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Newsletter 1 (17th July 2014)

Computing Pool Newsletter 1

Note: You can view a print copy of this newsletter at http://www.pool.phy.cam.ac.uk/newsletters/01.pdf.

Welcome to this first edition of the Computing Pool’s newsletter. We aim to inform you about what we’ve been working on and our future plans, along with providing hints and tips to help your computing go more smoothly.

— Dr Andrew Alderwick (editor)

Updates

Pool Management

by Dr Crispin Barnes

Working with the Pool team over the past year has been a very fulfilling and educational experience. I am proud of the team’s achievements, their commitment and the time and expertise they have contributed to every project, emergency, and routine task. I know that Computer Officers often feel their task is unrewarding, since when things are working it is easy to forget they are keeping it all going, and when things break or small tasks are forgotten it is easy to attack them in fiery emails. I hope these newsletters will enable them to show you all what they are doing and encourage discussion and engagement. As manager of the Pool, I am always looking for ways to improve IT provision, the morale of the Pool team, and the IT effectiveness of research groups in the Cavendish. Any suggestions you may have for ways in which we could be more effective, any complaints or praise will be gratefully received. Just email me directly on chwb101@cam.ac.uk and I will contact you directly.

Network Power Replacements

by Cormac O’Connell

The Pool have been striving to replace the ageing Uninterruptible Power Supplies (UPSs) that maintain our network during power cuts and brown outs. While these old ones have served us well for many years, they are now becoming more problematic and so a replacement programme was drawn up. We are almost complete on this programme, with only three cabinets remaining!

It is unfortunate that replacing these units requires the entire cabinet to be powered down, which definitely has an impact on network users, but your patience during this downtime has been very much appreciated!

The remaining cabinets we have to do are:

  • M11, on the first floor of the Mott building, near the QM office area—QM, SP and AP will be affected;
  • RG1, on the ground floor of the Rutherford building, near the front of the building—AMOP and AP will be affected;
  • BG1, behind Reception in the Bragg building—Admin and SMF will be affected.

Network Switch Replacements

by Cormac O’Connell

As we’re sure you are aware, in the latter part of last year we replaced almost all of our network equipment. We obviously kept you filled in on the schedules, but we were perhaps slightly optimistic on the workload required. The network cabinets were a complete state when we inherited them, and finding any problematic wall ports was nigh on impossible. With the assistance of my colleagues, and the patience of you the users, we completed this with minimal overrun per cabinet ( on average :) ).

Now that we are a little under a year on, we can still sit back and see the benefits of this work. All the sockets in the building should be live on one network or another. This means that moving desk or having another machine on your current desk should be much less painful than it used to be. We’ve seen a reduction in the number of network problems we used to see in the past (touch wood) and tracking down any issue has become so much simpler which means we should be able to get you back up and running faster.

So, a big thank you to everyone for your patience during the work!

Linux Server Replacements

by Dr Andrew Alderwick

Over the past year we’ve undertaken a major project to replace all the GNU/Linux file servers. These servers are critical to SP, SMF, QM, SD, AMOP and the Windows users in TCM, so clearly it’s a project to be approached seriously.

Every group has different needs relating to the amount of storage and extra services the file servers handle, but all the new servers share the same base hardware so any problems arising from, say, the motherboard firmware, can be dealt with all at the same time rather than multiplying the effort. The software running on the servers is also managed by a centralised system, called Ameliorate, which is flexible enough to give individual groups the various perks they use while maintaining the ability to roll out common updates easily.

The last server to be commissioned has been hard at work since January and we’ve seen a major improvement in reliability across all groups, and in particular those groups under the first Mott Filestore.

Windows XP

by Colin Edwards

The Pool has located and replaced or upgraded most of the Windows PCs using Windows XP in recent weeks. This work was essential as Windows XP had reached the end of its life-cycle and Microsoft had declared that it would no longer support it. This meant in practice that we could not leave Windows PCs connected to either the public or private subnets as to do so would render them vulnerable to hackers as exploits were discovered. It is hoped that the remaining network connected PCs running XP will receive the appropriate attention soon.

Spiceworks Deployment

by Colin Edwards

The Pool has had a campaign of installing the Spiceworks monitoring agent on Windows PCs over the last few months. This tool allows us to keep track of the health of all the systems it is installed on and gives us alerts of any issues that could potentially affect operations, hopefully before end users are aware. (You should be assured that your files are not being “snooped”. The software is not capable and we are not interested!) These alerts can include running out of disk space, old or out-of-date antivirus software etc., and the agent is also very useful when we are requested to assist in departmental audits. We can now provide reports to the department about what licensed software is installed on Windows PCs. During the process we have needed to manually add the locations of PCs to the Spiceworks database (this cannot be automated). It would help us greatly if you let us know when you move a Windows PC from one location to another. An email to support@pool.phy.cam.ac.uk giving the name of the machine and its old and new location would be very welcome.

Software Releases

by Alex Crook

Origin 9.1 was released late last year and allows batch plotting and analysis, piper/trilinear diagrams, 3D ternary surface plots and LOWESS and LOESS smoothing amongst other new features. No news yet on a Linux or OS X version.

Mathematica 10 has over 700 new additions including machine learning, computational geometry, geographic computation and device connection and is the first version based on the complete Wolfram language.

Labview 2014 beta has been available to test since March and the full release is expected imminently. News on features to follow.

Matlab 2014a was released in March and among the more exciting new additions to this release it now supports Raspberry Pi hardware and webcams, and includes a pop-up command history and suggested corrections for typos.

In a Nutshell

by Dr Andrew Alderwick

The Computing Pool looks after the AMOP, MOTT and NOM networks. How large is each network? We’ve made a count of all the devices attached to each one. Here, “devices” include servers, network switches, workstations, laptops and printers and in NOM all wireless devices connected to their wireless network.

As of today, those counts are:

Network Devices
AMOP 96
MOTT 409
NOM 412

That’s 262 devices per Computing Officer, or, on average, six hours of CO time per device each year. Of course, some devices (such as all our servers) attract an awful lot more attention than six hours per year!

About the Pool

We’re responsible for meeting the computing needs of the following research groups:

  • Atomic, Mesoscopic & Optical Physics;
  • Microelectronics;
  • NanoPhotonics;
  • Optoelectronics;
  • Quantum Matter;
  • Structure and Dynamics;
  • Surfaces, Microstructure & Fracture;
  • Semiconductor Physics and
  • Thin Film Magnetism

plus limited support for Hitachi and TCM.

Contact

If you’d like any computing assistance, there are two main ways to receive our help:

This email address contacts all of us simultaneously, so we can quickly get the right person on the task for you. We have a mix of expertise and cover for each other during busy times or leave, so using this address rather than the address of the CO who helped you last time is best.

The surgery hours are a new addition to our support. Please feel free to visit the Pool office between 1400 and 1500 every workday if you prefer to get help face-to-face. The Pool office is on the ground floor of the Mott building, room 328a, and during surgery hours we will ensure that COs with both Windows and GNU/Linux expertise are present.

If, instead, you’d like to contact the Pool on more general matters, our manager, Dr Crispin Barnes, will be delighted to hear from you. His email address is chwb101@cam.ac.uk, and will reply directly to you.

Feedback

Finally, we’d be really pleased to receive feedback on this very newsletter. If you have any comments, or would like to see coverage of a particular topic in a future newsletter, please let us know at the usual support@pool.phy.cam.ac.uk email address.