22 February 2005

MacWorld Conference and Expo 2005

The world’s Number One Macintosh trade show, conference and exhibition.

IT and Media Services Manager was fortunate enough to receive a scholarship from the Apple University Consortium to attend the MacWorld Conference and Expo in San Francisco in January 2005. The Division also contributed to the trip. He attended the PowerTools Conference on AppleScript, the Keynote address from Apple CEO Steve Jobs, the MacIT Conference aimed at IT Managers using Apple technology for clients, servers and management, and the Expo itself.

This is the year of HDV (High Definition Video), or at least according to Steve Jobs. He is putting Apple behind the push, with support for editing the HDV format available in Apple's high-end video editing software Final Cut Pro HD announced last year. At the MacWorld Keynote, Steve announced that the cheaper Final Cut Express video editing software will also support editing HDV video, and incredibly so will iMovie, the 'consumer' video editing package that comes free with every new Macintosh, or can be purchased as a part of Apple's iLife suite of media products which retails in Australia for AU$119 a copy (for the whole suite, which also includes iPhoto, iTunes, IDVD and Garageband).

Steve demonstrated Sony's new "prosumer" HDV camcorder, the HDR-FX1, that is available in Australia to the University for about AU$5,500. He then invited then Sony President and CEO Kunitake Ando onto the stage, where Mr Ando told us that Sony would be releasing even smaller and cheaper consumer HDV cameras onto the market later this year. A professional version of the FX1, the Z1, has also be released: about AU$7,500 to the University.

The Division has 40 computers in student labs capable of editing the new format, but we face challenges with storing the large video files required on the computers (most of the hard disks are just not big enough, and the networks aren't up to transferring the files around even if storage were available somewhere on the network). These issues can be solved, and if the demand is there a proposal to purchase some HDV cameras and to overcome the storage and network problems will be put to the Division's IT & Infrastructure Committee later this year for funding in 2006.

Why HDV? Superb quality at a low price.

Mac Mini
Of greatest interest to the University among Steve's other announcements during the Keynote is the Mac Mini: at well under AU$800 to the University (without keyboard, mouse or display), it is by far the cheapest Macintosh ever. While not suitable for high end tasks (like editing HDV, for example, although the machine is capable of it), as a desktop computer for Office and internet use it's hard to beat the price.

A standard Dell (with keyboard, mouse and display) in the Division's current configuration is priced just under AU$2,000. A similarly configured Mac Mini (with keyboard, mouse and display) would cost us less than AU$1,200: less than 2/3rd the price of the PC.

PowerTools Conference
The two-day PowerTools Conference on AppleScript was useful in exploring using the technology to help manage the various aspects of the video servers. While not all of the components can be controlled through AppleScript, AppleScript can also control unix shell scripts. The Conference showed how a solution can be built through the use of a number of processes integrated together through the AppleScript environment (if only we had the skills, experience and most of all time).

MacIT Conference
Sessions at the MacIT of particular interest included:

  • Macintosh in the enterprise
    What some larger corporations are doing to support the Macintosh.
  • Managing a disparate computing environment
    University experiences in integrating the Macintosh.
  • Using the UNIX shell
    A couple of sessions covering the use of the command line in OS X (useful for automating the video servers).
  • Tiger Server in Depth
    A look at the next release of the Macintosh server software.
  • Xsan
    Apple has just released Xsan: Storage Area Network technology allowing networked computers fast access to large central storage (particularly useful for video editing labs).
  • Shell scripting
    Automating the management of recurring activities required to keep services running on Macinsh servers.
  • Remote Desktop
    Apple software for managing users' computers at a distance.
  • K2 (formerly known as KeyServer)
    Software asset management (making sure the software we install and use is legal) is a challenge for the University: K2 (an upgrade to a product the University already owns) can solve the problem for us for PCs and Macintosh computers.

Expo: the Show Floor
While not as large a previous MacWorld Expos in San Francisco (all trade fairs in the US are apparently down post 9/11), there was a positive feel on the floor of the Expo. The Mac Mini and iPod Shuffle (a merging of the iPod and USB key technologies at a bargain price) were the stars of the show.

