattle for the World Championship finals.

Proving that it’s not all high-concept tech geekery that reigns over these competitions, this year’s overall winners were a team from Brazil who devised a website for global clothes production, matching individuals with tailors and dressmakers to make clothes to order, so you never struggle with a pair of jeans that don’t *really* fit right. Other winners included an all-girl team from Hungary who devised an app to help you correct your posture, working in line with your phone to make you sit up straight, and a team from Australia who created a “Virtual Dementia Experience” allowing an insight into the world of someone suffering with impaired cognitive abilities. Pretty awesome all round.

If you’re sitting on some ideas, wanting some tools to develop apps as a hobby or a sideline or to kickstart a programming career, DreamSpark really is where you should be headed. Head over to our website for more info… then sign up with a Microsoft account, have a nose around and let us know how you’re making use of DreamSpark.

The eFitFashion team from Brazil, celebrating their $50,000 win
Photo: http://blogs.msdn.com/cfs-filesystemfile.ashx/__key/communityserver-blogs-components-weblogfiles/00-00-01-64-67/5481._5F00_S2_5F00_4827.jpg

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Thanks for your patience …

computer-304585_640 As the weekend rolls in, we’re reflecting on the week here at IT Services. Remarkably, it’s been pretty unremarkable. It’s been a huge relief to see that the systems are getting back to normal after the problems we’ve been experiencing, especially as it’s meant a lot of late nights and weekends in the office for IT staff. We’re glad it’s working better now, mainly so Dave can catch up on Strictly Come Dancing housework after spending far too much time here over the last few weeks, but also because it’s really nasty sitting in here trying to fix things whilst campus life is being disrupted.

We’ve had a series of issues since a planned software upgrade that took place just before the start of term and the makers of the software have been working closely with us to find the problems and to fix them. We also replaced some hardware to make sure that wasn’t compromising the service at all but things really seemed to click back into place after an evening fixing session with the software manufacturers last Friday.

Now that we seem to be operating as business as usual, we’re directing efforts at reviewing the systems we have in place to make sure that we have the best possible infrastructure so that we can make further improvements to the service we offer.

We’re grateful to the students and staff who provided their feedback as often it’s that first tweet or message in the Support inbox that indicates something’s gone wrong, often helping to quickly reveal the scale of the problem. We also aim to keep you adequately informed as to the status of these problems; if you haven’t already, please sign up to receive our Latest News notifications and check the other channels we use to stay in touch with you.

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IT at Sussex; going back a bit…

Can you imagine a campus with no WiFi? A library with no internet, no electronic catalogue, the whereabouts of books signalled only by scribblings on cards and absolutely zero online journals. Not even a photocopier. Imagine no phone app (it’s easy if you try). Imagine no Study Direct, no online timetables, no e-Submissions. Cluster rooms with no, er, computer clusters. No emails from the school office or the hundreds of societies you joined at Freshers’ Fair. Not even an IT username – now that’s stripping a Sussex student of their very identity, surely. But of course, with its red bricks, East Slope, the badgers and the seagulls, Sussex predates all that technology by decades. Being a student or a member of staff here in the 1960s and 1970s would have been a very different experience.

The university, established in 1961, was quick off the mark to develop a computing facility. Initially, it existed to support the administration of the university, logging HR information and dealing with the payroll using information coded onto paper tape. At the outset, whilst the computers themselves only existed in one location on campus, admin staff would create the punched paper tape which would then be taken by porters to the Data and Statistics Office who would enter the information from the paper tape onto the central computer.

flexowriterpapertape

This machine was used to punch holes in paper tape, which would then transfer the information to a computer.

papertape

Paper tape – this means something to something, apparently. Very clever.

paper tape reader

A paper tape reader.

In addition to this work, the computing team also supported basic library functions as well as researchers and academic faculty, mostly scientists and the social scientists who were already using an early version of SPSS in the 1970s. The machines were in one large room; the memory units were the size of wardrobes while the processor was the same size as a van. All this couldn’t even store a megabyte of data, but were still working in kilobytes.

The machine room in 1982  with DEC VAX-11 computers.

The machine room in 1982 with DEC VAX-11 computers.

Until the late 1980s most administrative staff were working on typewriters; older models were replaced by electric “golf ball” typewriters, so named because of the interchangeable “type ball” containing the letters, symbols and numbers in varying fonts (they are strange and beautiful things).

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Each department had a small army of secretaries to deal with the demand of paperwork and communications; “instant” messages were left in the form of memos in pigeonholes, the closest you could get to a quick email about lecture room changes. When computers started to make it into school offices, it was in the form of Ataris, Amstrads and BBCs; it was a long time until any central purchasing system came into play so schools bought their own equipment… and then found that from department to department things were not compatible.

MComp3A

The Arts Computing Unit, which in the mid to late 1980s was located in Arts B, operated a conversion service, using a patch panel to connect different devices which helped somewhat with the incompatibility issues. This unit also offered a printing service before they became office mainstays, when printing was still done on that stripy thin paper with the holes you could tear off down the side. Dot matrix printers were the very noisy standard, a feature that now has become their sole worth – someone clever worked out that the movements of the printer could be manipulated to make “tunes”. You’ve always wanted to hear the Wallace & Gromit theme tune played on a printer, haven’t you? (If these are your new tunes of choice or you just really want to hear a printer play Eye Of The Tiger, then here are some more).

Email began to be used amongst some members of staff in the early 1990s, but it wasn’t until several years later that it became more popular. Students initially had to request to join email and were then granted an email address; they weren’t allocated as standard until the late 1990s.

The university website sprung into a grainy kind of action around 1997; this is what it looked like then:

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Strolling round the archived version of the page, we could see what movies the Gardner Arts Centre (now the Attenborough Centre) back in 1998 – somehow the movies don’t seem as dated as the HMTL. Does technology move at a different speed to popular culture…?!

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In a recent post, I looked at the changes in equipment that students are using. One in four new students registered a tablet on the IT network this September, up from one in eight three years ago and only one in every 600 brought a desktop with them whereas a decade ago that number would have been much greater. With the rate that technology changes year on year, it’s almost impossible to say which of today’s technological staples will look, in three decades’ time, like archaic curios of staggeringly low capabilities.

Which IT item would you miss the most if you were at Sussex in the ’70s?

Historical IT@Sussex bits and pieces

  • Email addresses used to be the other way round, so they’d be whoever@uk.ac.sussex (academic institutions were the first along with the military and government to get use of the internet and email).
  • Professor Dick Grimsdale, a Sussex lecturer and later dean of the School of Applied Sciences in the 1970s, was the first to send a transatlantic email, from the UK to America.
  • The first cluster computers used Windows 3.
  • Windows 3

    Windows 3

Many thanks to Andy Clews and Liz Davis, long-serving ITS colleagues who let me pick their brains for this post.
Photo/Picture locations:
Red Selectric typewriter: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-apZleEHOb94/UsE2I_uLhqI/AAAAAAAAXFU/0sPwWF0bIY4/s1600/us__en_us__ibm100__selectric__selectric_two__839x800.jpg
BBC Micro: http://chrisacorns.computinghistory.org.uk/Pics/MComp3A.jpg
Paper tape: https://www.staff.ncl.ac.uk/roger.broughton/museum/iomedia/pt.htm#pti
Type Balls: http://www.daskeyboard.com/blog/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/IBM_Selectric_Type_Balls.jpg

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