14 September 2004

Acronym soup: SOE and COE

A University project to come up with a more manageable system of providing a stable computing environment is underway.

SOE stands for Standard Operating Environment: a specification for a standard architecture, system software and set of applications to be used on computers throughout an organisation. On the other hand a COE is a Common Operating Environment, which as well as specifying a common IT architecture within an organisation also stresses interoperability and cross-platform capabilities among an organisation's computers and sometimes other devices like organisers, pocket PCs, mobile phones, and so on. Under a COE all the devices in an organisation would run the same software and use the same interfaces so that information is presented consistently throughout the organisation. ICT Services felt that SOE was too prescriptive a term (suggesting an identical outcome for all which was not the intention), so has decided to refer in future to COE.

The COE group in ICT Services has been established to develop and maintain images to set up different groups of computers around the University (for example staff PC and Macintosh desktop computers; student PC and Macintosh lab computers). An image is a complete copy of all the files on a hard disk: when an image containing an operating system is applied to a hard disk, the computer containing the hard disk becomes as exact copy of the computer from which the image was made. Together with other management strategies, the use of images makes it possible to deploy and look after a number of computers much more effectively.

An image is created first by setting up a master computer with all the system software, settings, patches, drivers applications and so on required by the organization. This environment on the master computer has to be checked to see, for example, that it actually works properly, that all the software is licensed, that there are no conflicts between the various applications and drivers, and that it works on the University network. Once a stable functioning environment is achieved, the same environment must then be checked across the whole range of systems it is intended to be deployed to: unless all the computers are exactly identical (same make and model number, identical memory, hard disk [type and capacity], monitor, peripherals, firmware, etc), it is impossible to say that the environment will work across all the computers without testing them first. Often for example several alternative drivers have to be included in the environment to cover a range of different hardware configurations used. Only after the environment has been certified to work on its intended hardware can a final image be made and applied to the target computers.

In the past the process of developing a base image that works has taken between six weeks and three months: and it has to be redone (not necessarily from scratch) each time there is a variation to the environment. There are often conflicts between existing applications and new ones: if these can't be resolved the existing application is usually retained and the new ones refused. Often different end users request alternative applications that do the same job (like web browsers, for example), but when tested the applications don't work together properly: if both are included in the final image it means that some configuration needs to be done manually once the image is applied to an end user's machine (somewhat defeating the purpose of creating the images in the first place). Over the past three years at least it has not been possible to include all the functionality requested by end users due to hard disk capacity alone: the resultant image has been too large to fit on older machines like those in Category A teaching spaces.

The COE group will build on less formal arrangements that have been in place for a number of years around the campus, whereby the computer centre, in consultation with the Academic Divisions, has developed some base images that the Academic Divisions then take and modify to suit their local needs. Sometimes these modifications have created difficulties, for example for staff and students trying to access network storage from computers managed by different Divisions. The COE group will work actively with representatives of the Academic Divisions to develop images at suit everyone as much as possible and try to ensure interoperability across Divisions where required.

Two TSU members are currently working with ICT Services to ensure the needs of the Division are communicated to the COE group and our requirements are met.