There were a lot of iPod third party product exhibitors on the floor, which sometimes made the show fell a bit like iPod World rather than MacWorld, but it did demonstrate what a success the iPod has been for Apple. One particularly interesting piece of software for the iPod is iLingo: a language translator for the iPod. The English Euro pack contains over 450 translations from English in each of French, German, Spanish and Italian. Designed more as a companion for travellers, iLingo allows the user to display translations written on the iPod screen, and play a native speaker speaking the phrase out load in the chosen language. The content is intuitively organised into categories that make it simple to find the necessary phrase quickly and easily.

It was also good to be able to catch up with the latest from vendors like:

  • El Gato (makers of the EyeTV hardware and software that forms the basis of the current live video streaming of local terrestrial television content around the University network)
  • FileMaker (version 7 of FileMaker Pro has now been released that has great support for internet access to data: something there is a need for in the Division).
  • Belkin, Kensington, Dr Bott and Griffin (all producers of a range of third-party products that provide additional functionality to the Macintosh, especially in video and audio capture, storage and peripherals).
  • Printer manufacturers with good Macintosh support, including Canon, HP, Epson, Xerox and Brother.
  • Camera producers Kodak, Nikon, Olympus and Canon, for digital still and movie camera, and scanners.
  • Large software vendors including Macromedia, Adobe and Microsoft.
  • Publishers O'Reilly and Peachpit Press
  • Sorenson Media (producers of the software used here to prepare video for on-demand streaming).

Reticulated television and radio services

At last! RF services are now available...

As a part of the National Institute of Language Learning (NILL) infrastructure funding, the Division has finally installed a satellite reception and reticulation system in the School of Languages and International Education. Staff in the School are able to receive a number of services through aerial connections in their offices, and all the computers in the ILTC and 9B27 have been hooked up to the system.

In addition to free-to-air foreign language services, some other international services are included, and the local free-to-air television services are also included. There are also a number of local and international radio services available. Spare channels are being added as they can be tuned.

A list of the services currently available will be maintained at http://www.ce.canberra.edu.au/tsu/tv.htm.


Spam (unsolicited email) continues to be a problem for the Division (and the University, and indeed the entire online world), particularly the unsavoury varieties that seems to be on the increase.

To combat some of the recent increase in spam, personal comedu accounts are due to be closed by the end of this month, so the majority of the spam currently coming in should be curtailed. However there has been an increase in the amount of spam getting through the University’s existing filtering system.

ICT Services is adding some additional filtering to the email system to at least in the first instance identify those emails that are still getting through. As ICT Services tunes the system, email may begin to arrive in users’ in boxes with **POTENTIAL SPAM** added to the original subject in the subject line.

Users can set up rules on their email clients to divert messages with **POTENTIAL SPAM** in the subject line to a separate folder or directory, and examine these emails to see if indeed they are spam. If the messages marked as **POTENTIAL SPAM** are indeed legitimate emails (called “false positives” in the jargon), staff should advise the Building 10 Helpdesk that the system has marked a legitimate email incorrectly as spam so that they can further fine-tune the process.

Printer Toner Cartridges

A change in the way printer toner cartridges are managed in the Division is under discussion.

Recently there have been suggestions that spare toner cartridges be issued to staff around the Division so that printers running low on toner can be replaced in a more timely manner. The TSU feels this would be a backward step for the Division in looking after the printers to ensure the Division gets the most efficient use from this significant resource.

There are 44 printers in the Division looked after by the TSU. To provide a spare toner cartridge for each printer would cost around $6,500 (at our bulk buying discount price). Some printers go through more than one cartridge a month at peak periods, although over the year the bigger printers go through an average of just under 5 cartridges per year. Last year the Division spent over $15,000 on toner cartridges to print 950,000 impressions on these printers.

Experience has shown us that the printers indicate that the toner is low when there is still 20% of the toner available. If the cartridges were replaced with 20% of their capacity still available, it would cost the Division an additional $4,000 per year in toner.

Training non-technical staff in servicing the printers would be a significant and on-going task (with the mobility of the administration staff in the Division).

