Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Wile E. Wireless

Wile E CoyoteThe State Press recently released the article "Official: ASU wireless network open to hackers" in its October 9, 2009 edition. The article makes some good points on the importance of knowing how to protect yourself and your personal information online but may lead readers to believe that ASU's wireless network isn't safe to use. I'd like to re-assure the ASU community that every precaution is taken to ensure the safety of users on ASU's wireless network.

ASU's wireless network allows students, faculty and staff to connect to the Internet, My ASU, Blackboard and other ASU resources from anywhere, anytime. Because ASU's wireless network doesn't require a password, it is considered "unsecure," but this is no different than any other public Wi-Fi spot like your favorite coffee shop or cafe.

In general, wireless networks are typically less secure than wired networks, so there are precautions users should take with any wireless connection, even in one's home.

There will always be a Wile E. Coyote looking for a way to outfox users online, and this is true at just about any Wi-Fi location. The important thing to remember is that instead of getting scared, you simply need to use wireless networks safely while keeping your best interests in mind, which means knowing when and where to access personal information online and knowing how to avoid common trickery like phishing and email scams.

For more on information security at ASU, visit

As always, your comments and suggestions are welcome.


Thursday, May 14, 2009

My wiki would rather play shuffleboard.

shuffleboard.gifASU has outgrown its current blog and wiki service, the one we started as a beta back in February 2006. That's close to age 65 in blog and wiki years.

Although many students and faculty members have used this service successfully over the past three years, we're finding it hard to keep up with superior external services like Blogger, Twitter and Google Sites.

These newer services offer improved editing tools, more intuitive interfaces, customizable templates, enhanced multimedia features, upgraded commenting and collaboration features, better group blogging controls, and the ability to post to your blog from your mobile device.

So rather than spend money while continuing to fall farther behind, we're considering retiring ASU's blog and wiki service due to the small number of users and the existence of good, free alternatives like the ones listed above.

I'd like to hear your thoughts and notions about this possibility.

Would it inconvenience you if ASU discontinued this particular service?

How important is it for you to preserve the contents of your existing ASU blog or wiki? Would you be willing to migrate the content yourself into a new blog or wiki if we could show you how, or would you want ASU to do it for you?

How important is it to you that ASU provide blog and wiki services directly or would external services like Blogger or Google Sites be sufficient for your uses?

Please email me with your comments at or post them below.


Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Please Welcome ASU's Newest Freshman to Campus: the Kindle

kindle.jpgFor most college students, it's almost a rite-of-passage to spend big bucks at the bookstore. But with advancements in online publishing, digital textbooks are no longer out of the question. Not only are they cost effective, they're convenient, searchable, environmentally friendly, and may even incorporate rich media, giving students the ability to both read about a subject and maybe watch a video about it too.

And yet, even with all their advantages, traditional paper-based books still rule at universities around the country. What gives? Well, in my view, it's a complicated interaction between publishers, faculty, and students all caught in a 20th century business model that's yet to give way.

But all that may be changing, and soon.

Beginning in Fall 2009, ASU is partnering with Amazon to try out the Kindle DX, Amazon's latest digital reading device, to replace traditional textbooks in the classroom. Selected classes  of students will begin using the Kindle instead of paper books, and we'll be comparing how they fare relative to their paper book wielding counterparts.

For example, thanks to a proposal from Dr. Ted Humphrey, President’s Professor in ASU's Barrett Honors College, a group of students enrolled in this fall's Human Event course will receive their textbooks not as bound books but on a brand new Kindle DX instead. The Human Event is a two-semester course required of all Barrett students that covers a wide range of material from about 50 different sources.

ASU is actively working with Amazon to find those courses of study for which the Kindle is a good alternative to traditional texts. In those areas, Kindle delivered e-books would provide students with a significant cost savings and provide them with an additional flexible learning tool. In addition to cutting textbook costs and reducing the weight in students' backpacks, digital textbooks are available for download wirelessly and reduce the amount of paper used to print and distribute textbooks.

Electronic texts provide the capabilities that today's students have come to expect--they're searchable, flexible, easy to annotate, and less expensive than traditional texts. I'm pumped to work with Amazon and to see how the Kindle can help the University accelerate the adoption of electronic textbooks into a variety of courses.

ASU is one of five universities participating with Amazon in the Kindle pilot. The others are Princeton University, Case Western Reserve University, Reed College, and Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia.

As always, your thoughts, notions, questions and comments are welcome.


Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Technology as a Sixth Sense

minority-report.jpgImagine picking up your favorite cereal brand at your local grocer and projecting information about that cereal onto the box - information like what kind of impact the cereal has on the environment, where it was made, etc.

