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Cybertalk 1/8/96: Computing Needs More NU Support (Original draft)

(This is the full length original draft from which I then extracted the Computing Needs More NU Support column.)


My stay at Northwestern has now encompassed the reign of two directors of academic computing and many structural changes in the computing organizations. For much of this time span I have been involved in some way with how computer networks are utilized here at Northwestern. Now, as your new CyberTalk columnist, I will continue my observations on what our problems are, how we can improve, and where we might want to go. I will also extend CyberTalk's presention into cyberspace with copies of the column posted to the newsgroup for discussion, and a copy, with relevant hyperlinks, offered as part of the Daily's expanded online presence at <>.

While the print version may be trimmed due to space limitations, the electronic versions will feature the full-length original. The BLAH icon will signify that the printed version was trimmed, and thus you should check online for extra material. The BLAH icon will indicate the web copy includes links that may be of interest. In fact, in the interests of typographical sanity, you will not find another URL within these columns, any appropriate links will be part of the web version.

Northwestern faculty/staff/students who need assistance getting started with the Internet should contact Technology Support Services (TSS) at 7-ITSS (7-4877). Evanston residents who do not otherwise have internet access may browse the Daily web site using the Internet Workstations at the main branch of the Evanston Public Library. However, the newsgroup is only accessible from Northwestern computers.

Thirteen years ago the personal computer was already fundamentally changing our lives sufficiently for Time magazine to select the [personal] computer as their "Man of the Year". Since then, computers have become a pervasive part of our infrastructure. People use computers everyday to design new drugs and airplanes, choreograph shows, diagnose medical problems, tally election results, and publish magazines and newspapers, such as the one you are reading.

Networking has amplified the power of the computer, becoming an integral, if not synonymous, part of its value as infrastructure. Many companies now provide every employee with a computer and make use of computer networks not only for internal communications, but for marketing, customer support, and even product delivery.

A good example of the computer's infrastructure role can be found with the FAA's recent release of a new set of regulations. The FAA released this rule set solely via computer instead of providing printed copies, thus making the new rules more accessible and saving a large sum of money. The IRS has also been distributing tax forms online. If the large and unwieldy federal bureaucracy has had time to adapt, then certainly the rest of us long ago surrendered to the computer revolution, or have we?

Here at Northwestern, computer networks are used everyday for education, research, and communication. Some classes now distribute "handouts" via computer. They also make use of networking for interaction amongst students and between students and the professor (and TAs). Our researchers use the networks to communicate with their collaborators, obtain data, and publish their results. Administrative units have been experimenting with providing registration information and grades online. Northwestern even uses the Internet to advertise job openings.

Does the "Information Highway" receive from Northwestern the support due such a vital part of our infrastructure? Investments in computer networks have been made through large projects such as the NUNet expansion and through hardware and software purchases. Yet, many support needs are not fulfilled.

Departments are not left on their own to do maintenance on their building, we have the specialists in the physical plant for that. Yet, academic departments are generally left on their own when it comes to maintaining their computer networks. The limited support that is offered is not distributed well across the three major types of computer system used on campus, Additionally, the lack of a comprehensive site license policy makes support more difficult since multiple versions of programs must be supported.

Despite Northwestern's reliance upon computer networks, obtaining access to a computer is often frustrating. The public computer labs are small and often full. Their hours of availability have also been on the decline due to their use as classrooms. The problem of public computer availability will not disappear as more students have computers of their own. As students make more comprehensive use of computers in their coursework, they will need access to even greater hardware and software resources. Purchasing a computer is not an option for most students, especially since computer costs are not included in financial aid calculations.

For people trying do extra work or class assignments from home, the modem pool resources are far from sufficient. Despite recent additions there are still far too few modems for a community as large as Northwestern. The recent reduction in the modem time limit makes work on non-trivial projects difficult. The new time limit also means that it now takes more than one session to install the "core" networking applications, and no method is provided for dealing with files that cannot be downloaded within the time allowed.

Have a computer problem? When you call the TSS Information Center for help your call will be answered by a student employee. This is an odd situation given that one does not find student employees providing help at the financial aid office, human resources, and most other service desks, including those of the administrative computing groups. While Northwestern has bright students, thrusting them onto the front lines of computer service, especially without a comprehensive training program, does a disservice to the community. When one considers the overhead in managing such a group, and the investment in training that must occur year after year, only to be lost upon the students' graduation, the current system appears to be extremely wasteful.

Recently, service reductions were announced for the central network services machines in order to streamline their operation for reliable email delivery. Despite this stated importance attached to email, the main campus email relay is a machine "temporarily" borrowed from an academic instruction lab over a year and-a-half ago. Furthermore, should this machine fail, there is no machine ready to take on its duties. While the situation has improved recently, many other key machines still have no ready backup. The situation for human resources is worse, with many tasks being overseen by a single person. Thus, should that person fall ill, leave, or go on vacation, service often suffers.

Many studies have shown that providing at least three days of training a year reduces support costs. While some training offerings do exist, the topics are limited and presented in short sessions which are infrequently offered. Plus, there are charges for some classes.

Students and employees arrive at Northwestern expecting to find savvy use of computer networks in pursuit of Northwestern's mission. However, I have heard from many who have been disappointed. To improve, Northwestern needs to give its people the resources, and time, to harness the power of the computer revolution.

I welcome discussion and feedback via or email.

(Published version...)

Netscape HTML Checked! January 8, 1996 - Robert Lentz (

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