The Technical Services Unit staff have discussed the support of printers and will try to ensure that when a printer really does run out of toner it is replenished as soon as possible. In the meantime staff can print to alternative printers or to Multifunction devices anywhere in the Division if work is critical. To set up alternative printers staff should email a request to the comedu helpdesk.

DCENAS Instability

Network storage has been unreliable lately.

The Division's network storage device, DCENAS, has been unstable for the last few weeks. It failed entirely on Friday 18 February 2005 and following recovery there appears to be an underlying hardware fault that Dell is attempting to rectify. Analysis of the problem with DCENAS has been made more difficult due to recent episodes of network instability and virus attacks.

Helpdesk Statistics

Some interesting and possibly useful statistics on the activities of the Division’s Helpdesk.

The Technical Services Unit HelpDesk tracks jobs, those that can't be dealt with summarily, using a Web-based tracking system. Requests for support come in a number of forms: email, phone and personal contact. From the table below, it can be seen for example that in May 2004 the cehelpdesk email account received almost 450 emails but there were less than 150 jobs added to the system. No statistics are kept on the number of phone calls for assistance received by helpdesk staff, nor personal requests, unless they are added to the system.

The following statistics are therefore incomplete and based on only those jobs that required managed planning and tracking to resolve.

Note that the Feb 2005 figures are not complete: the statistics for February 2005 were gathered on 21 February 2005 in the morning and except for emails the figures already exceed those of a year ago (including the number of outstanding jobs).

While by no means complete these figures demonstrate the yearly cyclical nature of the demand for TSU support: with the period around the beginning of Semester 1 the period of greatest demand. Demand tends to drop off during breaks, and taper off over the year.

The graph should not be taken as an indicator of TSU activity: break times are the busiest period for the TSU for jobs like clearing out older facilities, installing new laboratories, rolling out software and hardware updates and other activities that aren’t reflected in the helpdesk statistics (the helpdesk statistics are just the jobs other people want the TSU to do).

Response times
Last year (2004) the comedu helpdesk system recorded 1,243 jobs. Of the jobs completed (98.8%), the mean time to complete was 10.2 (calendar) days, the median less than 5 days, and the mode 1 day. 17.5% of jobs were completed in a day or less, 36% in less than 2 days, and 68% in less than a week.

Problems raised via the helpdesk
The following chart shows the breakdown of requests by category over the past four years. Further analysis of the data show trends down in the proportion of support requests for Printing, Email, Software, Systems, Hardware and Development, and up in Media, Assets, and unfortunately Other (indicating that a better categorisation of requests is needed, or that the helpdesk is doing new and different things compared with when the tracking software was first developed in 2000). ‘Other’ requests have more than doubled from 11% of requests in 2001 to 22% in 2004.

The helpdesk support application has not been used to report statistics before, and was not developed or managed with a view to reporting data in the form above. There have been no reporting metrics proposed or agreed, so these statistics should be considered with that in mind.

Three years ago the Division had around 400 computers listed in the Asset Register. That figure today is around 800, although it includes a number of machines waiting to be written off. 548 computers have been purchased from IT Loan funds since 2001 (others have been bought from Research and Consultancy funds), and best estimates put around 681 computers currently in active use in the Division (including servers, desktops, portables and lab computers). It is difficult to be accurate about the numbers since they change constantly as computers are upgraded and new ones commissioned. Old computers never seem to die: there is always someone with a use for a recently retired computer it seems. The AUVA computers are not being returned to service on desktops because of the failure rate among hard drives and power supplies, but even some of these have been pressed back into service to give some Macintosh users better access to Callista.

Overall the trend is for more computers, but with the same number of permanent Technical Service Unit staff positions supporting them. While there is a constant search for more efficient ways to manage the installed based of hardware, and casual staff are being employed to ease the load at busy times, the increasing load is having an impact on the service that can be provided.

Development support
The TSU does not have the developer expertise to help the Division to fully exploit the resources available to it as a result of the National Institute of Language Learning (NILL) infrastructure grant, in particular the Video on Demand (VoD) server and associated off-air live streaming, recording, and streaming on demand capability.

While all of this is possible to do manually, it would be much more efficient to automate the process of taking requests for recordings, transcoding recorded programs and preparing them for on-demand streaming (including generating the code to be inserted in WebCT pages), and moving the media files to the correct place on the server.