Pattie Maes and Pranav Mistry of MIT are making this possible through the use of what they call the Sixth Sense, technology that connects the world to the Internet and delivers information to you about the things you're interested in.

The Sixth Sense (via a camera and mini-projector slung around your neck) recognizes objects around you, then projects information about that object onto any surface - your hand, that cereal box I mentioned earlier, your best friend's white t-shirt. Finger sensors allow you to control and access this information in a way that is most desirable to you.

They did a great presentation on it at TED. You really have to see it to believe it.

Not sure what time it is? Trace a circle on your wrist for an instant watch. Want to take a photo? Frame the image with your hands and the Sixth Sense will snap a pic. On your way to the airport? Take a look at your boarding pass for real time flight info.

Just when you think we're out of ideas, the exponential future pokes its head out...


Thursday, March 26, 2009

Confiker Worm Warning

computer_worm.jpgWanted to make everyone aware of the Confiker (or Downadup) virus that's rumored to strike on April 1st. The Confiker worm disables Windows security features and can compromise an infected computer so that it can be used to attack others. The virus can gather personal and other forms of information as well.

To protect your personal and home machines:

  • Ensure virus protection and all security patches for Microsoft are up-to-date on your machine. Turn on your Windows firewall or download one such as Comodo

  • Run a malware scanning tool (such as Malwarebytes or Spybot Search and Destroy ) on your system.

  • If you have a current non-supported Microsoft Operating system (such as a trial period OS) and/or virus protection product, please purchase supported versions.

  • Members of the ASU community can visit MyApps for free anti-virus software (VirusScan).

To read more about this virus, visit ASU's Get Protected site or this article posted on CNET News.


Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Communicating System Outages

outage-notification-name-tag.jpgIn my last post I promised I'd tell you about the new mechanisms ASU is putting into place to improve the University's ability to notify the community of disruption in service.

If our mail is any indicator, these kinds of notifications are important to you. When systems are going to be changed or we have outages planned, you tell us you like to know well in advance. When we experience unplanned outages, you tell us that you want to know what's wrong and when it'll be fixed.

We've done some things already -- our System Health page is well visited and moved us forward in terms of keeping you informed about planned outages. The emergency notices we put on My ASU have helped a lot of you know when systems are out and when we can expect them back.

But they don't always work. Sometimes when we have extreme outages, like say the Internet is unavailable or power is lost to the data center, we can't get to System Health and My ASU to update them, and even if we could, sometimes you can't get to them to find out what's going on.

So this month, right after St. Patrick's Day, we're releasing a set of new improvements that we hope will make you better informed in the event of an emergency.

First, System Health is being moved off-site. We're moving it to our Denver facility to improve its availability in those times when major portions of our infrastructure are unavailable.

Second, we're expanding our outage notifications. In addition to announcing outage information on System Health, all unplanned outages will also be announced through a notification group associated with our new ASU Alert service provided by e2Campus. This new service will allow members of the ASU community to receive a text message and/or email message whenever System Health turns red. We are pre-subscribing members of the mailing list to this service, but if you are not already subscribed, you can self-subscribe to ASU Alert. Click here for complete instructions on signing up.

Third, all planned outages and system changes will be announced through UTO's new Change Management System. For authorized users, the Change Management System provides a complete history of proposed and implemented changes. Our system was designed by the Communications Subcommittee of the UTC. Again, if you are already a member of the list, you will be pre-subscribed to the system. If you are not a member and wish to subscribe, please send a note to

We're continuing to work on reliability and we hope not to have to use these notification systems as often as we have of late. But we know that when we do have a system disruption, you want to know as much information as you can about what's wrong and when we'll be back online. We're hoping these changes we're making will help with that.

As always, your comments and suggestions are welcome, particularly the constructive ones.


Thursday, March 05, 2009

System Outages Explained

unreliable.jpg If you've been at ASU this semester, you've probably been inconvenienced by one of the five major system outages we've experienced so far this term. And as you might imagine, I've received more than a few emails from concerned members of the ASU Community expressing their frustration with being unable to access Blackboard, or My ASU or the various other services that have been affected in the past several weeks.

For example:

I am writing as an ASU graduate student, enrolled in an online 8-week, 3-hour graduate course this semester. The repeated system outages, including the one this morning -- unable to get into Blackboard ... AGAIN ... unable to get into "System Health" to find out what's going on and how long it will take to correct -- has left me frustrated beyond words.

Or this one from an ASU professor:
This week, for the second time this semester, we have had large numbers of students unable to log in to Blackboard in order to take their weekly quiz. The problems seem to have been intermittent, but at a rough guess I would say that about 20 percent of the class has been affected.

