An Open Letter to the UW IT Review Committee

November 10, 2002

Review Committee
David Barnard, President, University of Regina
Larry Symes, University of Regina
John Mather, Manulife Financial

UW Administration
David Johnston, President, University of Waterloo
Amit Chakma, Vice President (Academic) and Provost, University of Waterloo
Jay Black, Associate Provost, Information Systems & Technology, University of Waterloo
Anne Wagland

Student Senators
Adrian Chin, Jesse Helmer, Jenny Lin, Nayan Gandhi, Stephen Skrzydlo, Jesse Waltman, Douglas Stebila, Igor Ivkovic, Jeannette Byrne, Justin Wozniak, Brenda Koprowski, Shannon Puddister, Melissa Conrad

Imprint, The Gazette,

Over the past decade, the University of Waterloo's Information Systems & Technology department has faced many challenges and has been handed many opportunities. In every case it has struggled and failed to live up to the expectations of the UW community, particularly students.

  • The Student Information Systems Project was late, expensive and fraught with problems. Initiated in 1992, it did not launch until nine years later. When it finally became available, QUEST was slow, difficult to use and inconvenient. These problems have still not been addressed.
  • Six years after it was promised, a replacement for Student Access is still not in place. This despite a system that was out of date when it was introduced in 1993, two failed attempts at a web-based system and the rejection of offers of help from several student groups.
  • Trellis, the library system, is slow and difficult to use.
  • The new payroll system is inflexible.
  • The "preferred high speed Internet provider," Bell Canada, was chosen in a back room deal that put Waterloo at a disadvantage compared to other schools.
  • On-campus bandwidth is woefully inadequate. The current link is insufficient for 20,000 people. Today, you can buy one megabit of home DSL for $45/month.
  • Campus computing facilities rely on a chaotic assortment of incompatible login systems. Math has one system for Unix, another Macintoshes and a third for Windows; Engineering has its own Unix systems; IST has another for Windows.

Information Technology at UW is now at a crucial point: it can continue on its current path into irrelevancy and disorder, or it can turn the corner and become a leading innovator once again.

I hope you'll choose the latter.

With that in mind, here are four principles to guide IST into the twenty-first century.

  1. Serve the Community. Just as Plant Operations' job is to provide heating and clean buildings, IST's job is to provide bandwidth, write software and install hardware.

    IST should not be dictating to its masters — students, faculty and staff — what computing platforms they can and cannot use. It should not force insecure, virus-prone Microsoft-based systems on people. It should not arbitrarily cap bandwidth or block network ports.

  2. Be a good citizen. IST should be a good member of the Internet and open source communities from which it draws so much. Waterloo should provide mirrors for software such as Debian Linux, BSD, The GNU Project, CPAN and Apache.

    The University of Washington created PINE and an IMAP server. MIT created Kerberos. Washington University created WU-FTPD. Berkley created BSD. UIUC created the Mosaic web browser and httpd. Cambridge created the exim mail server.

    What has Waterloo — allegedly Canada's most innovative university — done? Nothing.

    Waterloo should start, fund and provide ongoing support for open source/free software projects beneficial to the community at large.

  3. Involve students. University students are hardworking, ambitious individuals. The University of Waterloo has thousands of talented computer science and engineering majors who have much to contribute. UW and IST should:

    • Solicit student input on all projects in a meaningful manner, and incorporate their suggestions into the final product.
    • Let student volunteers help build UW's systems. You get free labour, high quality work and a big public relations win. And the students get experience building large, real-world systems and products they can show off to future employers.
  4. Innovate, don't wait. UW likes to call itself an innovator. Twenty years ago, it was among the first to give students access to computers. But recently, it was among the last to provide network access in residence rooms and the last to provide wireless access on campus.

    Waterloo should embrace new technologies and experiment to discover their potential — like Case Western Reserve University's "Gigabit Everywhere" initiative and the wireless campuses at Carnegie Mellon University and the Richard Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario.

    Instead of restricting access due to paranoid worries about potential abuses, UW should take risks and look for opportunities.

Paul Schreiber
BMath (Computer Science) 2001

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