All the hardware is now available to deliver the solution, which can be automated if we had the expertise and the time to do it as it was first intended. A proposal for funding some contracted support to help the Division realise the potential of the VoD server is being prepared.

Virus activity

PCs on campus under attack yet again

Several new variants of the MyDoom worm infected campus PCs on Thursday 17 February 2005 and the following days. The emails containing the malicious code as an attachment were particularly sophisticated and managed to fool a number of people around the campus into opening the attachments, infecting their PC and spreading the infection.

It took a few hours for the anti virus vendor used by the campus to provide an updated signature file for the eTrust antivirus software used to protect PCs here, so campus PCs were vulnerable until eTrust could strip the malicious code from the offending emails. With the variations of the original worm coming out over successive days, new signature files were being issued daily by the vendors in an attempt to keep up.

Staff (and students) need to be more vigilant about emails and seek reassurance from colleagues or the helpdesk before opening attachments to ANY uninvited emails.

There was no impact on Macintosh users, except having to deal with the slowdown of the campus email servers under the burden of the worm, and receipt of many emails with the malicious code attached. The comedu helpdesk staff lost a day or two dealing with the impact of the attack at the helpdesk's busiest time of the year.

Videoconferencing facilities

What’s happening with Videoconferencing in the Division?

Several years ago the University installed two industry-standard professional video conferencing suites based on the H.323 standard for videoconferencing. The Division's Executive held one of its meeting in the facility as an orientation on 30 May 2003.

One of the facilities was incorporated by the Court of the Future project in BLIS. The other does not appear to be in use, and there seems to be no-one who is prepared to claim management of the use of the facility (it appears ICT Services is responsible for technical support).

In late October 2004 I received a request from China asking for support for some testing of the videoconferencing link between Hungzhou Normal University and UC. Hungzhaou had installed a system based on UC's installation, and were keen to test out the link between the institutions. Despite a number of discussions about the service the link has apparently not yet been tested successfully.

One of the investments the Division made with the National Institute of Language Learning (NILL) infrastructure grant money was to purchase a one-year licence to Marratech eMeeting software: allowing participants from all over the world to join a video, audio, whiteboard, text and documents chat session, if they have the camera, microphone and broadband capacity to join in (the user software is free), using just a desktop computer.

With all the other work on at the moment though the server for this is yet to be commissioned.

[update 9 May 2005] BLIS has stepped in and supported the Division's videoconferencing with Hungzhaou, successfully connecting to the Chinese facility using the H.323 standard over ISDN. With BLIS' continued support, the use of the technology for teaching internationally can be more thoroughly explored.

Network issues

Increasing pressures stress the University’s IP network.

The experimental multicasting of live-to-air television services around the University's computer network has highlighted shortcomings in the network. Over summer there were a few issues raised by the University's Network Manager relating to "the more simple minded devices on the campus network, eg building management controllers, CarDAX controllers, some printers, in that they get flooded and hence DOSed by the stream", but by and large the system operated effectively multicasting all five local terrestrial television services around the network throughout the summer at full digital quality. The University Network Manager is supportive of the project because it tests the network and demonstrates shortcomings that should be fixed.

With the increase in network activity as more and more people return to work after the summer break, more issues are arising (especially with the use of the network to upgrade computers for the new semester) that from time to time interrupt normal use of the network.

The network SHOULD be capable of dealing with the traffic generated by the live streaming services, but some legacy, feral or badly-designed systems interfere with the wider network causing slow-downs and sometimes outright failure. These are underlying issues that have troubled us in the past and that are just being highlighted by the streaming television services. The issues need to fixed whether or not the television services continue: it is in fact our intention to add at least ten satellite services to the current five terrestrial services, for a total of fifteen or more services multicasting simultaneously around the network, potentially increasing the current activity three-fold. Once on-demand streaming is added, should the on-demand streaming be popular the additional network traffic will test the network further.

At this stage the multicasting will continue, but there may be pressure to scale back or cease the streaming to relieve the network. The Division should resist such pressure, insisting instead that the network issues be identified and corrected.