I'd like everyone at ASU to know that here at the UTO, we all understand the frustration and lack of productivity that these outages cost and on behalf of myself and our team I apologize for the poor system performance we've had this term. This is not the level of service that you have come to expect from ASU and none of us are satisfied with our performance so far this term.

Given how central information technology is to the life of the University, we know that anything short of 100% uptime has become unacceptable. Our team works hard towards that goal, and we treat every system outage as a critical event. So we feel very keenly the amount of disruption that recent system instability has caused this term and we're committed to correcting it.

Since January 1st, we've had five major incidents:

  • Incident 1: On the afternoon of January 21/22, DARS degree audits and course catalog searches were unusually and inconveniently slow.

  • Incident 2: From the evening of Feb. 1st to the morning of Feb 3rd, Internet access from ASU was unreliable.

  • Incident 3: On February 5th, wireless access in a portion of the Tempe campus was unavailable. There was also a one hour interruption to My ASU and Citrix.

  • Incident 4: For two hours on the morning of February 16th, Internet access from ASU was unreliable.

  • Incident 5: On February 25th, many of ASU's Web services were inaccessible for most of the day.

To a user experiencing these issues -- even one who regularly visits our System Health site for updates and information -- it must seem that all these outages must arise from some common cause. Our graduate student writes:
What's even more troubling is that no one can explain what the problem is, or why it continues to happen, or what the plan is to get the University beyond this. Additionally, there's been no communication on Blackboard or via email to students with any information.

While the professor understands that people are working hard, but makes it clear that we can't confuse effort with results:
I have generally found your staff to be knowledgeable and hardworking, so I am sure that this down time has been hard on them. I have no idea what the technical problems are behind these time out and login errors. But these issues really do create havoc in this kind of course and make it impossible to keep to the weekly class schedule.

As tempting as it is to think all these incidents are manifestations of the same thing, each of the 5 incidents we've experienced this term has arisen from a different proximate cause:

  • Incident 1 arose from an unusually large demand for DARS and Catalog services, a demand far greater than in prior terms.

  • Incident 2 was caused by a latent defect in our border firewall, which a rogue server exploited successfully overloaded the ASU network. Working with CISCO engineers, our team worked around the clock to identify and successfully correct the problem, but only after many hours of interruption.

  • Incident 3 was the result of a flood in BAC.

  • Incident 4 was caused by a mistake made by ASU's Internet service provider that affected all of its clients.

  • Incident 5 was caused by a failure in the UPS backup system that protects the systems in the University data centers in the event of power outages. The resulting hard reset of the systems in the data center made service restoration complex -- it took more than 8 hours to rebuild the systems and restore services.

But even if each incident has a separate technical cause, surely all of them are evidence of incompetence? With all these problems, surely its a sign that the people running these systems don't know what they are about?

It's certainly a sentiment that more than one writer has communicated as an outgrowth of their frustration. And it's understandable. But understandable or not, it isn't true.

Having witnessed first hand the level of dedication shown by the ASU technical professionals who design and maintain our systems and who scramble out of bed in the middle of the night or spend their weekends responding to the equipment failures, power outages, floods, denial of service attacks and hundreds of other failure modes that information systems are heir to, one thing I can assure is that at ASU we don't lack for competent, dedicated, hard-working people committed to providing the information services the University requires.

Unfortunately, despite the dedication and skill of our systems people, to quote the t-shirt, "Stuff Happens." And when it happens, we are either in position with redundant equipment and services that allow us to recover without interruption -- or, if not, we have to rely on people to put the pieces back together again. While our investments in redundant equipment, our 24x7 monitoring, and the expertise and diligence of the ASU staff that oversee our systems successfully protect us from many different sources of outage, we remain vulnerable to system failures along many dimensions.

Over the long run, our overall systems performance is between 2 and 3 "nines." That means they are available a little more than 99% of the time. Sounds pretty good until you realize that 1% of a year is 87 hours. And that doesn't count planned outage windows. Include those and the number of off-line hours gets even worse. 90 hours a year may not seem like much, but if one of those hours is when you have a class that needs to take a quiz on Blackboard, its completely unacceptable.

So what does it take to achieve higher levels of reliability? What do we have to do to move our systems from 2 "nines" to 5?

