Technology plays an ever increasing role in social science research. Historically, however, an uneven technology environment has existed within the FAS Social Science Division. Some departments have had real IT budgets and multiple technicians in-house, while others have had few resources and relied solely on centralized support. During our difficult budget season last year, nearly everyone was forced to reduce their computing resources to some extent. In order to ameliorate these problems, improve technology services, and provide equitable support to all within the Division, computing in the Social Sciences is being consolidated into a single, shared services group. This new Research Computing for the Social Sciences (RCSS) group will be managed by the Institute for Quantitative Social Science (IQSS), in continued coordination with FASIT, and will report up through the Director of IQSS to the Dean for the Social Sciences. An outline of the implementation plan is below, followed by some Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) that detail how the changes will impact your department, faculty and staff.
Goals: The goal of this effort is to increase the efficiency and provision of research computing resources for the social sciences. We aim to bring all services to a common, high-quality level, to ensure that Harvard’s social sciences are leaders in research computing compared to other schools and universities, and to continue to innovate and advance our teaching and research missions.
Benefits to faculty and student researchers include: (1) an increased awareness and usage of research computing support already available; (2) support in using and developing new computational resources to be used in research; and (3) a formal, transparent and collaborative flow of information between researchers and staff for identifying ways to improve services and product offerings.
Specific benefits for staff include: (1) increased efficiency in delivering technology services; (2) more robust and consistent internal processes for responding to both the identified needs of researchers as well as those needs researchers would identify if they were aware of new technologies; (3) new opportunities to collaborate with others to further develop services and products; and (4) economies of scale.
Services: High quality research computing does not end with the infrastructure built into back-end hardware and software; it extends all the way to the desktop and to the personal relationships and communication between support personnel and faculty, students, and staff. It also extends to programming support (for customized applications, statistical consulting, analytic assistance, etc.), systems administration (for on-going development of shared resources, consolidation of locally maintained servers, etc.), aspects of web site support, academic computing, and many specialized projects and needs. How far this new, shared computing resource group should reach into each aspect of IT has yet to be determined. This is an important set of ongoing decisions that we hope you and your faculty will play a key role in determining during the discovery process. Ultimately, regardless of which specific services are consolidated, maximizing communication and transparency among all the various technology personnel will ensure a seamless transition and improved support.
RCSS will be created through a multi-staged process, comprising four overlapping phases: discovery, infrastructure preparation, outreach and implementation. Current estimates project completion within thirteen months, but that estimate is subject to revision as we learn more (see Table 1).
Table 1: Estimated Transition Process and Timeline, Subject to Change
Each phase is described in more detail below.
Phase 1: Discovery. Members of the RCSS team will meet directly with you and/or representatives from your department to better understand your buildings, technologies, user base, preferences, and concerns. The insight and data gathered during this phase will inform the necessary preparations for implementation. Duration: Six months.
Phase 2: Infrastructure Preparation. RCSS will expand its server, storage, power, and cooling capacity, ensuring fast cluster performance at higher capacity. It will also adjust its staff’s priorities and job descriptions and, with the help of local units, prepare a customized migration plan for each unit. Throughout, RCSS will work with you to learn and meet your unique research and computing needs. Although we intend for every faculty member, student, and staff member to have access to a common, high-quality set of services, different researchers will surely draw on different parts of these common services and so it is crucial to know which services are most important to each group of faculty, students, and staff. Duration: Six months.
Phase 3: Outreach. Simultaneous with Phase 2, this new unit will initiate a long-term communication and collaboration effort with each department and center, and with many individual faculty and staff. Recognized needs will be collected and new technologies not generally known to the community will be catalogued and communicated to you and your group. This phase will not have a distinct end point, instead being an on-going part of the RCSS-User relationship. Duration: Ongoing.
Phase 4: Implementation. RCSS will begin formally rolling out services to each department, setting up research computing accounts for your faculty and students, rearranging and helping staff so they can best meet the needs of their users, and ensuring communication among all parties is maintained. Your individualized migration plan will also be implemented during this phase, with servers purchased or moved, connections tested, etc. Duration: Seven-nine months.
Social Science Computing Transition Frequently Asked Questions
What’s the difference between FASIT and RCSS?
FASIT provides the foundation for all technology and computing resources in the FAS. It is responsible for maintaining our basic IT infrastructure, developing and enforcing IT-related policies, and providing a wide-range of services to administrators, faculty and students alike. RCSS is built on the FASIT foundation, and utilizes key FASIT resources to create specialized, social science-specific services. RCSS, in contrast, focuses on research computing, and its mission is to help the faculty, students, and staff in the social sciences to conduct their research more effectively and efficiently.
