The view from the virtual trenches

Posted on March 14, 2020 by

I have been debating all week on whether to write anything about the current events, COVID-19 (Coronavirus) and what is happening in higher education information technology (IT). I have been reluctant to do so because the situation remains fluid. The emails in my inbox have gone down to a manageable flow, from last week’s raging torrent. It is a beautiful sunny day, so let me share the view from IT, realizing that this is early days and what I write now will be dated before I publish it.

Most people really don’t know what an IT organization does, especially not one that supports a community with close to 100,000 students and thousands more faculty, staff, alumni and partners being supported by our systems. At times, we are so focused on the job that we don’t show and tell people what we are doing. So folks just see the technology that is in front of them. Often, if the system works they don’t think much about what is going on behind the scenes or the people that make it work.

Observations:

  1. In higher education we have amazing people working in IT. They are passionate about what they do and they really care about enabling people to use technology. I know this past week and weekend a lot of people are working extra hours, away from family and that is not only in central IT, but across the tri-campus community in many divisions. The ability to partner with local support, on the ground, is so important and I am grateful to all those within the divisions here at the University of Toronto (U of T).
  2. Challenging stuff will happen over the next little while, things will break, we will make mistakes, but we will get through it. Your patience is appreciated.
  3. Over the last few years, the University has made significant enhancements to our infrastructure that will help us get through this, not the least of which is moving to cloud services that are scalable during events like this.
  4. The move to Microsoft Office 365 (O365) means that we all have the ability to work remotely. The challenge, as always, is change. Not everyone has embraced the tools as much as would be optimal and we are still working on teaching people to use OneDrive and Teams, but we have made some progress and have a number of users signed up, so are not starting from scratch.
  5. Speaking of O365 Teams, on March 13, I watched a dean of a large faculty talk to their chairs and directors and tell them how they learned to use Teams the day before and how it was really easy and helpful for communications. I am sure not everyone will think it is that easy, but it can be if you really want it to be and there are people to help. It was also reassuring to see strong supportive leadership as we go through this.
  6. The move to Canvas (Quercus) last year was a positive journey. The transition was one of the smoothest I have ever seen, partly due to the tech, but mostly because we are getting better at this. I am comfortable in the capacity of Canvas to scale, but there may be blips. Last week, they moved some of their notification services to a new set of internet protocols (IPs) and our spam filters didn’t like that. It should be all good now…like I said, challenging stuff will happen.
  7. The notion of getting 5,000 courses online may seem insurmountable, but many classes are already there. We aren’t really expecting everyone to go fully online. There are three weeks left and we will do what we need to get through this.
  8. I am really interested to see people use O365 Teams to push their lectures online. We already use Blackboard Connect, but Teams is new for us, integrated with other collaborative tools and scale is different. We could not do this without cloud services.
  9. People also ask about bandwidth. U of T runs GTANET, connecting about 20 higher education institutions and hospitals in the region. This network is robust and large in terms of capacity. It connects us to the commercial internet and ORION and we have strong confidence in those services. There should be lots of capacity, but there are bottlenecks, like our Intrusion Protection System. Work is underway to install a new next generation firewall that has plenty of capacity, but that won’t happen for a while yet. If we have issues, we have the ability to adjust.
  10. Virtual private network (VPN) and remote desktop protocol (RDP) are other areas people frequently ask about. The landscape at U of T is complex and there are many different services. My best advice here is: only use it when you need to. About 99 per cent of what I do does not need a VPN connection. We were in the process of moving people from a legacy VPN on to a new, more resilient system, but that work is still in progress and we are trying to expedite it. We discovered a new, undocumented bug in the new VPN and we have had two short outages over the last two days. Please be patient. We are working on it.
  11. Our large ERP systems have moved to the cloud over the last year. We can manage things remotely and this should be business as usual, but people might need to learn to work remotely.
  12. The last thing I want to share is that it may not be apparent, but university CIOs from across the country work collaboratively through CUCCIO and we have been talking a lot. We share ideas and challenges and we support each other. I couldn’t do what I do without that community.

This is still only a tip of the iceberg in terms of what is being done to support our IT systems. We are pushing some of our infrastructure, services and people further than we have done before. There will be some issues, but be assured the teams that we have working on this across the entire University are dedicated, working hard and are staying on top of it.

Check out our ITS Preparedness web page for frequently asked questions and the latest info.

The health and safety of our staff, students and faculty remain the number one priority of the University. Read the latest official updates from the University  here.