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Information and Communications Technology Strategic Plan, 2005-06 to 2009-10


Integration of Enterprise Activities

Introduction

184. The devolved Oxford ICT structure has many advantages. For it to be effective, however, the various, distributed systems must communicate with each other efficiently and effectively.

185. Interoperability is not, however, primarily a technical matter but rather requires a culture of interoperability within the organisational units which control data or underlying systems.

186. This section makes clear the need for interoperability which cuts across units and across layers in the three-layer model defined in section 3. For interoperability to be achieved (in order that better, more efficient and robust systems can be provided), there needs to be a clear and agreed source for any given item of data together with agreed standards and policies for data interchange, management and interfaces.

187. The establishment of an Architecture Group (see section 6) will ensure the development of an interoperability strategy; the definition of a Service-Oriented Architecture approach to the development of services; and an ongoing remit to monitor existing and planned major ICT projects.

Principles

P17. The development of a culture of interoperability within Oxford is dependent on the development of an Information Strategy which, for example, clearly defines the information available for reuse; ensures processes are in place to guarantee the quality of information; and defines responsibilities with regard to the management and use of information.

P18. Enterprise-wide ICT applications (including shared services) should interoperate, and appropriate coordination structures should be put in place to offer a uniform interface to the user.

P19. The ability to interoperate with other services must be a key requirement for new services.

P20. Software procurement, deployment, and development must be based on analysis of functional requirements, value for money, agreed standards and data interchangeability – where appropriate. Development of new and updated applications should use appropriate project management methodologies.

P21. ICT architecture and standards must be defined, agreed, documented, and regularly updated.

P22. Commitment to a Service-Oriented Architecture (SOA) approach should be considered as the optimum way forward, whereby IT systems are constructed, where possible, from loosely-coupled, interoperable, and reusable ‘services’.

Recommendations

R16. Ensure the integration of enterprise and shared ICT services through the development of an over-arching interoperability policy, including both organisational and technical aspects.

R17. Base the interoperability of enterprise systems on standards agreed via an Architecture Group (part of a new Coordinated Decision Making structure).

R18. Procure or develop enterprise-wide systems based on the functional requirements defined by the user community and value-for-money in the entire deployment life-cycle, together with adherence to appropriate agreed standards, where possible, and availability of sustainable support.

R19. Define a Service-Oriented Architecture approach to the development and provision of ICT which is appropriate to the Oxford ICT Structure and which helps facilitate the funding and development of ICT services in response to local demand and innovation.

R20. Develop supporting structures for the planning and management of ICT projects, including the definition and use of appropriate methodologies.

Interoperability

“We see the provision of wireless technologies, a single sign-on protocol that facilitates access to Weblearn, digital library facilities, financial (e.g. Osiris) systems, administrative (e.g. Isidore) systems, etc., delivered using web technologies as being highly desirable. Delivery of such services using web technologies would be of great benefit, as this would make the whole process, hardware, and operating systems independent. This would be very beneficial for the department and possibly for the whole of the organisation.” (Dept)

188. In an all-pervasive networked environment it is almost impossible, and increasingly undesirable, to define an ICT service by its organisational boundaries. An analysis of the requirements of individual users, units and the organisation as a whole, together with the need to meet statutory requirements, demonstrates that it is now essential to ensure interoperability between distributed systems.

189. Achievement of systems integration is partly a technical matter, requiring systems which can share data without the need to re-enter information. However, critical to achieving this are also changes in Oxford's approach to data ownership, and a much more integrated approach to administrative processes. This integration needs to be both vertical (e.g. from individual departments and sub-departments up through divisional structures and to central administration), and also horizontal (across different departments, across colleges, and between colleges and the university departments). This requires a holistic and integrated approach to administrative processes, and underlines the importance of reviewing those processes at the same time as reviewing ICT systems. Only when users have confidence in both will they be willing and able to trust integrated systems to provide them with accurate data, and thus be willing to relinquish control of purely localised systems which, whatever their shortcomings or restrictions, are viewed as trustworthy and fit for purpose.