What is the point of consolidating IT services?
The goal of this effort is to increase the efficiency and provision of technology-related services. By bringing together people who perform the same function, we can share best practices, develop standardized processes, increase professionalism and career paths, provide economies of scale, build back-up capacity in terms of both personnel and hardware, etc. Although we will certainly look for ways to be more efficient, this initiative is not the result of cost reduction efforts. In fact, additional funds from FAS may well be required to bring services up to a common quality level and to ensure that we are competitive with respect to other schools and universities.
Who should my faculty and staff call if a computer isn’t working?
You and your group should continue to call whomever you have relied on for desktop support issues (FASIT, your local technician, etc.) until now. If this changes in the future, you will be given considerable notice and detailed information to guide you through any transition that occurs.
Will there be any new services offered?
Currently each group in the social sciences experiences a different level of technology support. Our first goal is to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to access any service to which anyone else has access. For some groups, this will mean there are new computing resources introduced; for others, this will mean a continuation of current support. We will also steadily build and roll out new products and services, specializing in those that scale so we can offer them to all.
Will this impact faculty research?
The point of the transition is to have a positive impact on faculty and student research over time. For now, however, there will be no changes that affect on-going research. If it is determined that it makes sense to physically move servers or to move data from one server to another, the transfer will only be done after you have been consulted with ample time to prepare and respond. Any changes will be done to improve efficiency, fail-over resources, back-up servers, etc.
This consolidation will make all researchers eligible to access IQSS information technology products. For example, the Research Computing Environment (RCE) offers a persistent computing environment that allows a user to log in from any computer in the world; it is a centralized place in which to store data and programs, and run analyses on more powerful computers than any of us could feasibly own and manage ourselves. The RCE also offers cluster computing power through a set of Compute-on-Demand servers and a separate group of batch servers. These servers offer (at present) up to 16 GB of RAM per job and/or 380 processors (nodes) of computing power. (To sign up for an account now, send a request to firstname.lastname@example.org).
Faculty, students, and staff also have access to professional data archiving, distribution, and analysis services through the Dataverse Network (see http://dvn.iq.harvard.edu) digital data repository and will soon have an extremely sophisticated set of web pages and resources that can be personalized for each researcher.
When will this change take effect?
We plan to begin the process in early October, but each group will make the formal transition on a different schedule based on what is learned during the first phase (Discovery). You will be notified in January of your group’s particular timeline.
Do I have to do anything?
RCSS representatives will ask you or your designee for input on determining the best transition plan for you and your group. You certainly do not have to meet with anyone, but your thoughts and ideas will be valuable in helping to guide the direction of future feedback loops, products to be developed, services to be offered, etc.
How will RCSS know what my department needs?
Representatives will meet directly with administrators, computing personnel, and researchers in FASIT, each department, museum and center to better understand your building, technologies, preferences and concerns. We will ensure a formal, transparent, and collaborative flow of information between researchers and staff not only during the transition process, but afterwards as well, to identify ongoing ways of improving services and product offerings. If a specific faculty member wants to be directly involved in this exchange of ideas at any point, let your administrator know and that administrator will make certain the faculty member is contacted by an appropriate representative.
Who can I talk to with questions about the process, timing, etc.?
If you have questions about this transition now, please contact the IQSS Executive Director, Breean Fortier, at email@example.com or 6-3902. Soon, we will have a technology services project manager assigned to your group for ongoing support.
What will happen to my group’s technology budget?
The goal of consolidation is to increase the efficiency and provision of services, and to ensure that all units receive equitable support (including those units that were recently forced to reduce their technology budgets). Where remaining technology budgets are redundant with the services being provided through the new shared resources group, funds may shift to support the function. Otherwise, we do not expect any changes to technology budgets.
How will technology staff be impacted?
All IT specialists will be available to help all departments. The assignment of tasks will depend on current workload, capabilities and long-term professional interests.
Will any staff be let go?
There are no plans for staff reductions at this time; rather, we are looking for ways to better leverage the staff and other resources currently available to us.
I have a great idea for new products and services for you to offer; which will you choose to implement?
If you have a terrific idea for a project that will help one person and no one else, we will help direct you to the right outside service group for you to hire. But if you have an idea that can be implemented in a way that scales, we will build it for you, precisely tuned where possible to your needs, but in a way that can benefit everyone else, too. Please let us know if you have any suggestions or requests.