Open all hours?

Providing a quality, resilient service was the third ranked issue in UCISA’s 2011 Top Concerns survey. The issue of out of hours technical support was hightlighted recently in a thread on one of UCISA’s discussion lists.

There is much that can be done to improve the resilience of systems but things do still go awry and IT staff are then needed to fix the problem. And with the expectation that systems will be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, making arrangements to ensure that you have the right people available can prove challenging.

In many universities out of hours technical support is provided by the staff within the institution on a goodwill basis – if they notice that something has failed (and many staff do monitor the services for which they are responsible when they are not in the office) or if they are alerted to a problem, they will tackle it as a matter of pride. However relying on goodwill is not sustainable; individuals’ circumstances change and if there is over-reliance on a few people, goodwill evaporates. So what are the alternatives?

Some institutions have formal agreements with technical staff. Typically these provide a lump sum as a responsibility allowance for being on call backed up in some circumstances with overtime payments or expenses for call outs. Overtime is not paid in all cases with some instituions only paying overtime for staff below a certain grade. One of the common themes is that such agreements with staff are on a voluntary basis – staff need to be aware of what the commitment is and be able to opt in to (and out of) the scheme. This in itself presents some challenges as it may be the case that the number of volunteers is insufficient to provide adequate cover. Clearly the package presented to staff needs to be attractive enough to make sure there are enough takers.

Others have tackled this by building in out of hours cover into the terms and conditions of their staff. This is fine for new staff joining an organisation as they will be the only terms and conditions they will have had at the institution, but there will need to be some negotiation and discussion with those already in post to ensure a smooth transition to the new terms.

Outsourcing support is another option but this has a number of difficulties too. There are many interdependencies between systems in universities and colleges which complicate support. It may be possible to correct issues with a given system but not necessarily if the reason for a system being unavailable is that a component of the service that depends on another system has failed. For example, I know of a university which outsourced the out of hours support of the VLE to their provider. Although the provider was able to fix problems with the system, software and underlying database, the VLE was still unavailable on occasions when there was a problem with the authentication server which was developed and maintained in house. Clearly there would need to be clear documentation and training in order for an external agency to have maintenance of that system that within their remit. One solution to this would be to standardise the software being used. Using vanilla commercial products makes it more likely that an external agency would be able to support it.

There is the question as to whether you really need 24 by 7 support. Hardware is more reliable than ever and there are many technical solutions that provide failover and resilience. That said, the cost of providing that resilience may well exceed the cost of providing out of hours cover. Assessing the impact of failure, using the methods outlined in the UCISA Cost of IT failure work, will also help determine whether out of hours cover needs to be applied to given services or systems. It could be though that the risk to reputation and student satisfaction of the failure of a key student facing system, no matter how unlikely that is, is too great not to consider out of hours technical support. With students paying significantly higher fees, IT directors and their colleague will need to balance those sort of issues with the demands of running a cost effective service. That will be quite a balancing act.

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