190. There is a risk that legacy systems, due to the expense or effort required to change, may become a barrier to strategic change within the institution.

191. Identifying and ensuring conformity with agreed standards,35 wherever possible, is key to ensuring interoperability between systems and for data interchange both within and beyond Oxford.

192. To address the demand for interoperability, changes are required to the way the devolved ICT structure in Oxford is governed, and a new ICT Coordinated Decision Making structure is proposed to meet these requirements, as described in section 6.

193. Other institutions, together with the JISC, are developing a Service-Oriented Architecture36framework for systems integration. This approach, or one based on its principles, has the potential to offer flexibility and agility in the way ICT services are developed and deployed.

194. In order to ensure that cooperation between the services is maximised, it will be necessary to specify and agree an overall architecture and set of interoperation standards, driven by Oxford’s processes and requirements.

Interoperability for Services provided by a Single Provider

195. The key results of integration of ICT services across Oxford will be:

  • non-duplication of data;
  • agreed processes by which data are updated and exchanged;
  • agreed data interchange standards;
  • agreed policies and safeguards to deal with data protection and copyright.

196. This will be the backdrop to an agreed information architecture which recognises the following principles:

  • data are owned by Oxford as a whole;
  • central and local services both need access to enterprise data;
  • subsidiarity principles require local units to have the ability to develop local services using enterprise data;
  • strong information rights management to avoid inappropriate use of data;
  • data must be both carefully checked before entering the system and validated after entry;
  • data must be correctly documented with an agreed understanding of the data semantics.

197. A fundamental requirement for uniformity of data, and for access management to persist across devolved services, is a recognised and accepted means of identity management37 covering all users of the system. Identity management is possibly one of the most complex challenges for interoperability within a devolved ICT environment, but also one of the most crucial since interoperability between systems in other domains is dependent on it.

198. Wherever possible, existing services that underpin the Service Oriented Architecture approach should be used. For example, the emerging Single Sign-On system should be utilised to avoid maintaining disparate authentication and authorisation systems. It is acknowledged that for some services the most effective delivery mechanism will be via reusable Web applications which can be integrated with local online environments.

199. Appropriate user interfaces to data sources must be developed, and integrative technologies should be utilised. Moreover, the changing profile of means of access by University members (e.g. through mobile devices) must be taken into account.

200. The procurement of enterprise software should be based on functional requirements defined by the part of the collegiate University sponsoring the activity, value for money measured across the entire deployment lifecycle, and interoperability with existing and future services.

201. The information architecture and the agreed data standards form important components of an Information Strategy for Oxford. The ICT Strategic Plan provides an excellent platform form which to develop an Information Strategy, and this should be done as soon as possible.

Interoperability to Serve Key Processes

e-Research

202. Research is increasingly dependent on ICT at all stages of the research lifecycle. Tools and resources may be distributed within and across institutions and domains. A significant proportion of research involves distributed, global collaboration, which requires interoperability between institutional, national and international infrastructure to support it.38

203. The development of a Virtual Research Environment (VRE) infrastructure is designed to serve the needs of individual researchers through to globally distributed research teams.39 Research portal interfaces have the potential to offer interoperability between data resources, compute facilities, applications, and research repositories. Interoperability is also essential for the administration and dissemination of research, whether integrating project management and financial systems, or facilitating both the reporting of, and open access to, research outputs with minimal duplication of effort.

204. Interoperability is also key in facilitating the discovery of research in progress and enabling shared projects. The infrastructure to develop and support virtual organizations, the secure sharing of resources, and other forms of collaborative working are becoming essential to research across all disciplines.

205. The Oxford e-Research Centre40 (OeRC), founded in 2006, builds on the success of the previous Oxford e-Science Centre, and operates in close collaboration with both academic divisions and services. It acts as a facilitator for new e-Research projects across Oxford and enables better, different, and faster research capabilities. The OeRC provides a CampusGrid41 for Oxford’s researchers and is a node on the National Grid Service42.

206. A specific goal of the OeRC is to offer a common interface for the user to a spectrum of computational facilities (local machine, CampusGrid, Oxford Supercomputer, National Supercomputer).

