Informatics Computing Support

This page outlines the purpose of support that is provided to users of Informatics computing systems, how we provide it and what we provide.

If you are looking to get support, try the Support FAQ. If you are here because you really aren't sure how to get the support you need, trying talk to one of the local computing support staff or the local site liaison person.

There's a separate page on operational and policy issues, including how to handle escalation of computing/support requests.

The purpose of support

Computing support in Informatics is intended to help members of Informatics make effective use of the computing facilities provided. This includes students, teaching, research and administrative staff.

How it is provided

As a very simplistic separation, support to users, from a user perspective, falls into two categories:
frontline
this is provided by the Frontline Support Team, comprised mainly of Computing Support Officers. Their remit is to do a first-pass on handling individual queries, sort out machine problems and maintain the labs of machines at operational levels. There are also daily and longer-term scheduled activities such as changing backup tapes, doing upgrades on machines, changing toner cartridges, etc.
behind the scenes
Support for the rest of Informatics computing is provided largely by Computing Officers. The work covers a very wide variety of typically technical tasks, ranging from helping the Frontline Support team with more difficult issues that users have, to the complex process of developing infrastructure and implementing services to support Informatics as a whole.

What support is provided

There are several main areas where support is provided.
general or commodity
This typically covers routine, day-to-day issues such as logging in, network connectivity, access to commodity services such as email, filespace, printing, etc.

The Frontline Support Team expects a significant proportion of such requests to require prompt attention. However, assessing urgency and the relative impact of user problems is not a black and white issue. It will always be necessary to adjust the speed of response in the context of other current demands.

In general, queries get assessed for their priority within a few minutes of arrival. Depending on the current workload, there should be a response to your query within a working day; usually it will be more quickly than that and provide the solution.

If there isn't an immediately obvious solution, the support team will aim to give an indication of when a user might expect a solution. Balancing the speed of response against the amount of time it takes is not easy - see below.

computer management/installation
support in this area relates to the installation of the operating system and additional software on a computer. (For information on how equipment is allocated please see the computing resources page).

How such management is implemented heavily reflects two key and interrelated issues, namely security and scalability.

security:
in order to have centrally manageable systems that computing staff can trust are secure, it is important to know the integrity of anything installed with system privileges.
scalability:
A key principle of DICE is the automation of machine installation and subsequent management (eg, updating and status monitoring), using LCFG . Unless installation and management are automated (and, by implication, scalable), it is not possible to provide large numbers of machines whose behaviour, performance and status is predictable.

With these two factors in mind, the support of machines currently falls into two categories.

Typeuser access
commodity (fully-managed) non-root
self-managed root

commodity (fully-managed)
standard installation and configuration with respect to a particular category, (eg staff, research student, etc). The machine will be fully managed centrally. With respect to security, this model currently requires that users do not have root privileges in order to have confidence in the integrity of the system.
self-managed
the user has total responsibility for installation and management of the machine.

Having provided the DICE commodity model as planned, it is a high priority to provide further options to meet the varied needs of users. These options support different aspects of security/trust and the degree of scalable management. It is hoped to provide at least two additional options which would lie between commodity and self-managed:

Typeuser access
commodity (fully-managed) non-root
contributed packages non-root
partially-managed root
self-managed root

contributed packages
the user can opt for installation of additional, user-contributed packages (not necessarily contributed by the same user). These packages are not supported centrally. However, they are vetted and restricted in operation to avoid security vulnerabilities (eg, post-install scripts will be prohibited).
partially-managed
the machine is managed according to a central profile but the user has root access to allow installation of privileged packages. In the event of problems the machine can be reinstalled to the state of its initial profile, rather than its current state.

support for installed software
Much software available on centrally managed systems in Informatics is available as part of a standard distribution (eg, RedHat 9). Since there are typically hundreds of installed packages, it is not practical for them to be individually supported locally. Typically support for them is available through manual pages or associated material on the web.

However, some applications or packages, such editors, mail programs, browsers, are key to provision of/access to local services and their use in the Informatics context is given greater support. Typically there will be configuration and use information specifically documented on local computing web pages. Ultimately though, the vast majority of these packages are provided `as is' and while the aim is to provide as much support as practical it may not always be possible.

connection/access to Informatics services
There are a number of core services provided to users which they make use of from both managed and non-managed machines, within Informatics or elsewhere. Such services include email, personal web space, local network access (wireless or wired) (eg DHCP, DNS), remote access via secure gateways, printing, etc.

For these services, information is provided about how to access them but diagnosis of problems with access from non-managed machines are supported only up to the point of connection.


Timing of support responses

Balancing the speed and frequency of responses to support requests against the amount of work that generates is not easy.

On the one hand a fast response can reassure the user that the problem is being attended to. However, if that requires handling a request several times (eg, two or three replies rather than one) that generates extra work. It can often be the case that information is required from other computing staff who are focussing on longer term activities and understandably don't respond to queries instantly. In our view it is, on balance, better to respond when information becomes available. However, as stated, it is intended to give some indication of progress within the working day and usually it will be quicker than that.


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