Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Central and Local Information Technology

Recently, I was asked to write an overview about day to day IT support at Harvard Medical School, including ideas about expanding services over the next year. One of the most savvy folks in the research community responded with a great dialog that illustrates the balance between central and local IT. I've italicized his comments below:

1. Networks
Continue to provide high bandwidth wired and wireless networks to all HMS departments. Provide 100 Megabit connections to all desktops and 1 Gigabit connections as needed, assuming that appropriate Cat 6 wiring is available in the department. In parallel replace all legacy wiring at HMS, over the next 5 years to ensure all stakeholders have the potential for gigabyte connections.

This level of infrastructure is naturally a central IT (and physical infrastructure) function. However, the requirements are not entirely generic; e.g. different sites have specific network architecture needs. Support for the software side of networking (firewalls) with adequate attention to the particular needs of departments is also essential.

2. Servers
Continue to provide Unix/Linux and Windows server hosting with 24x7 management, operating system patching and security services for all HMS stakeholders. The offiste data center should be expanded to meet growing demand for server and high performance computing hosting.

This is one of the areas in which there is the most variation in the benefits of centralization to different research units. Some departments or labs have well-developed IT support staffs and server infrastructure, others have local servers but are poorly staffed, and some have little local support and are reliant on central services. For the first group, having local support staff responsible to a local group and dedicated to the particular needs of the site is a highly effective model. Whether this is consistent with centralized physical location of server hardware remains to be determined. For the other groups, some further investigation is needed to determine whether a centralized or dedicated server model is more appropriate.

3. Storage
Provide 50 Gigabytes per user and 500 Gigabytes per lab at no charge. Provide storage and archiving services to high volume users for $1/Gigabyte per year. To ensure that storage needs are met for all new faculty, include funding for IT infrastructure such as storage in their recruiting packages. Storage includes 24x7 support for high speed fiber channel or SATA Network Attached Storage, including appropriate means to attach to this storage for Mac OS X, Linux, Unix and Windows as well as web-based Online Storage. Archiving/backup is also provided as a service.

The proper organization of storage is closely linked to the organization of servers; the physical link between storage and server is still important. Backups might be efficiently provided as a school-level commodity service if competitively priced with an adequate service level for restores, although there are issues of confidentiality and data use agreements affecting some datasets.

4. Desktops
Continue to maintain help desk services, jointly managed with the departments, for support of Windows, Macs, and Linux machines. Provide anti-virus software and operating system updates.

Joint management with departments has been a good model. Some desktop-oriented applications and services are standardized commodities, but assignment of support staff to departments allows them to gain familiarity with the particular needs and configurations of departments and individual users.

5. Applications
Today, the application suite at HMS includes web portals such as Mycourses/eCommons; Administrative applications such as FIRST, Room Scheduling, MARS-Medical Area Reporting System, MAES- Medical Area Equipment System, Peoplesoft, GMAS, MADRIS; Research applications that run on Orchestra such as Twiki, Matlab, LaserGene, and Endnote; and Educational applications such as virtual microscopy; streaming video/podcasting; and simulations.

E-mail is another crucial service that is best supported at the school level due to the high cost of effectively dealing with spam and malware.

Expand this suite of applications through the enhancement of Mycourses/eCommons to include collaboration services such as instant messaging, Webex meetings, CONNECTS (a match making service for equipment, techniques, and scientists), SHRINE (a means of data mining across all Harvard affiliates), and web content management for easy hosting of internal and external websites. Expand this suite of applications to support research administrative and CTSA needs such as IACUC and animal ordering. Expand application support to include informatics services per the BRIC business plan such as database consulting and web application design.

Some attention should be given to the cost allocation model for these services since some of them are of general use, some are sometimes provided by internally supported staff at departments, and some are of use only to particular groups. However for the most part the items listed here are of general utility.

6. Disaster Recovery
Currently, HMS maintains two data centers and has significant redundancy in storage, server clusters, and networks. However, it does not have a true disaster recovery center and plan. Hire staff and develop a plan to ensure business continuity in the case of a major data center or natural disaster.

7. Media Services
Provide media services support for the entire school including presentation services, digital photography/videography, and teleconferencing services. The Media Services infrastructure is currently under review and school wide enhancements will be proposed in 2008.

As you can see from this dialog, neither completely central nor completely local is the right model for a research-focused medical school.

At HMS, central organizations provide "heat, power, light, networking and terabytes" - the utilities needed to empower all the core businesses of HMS - education, research and administration. Centralizing those utilities which can achieve economies of scale and reliability, while leaving local those areas of science and application expertise unique to each department, has worked well to support all our stakeholders. One of the major central/local collaborations has been the joint hiring customer service representatives for each department and locating them within the departments they serve. This enables each department to have centrally trained, managed, and budgeted staff but with specific skills to meet each department's academic needs. Similiarly, the HMS data center hosts centrally managed servers and storage but also hosts department specific infrastructure managed by scientists.

This division of labor between the IT department and the scientific community leverages the skills of each, ensuring a positive working relationship, based on a transparent governance model, for all the services we deliver.

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