207. An Institutional Repository (IR) initiative, currently underway in Oxford, will be a key component within an interoperable VRE. The system on which the IR is being developed conforms with SOA principles, making it easier both to provide repository services for different research communities, and to extend the range of supported data types beyond e-prints and e-theses.

e-Learning

208. e-Learning developments must be targeted at the academic needs of the University to complement the traditional teaching methods at Oxford whilst at the same time exposing academics and students to new opportunities afforded by the technologies. e-Learning methodologies and tools can also facilitate access to tuition and learning resources for students located away from Oxford, whether temporarily or, for example, undertaking a part-time course. (see also ‘Learning and Teaching’ in section 2).

209. e-Learning systems, and the VLE in particular, require adherence to interoperability standards, especially as the monolithic systems of the past are being redeveloped as a series of collaborations between best-of-breed tools. For example, if a better assessment tool emerges it should be simple to swap it with the existing tool. For this to happen requires an architecture based on interoperability standards43. Moreover, e-Learning tools (VLEs, e-portfolios, assessment management, tutorial reporting systems, plagiarism detection) will increasingly need to exchange information with other systems (notably enterprise business systems). The Oxford VLE, for example, is being developed with principles of interoperability paramount, and is adopting a ‘best-of-breed’ approach to particular services within the VLE framework.

210. The Oxford libraries have, perhaps, contributed less to the development of e-Learning in Oxford than is normal for university libraries, despite the fact that they have much to offer in terms of both content and expertise. e-Learning development would benefit from greater integration and interoperability, whether based on a centralized model or federation of distributed e-Learning centres, which would encourage library engagement.

211. A major direction for future development will be electronic delivery of information to the desktop, both within and beyond Oxford. This will require closer integration of services provided by the Library Services and the ICT infrastructure.

e-Administration

212. Increasingly, business systems will be delivered to end users online, as suppliers of commercial systems convert their existing user interfaces to exploit fully the Web technologies now available. In addition, the five-year plan for business systems development includes plans for projects to provide online self-service facilities in some specific areas of functionality:

  • online application service for candidates who apply directly to the University, rather than via UCAS;
  • self-service enrolment, to allow students to register online;
  • e-expenses, to enable staff to claim travel and subsistence expenses online;
  • i-procurement, to increase the efficiency of the purchasing process.

213. In all these areas, it is likely that a pilot project will be undertaken in the first instance, to give the University time to address process and procedural changes which will arise out of these new ways of working, before the functionality is rolled out to a wider audience.

Conclusions

214. Integration of enterprise ICT services is essential. Interoperability is required, and where possible agreed standards should be used. Similarly, interoperability between central and local ICT services is essential.

215. An Architecture Group (see section 6) will be responsible for defining an ICT development architecture for Oxford and maintaining an ongoing role to ensure systems are as interoperable as possible. The success of such activity will require the development of an institutional Information Strategy.

216. An increasingly important theme will be the integration of information delivered by the Library Services with other services within the ICT infrastructure.

217. The structure for Coordinated Decision Making, described in section 6, must encompass e-Research, e-Learning and e-Administration.

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Notes
35.
It is hoped that many of these will be ‘open’, but more importantly they must be ‘agreed’.
36.
SOA is key to refining Oxford’s devolved computing model; a technical appraisal, however, is outside the scope of this document.
37.
‘Developing an Identity Management system for the collegiate University will prove a significant challenge requiring technical assessments, cooperation of senior management, and coordinating across many units in the collegiate University.
38.
“e-Research is about global collaboration in key research areas, and the next generation of infrastructure that will enable it”(Director General of the Research Councils). The previous director of the UK core e-Science programme defined it as: “The invention and exploitation of advanced IT: to generate, curate and analyse research data; to develop and explore models and simulations; to enable dynamic distributed virtual organisations”.
43.
As outlined in the JISC e-Framework, http://www.e-framework.org/.

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Maintained by: OUCS Webmaster (webmaster@rt.oucs.ox.ac.uk) Submitted for consideration by PRAC, March 2007. ICT Strategy Programme Consultation Sub-Group.
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