What do you do when one size doesn't fit all?

May 5, 2006

An international initiative will help institutions get the IT services they need and save money, says Philip Pothen

How many blades of the average Swiss army knife are never used? How many stations on satellite TV packages go unwatched? How many components of expensive IT systems are never deployed? While redundant knives and unwanted channels might be written off easily, IT components cannot be. With universities spending millions of pounds on commercial packages, the issue of monolithic systems that ill suit institutions is a pressing one.

A major international initiative, e-Framework, is addressing this and related issues as it seeks to establish more flexible ways in which IT systems can be deployed and used.

Starting from the premise that what users want from such systems is not "packages" but "services" - e-mail, library circulation systems, registries, calendars, access management and so on - the e-Framework is working to define these components and how they might be bought, developed and deployed separately and yet interoperate.

Sarah Porter, head of development at the Joint Information Systems Committee, oversees the UK's involvement in what is fast becoming an international initiative. She says: "Flexibility is a major driver for this programme, but so is value for money. Universities have been spending huge amounts of money running parallel systems, paying for licences for separate systems that they've already paid for in another package."

Packages give institutions little room to cater for changing priorities, Porter says. "Each has its own needs - a large proportion of distance learners, perhaps, or medical students. So each institution needs systems that reflect its strategic needs, allow it to adapt, to change its infrastructure and to plan."

Ian Dolphin, Hull University's head of e-strategy and e-services integration, cites a growing tendency in business to move from "larger monolithic packaged software to smaller, more granular systems with open interfaces. The e-Framework will hopefully provide a coherent set of standards that will enable open-source and commercial systems to fit together."

Delivering "a rough map of a complex world" is one of the main goals of the initiative, Porter says. With the Department for Education and Skills implementing the e-strategy it published last year, the e-Framework is feeding into its cross-sectoral work, offering advice, influencing standards and also providing the "supporting infrastructure upon which larger issues of how e-research relates to e-learning and wider questions of interoperability can be tackled".

The initiative has far-reaching implications, it seems, not least commercially, with major players in the IT industry expressing considerable interest.

Last month's agreement between Jisc and New Zealand's Ministry of Education builds on work undertaken by Jisc and Australia's Department for Education, Science and Training (Dest). Neil McLean, national technical standards adviser to Dest, says Australian and UK education communities face similar challenges. "We agreed that the issues were global so a collaborative effort had the potential to enhance existing work."

Porter says: "There are a number of questions that institutions will need to ask: how are they using IT; how can they maximise their investments; and how can they develop the skills they will need in a fast-changing world? But the e-Framework will help, and progress is encouraging."

Philip Pothen is communications manager, Joint Information Systems Committee.
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