The answer, unfortunately, lies in additional investments, which is not what anyone wants to hear during the present economic situation. ASU's primary data centers are more than 25 years old, and while they have served the University well, they were built for a day when IT was a luxury, not a necessity. We've helped the situation over the years, with some strategic investments and by working with strategic partners like Google and CedarCrestone. Because data services are our partners' core business and they operate at scales much greater than ours, they've helped us increase our levels of reliability. We've also migrated some of the services we run ourselves from our older data centers to some of ASU's newer facilities. But in doing so we've had to be conservative in our spending, moving gradually over time as hardware ages, to consolidate servers and storage and simplify their delivery.

And up until this term, we'd been pretty lucky. Term over term, our reliability was increasing. But clearly, this term, our lucky streak has run out.

I want you to know we're doing more than waiting for our luck to change.

The president has challenged UTO to quickly put a plan together to get us a couple more "nines" of reliability. We are hard at work on that plan now. It will suggest accelerating migration out of the oldest data centers, moving additional services to strategic partners, improving power redundancy and backup. And obviously, it will be constrained by the realities of our fiscal situation. But I'm confident we will get the support we need to make things better for our community.

In my next post, I'll tell you about some systems we're going to release this month to improve our ability to communicate with you during those times when the information systems are having trouble. We've learned a lot from our recent history and I think we have a good plan to make things better.

As always, we're interested in your comments on these issues, and any others. At the UTO, we're committed to overcoming these recent issues and steadily improving system reliability. We're sincerely sorry for the inconvenience when things don't work right.

Thanks for your patience. We don't take it for granted.


Monday, January 26, 2009

Raving Fans...Six Months In

perceptis-logo.jpgAccording to Ken Blanchard, the way to measure whether your service is any good or not is to find out how many raving fans you have.  The more raving fans, the better the service.

When I announced to the UTO team at the beginning of this year that our goal was to build raving fans for technology services here at ASU, I told them we were halfway done.  We'd managed to get everyone raving, now we just had to make them fans.

Getting raving fans for technology services anywhere is a tall order.  And getting them right after an ERP implementation is a taller order still.  So when we set out to improve ASU's technology services, it seemed like an almost insurmountable task, and we still have an awfully long way to go.

But we've taken a lot of steps and a large group of people is working very hard to get us there.  Along the way, we made some customers pretty happy.

In August 2007, ASU partnered with the Cleveland-based firm PerceptIS to further advance its level of customer service and support to the ASU Community via the ASU Help Desk. Thanks to efforts led by Russ Seiter of PerceptIS and Sarah Hughes and Mary Covington of ASU, the ASU Help Desk is now available on a 24x7 basis and offers easy-to-find, reliable assistance to anyone affiliated with the University.  Russ, Sarah, and Mary worked together to bring industry best practices to ASU while defining new standards and procedures to better meet ASU's growing size and service demands.

An average of 500 cases are handled each day through the ASU Help Desk, with an average time to speak to a call center agent at less than sixty seconds.  Additional services including a call back feature; online chat; and a desktop remote agent, which allows Help Desk personnel to directly manage a caller's machine to both teach users & resolve problems simultaneously, have been added to make finding and receiving technical assistance even easier.

The ASU Help Desk currently serves all four campuses including the ASU Human Resources department.

For the Fall '08 term, the Help Desk successfully resolved cases 93% of the time, with the most common calls concerning password resets, phone number requests, and accessing Blackboard classes. Customers are also asked to take a satisfaction survey at the completion of problem calls when a ticket has been submitted, providing valuable information that the Help Desk uses to continuously enhance performance.

Here's what customers are saying:

A heartfelt thank you to all UTO staff, whose customer oriented skills made the request process pleasant and enjoyable. The knowledge and courtesy demonstrated for all the staff is notorious and very appreciated.

Great customer support. Thanks

Great job, timely service. Please keep this personal touch -- it is needed on this campus!

Everyone that helped me was thoughtful, kind and courteous. My case was resolved very quickly. Thank you very much!

The speedy response to my training request is much appreciated.  Interaction with service providers has always been very professional and expedient.

As usual, the service I received was prompt, polite, and totally satisfactory.

Everyone was more than helpful, very knowledgeable, patient and resolved my question much more quickly than I had anticipated. Thanks.

The help desk staff were very good. They were polite, sympathetic, competent and my interaction with them was excellent and enjoyable.

Your customer service is EXCELLENT!  Thank you!

PerceptIS updates ASU’s System Health page when necessary. The System Health page communicates system status information, including planned and unplanned outages, to the rest of the University. Average Help Desk wait times and total calls are posted there daily. If you'd like to learn more about problem reports managed by the Help Desk, check out the link to the All CRM Cases dashboard on the right side of the System Health page.

As always, don't forget to send us your comments, concerns, even horror stories and tell us where we can improve - it's the only way we can keep getting better.