Oxford’s upcoming groupware project

OK, so I’ve blogged previously about how much email at Oxford sucks. But, as I alluded to, and as commented by our friendly neighborhood Oxford-IT-guy (thanks for reading, BTW), Oxford University Computing Services has a plan! The call it the Groupware for the University Project, or just groupware. Groupware is software designed to help groups collaborate. It’s been around forever, even though the name is new; and I guarantee that you’ve used it.

Email was the original groupware. It was the first “killer app” for the internet, and the vast majority of traffic on the early ‘net was email. Groups of researchers used it communicate in those early days, and today it is as mainstream as chocolate pudding. Usenet came next, in the 80s. It was a kind of discussion forum arranged around categories called newsgroups. Although it is still in use today, it has largely been supplanted by newer developments like web-based forums. The point is that lots of software is groupware: instant messanging, wikis, etc. So we all use different types of groupware for different purposes or for different groups. Other than email, there has been no University-wide attempt to give everyone a common set of groupware applications.

OUCS plans to begin deployment, according to the project page, in June of this year. However, the user requirements document was finalized in February, so we already have a pretty good “high level” idea of what the University hopes to accomplish. Even though the document breaks up requirements into 8 “components,” from a user’s perspective, there are 5 main applications:

  1. Email
  2. Calendaring and Resource Booking
  3. Contact List
  4. Shared Data Repository
  5. Interface to Student Information System (SIS)

(The other 3 requirements components cover all the applications and are: encryption support, remote web access, and mobile access.)

Email is pretty self-explanatory, but there are a couple requirements worth noting:

  • webmail needs to support a range of functions “typical of leading/common current webmail clients.”
  • must have the ability to synchronize with mobile clients (e.g. syncML, Blackberry, ActiveSync)
  • support for shared mail folders

The last one is particularly important for on-campus student groups, who often want to have an email inbox for the group which can be monitored by all the officers.

Calendaring is the ability to keep and manage one or more calendars which are stored on the server and accessible from either the web interface, a mobile device, or a desktop calendar client (iCal, Outlook, etc.). This becomes groupware when you have the ability to share your calendar with people or groups to aid in scheduling. Unfortunately, there isn’t a requirement to be able to schedule meetings with a visual representation of people’s Free/Busy information (generated from their calendar, if they choose to share it). This is one of my favorite features of using a system like MS Exchange Server. Let’s hope whatever we get has this feature anyway. Resource booking means being able to see when resources, like rooms or projectors, are unscheduled, and the ability to reserve them from the groupware. That’ll save a lot of time in trying to book tutorials.

The contact list is just like it sounds—an address book. They’ve included some much needed requirements that it is straightforward to import and export from the contact list. They’ve also mandated that the groupware interact with something called the Core User Directory, which I can only assume is the central University Admin’s database of all the people at Oxford. This should hopefully mean you can find contact information for people who are members of the University very easily.

The Shared Data Repository is a fancy name for a place to upload files you want to share with people or groups. Notably, though, it is required to have version control (yes!), be searchable, be cross-platform, and have directory-level access control.

The interface to the Student Information System is an integration requirement with Oxford’s existing system. The SIS is where students can look up administrative information about their status and update their contact information with the University (among other things).

I appreciate that OUCS has been careful to include requirements about platform-agnosticism: there would otherwise be the potential of many a Linux user being left out in the cold. The requirement that all groupware functionality be fully available via the web, securely, from any internet connection is a bold one, and I’ll be interested to see what software vendors come up with. I’m also pleased that at least for the email and calendaring they’ve explicitly listed mobile access as a requirement. It would be nice to see for the contact list as well, but there is a requirement about the groupware being compatible with 3rd party interfaces like Intellisync, so I’m hopeful this one will also end up being in the final implementation. I’d also liked to have seen a standards-based (i.e. Jabber) instant messaging system. I know that everyone already has their own favorite IM service/client, but the integration with the user database would make it much easier to find and make contact with people.

I have one final complaint: no wikis?

I’ll end by noting that I’m on the email list for the User Consultative Group, and we’ve just been having a discussion about “use cases” to send to software vendors.  So, I remain somewhat skeptical about them having a solution shortlisted and then chosen by June. My guess is that implementation is delayed until late summer at the earliest—but this is Hofstadter’s Law-style pessimism, so take it with a grain of salt.

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