In this blog piece, written in February 2013, John Robinson, former Director of Library & Information Services at SOAS and current LMN Company Secretary, considered the future of LMN in the light of its history and future developments in the HE/FE IT sector.
The LMN in the title of this piece refers to the London Metropolitan Network Ltd, usually known as LMN and recently going through a re-launch as the LMN IT Board. This blog piece arises from a presentation I made to an LMN IT Directors’ Forum on 7th February 2013 in response to the question: “what next for LMN?”.
My association with LMN (as an organisation) goes back to 2000 when I attended the inaugural general meeting of LMN as the institutional representative of London Guildhall University (where I worked at the time). The London MAN which preceded LMN dates from the early- to mid-1990s. In the 1980s the precursor to the London MAN was called Metronet (also described in some places as the London Metropolitan Network). Networking — particularly inter-networking between HEIs and with the outside world — is therefore an activity which has been conducted in London for more than thirty years based on collaborations between IT Directors and Network Managers in a manner which has considerable resonance at a time when “shared services” and “cost-sharing groups” are the buzzwords of the moment.
At SOAS we are currently working with the Bloomsbury Colleges and Senate House Libraries on the creation of a new Bloomsbury Library Management System (BLMS) as a shared service (see www.blms.ac.uk for more information). What struck me about LMN, coming back to it after a break, is how uncannily similar it is to the organisation which we have been advised (by accountants and solicitors) to form as the operator of the BLMS. Perhaps there are lessons to be learned on both sides?
Formation of LMN
LMN was formed to take over operation of the London Metropolitan Area Network (usually called the London MAN) from the JNT Association (usually referred to at that time as UKERNA, more recently trading as JANET(UK)) which operates the UK National Research and Education Network (NREN) usually known as JANet. The late-1990s was a period when the UK Funding Councils working through JISC were promoting regional networks operated by consortia of universities as a means of improving network connectivity within institutions, between institutions and on to the JANet backbone, which was being progressively upgraded from a relatively low bandwidth (in today’s terms) to “SuperJANet” with multi-megabit- and later, multi-gigabit-per-second bandwidth.
The original JANet connections in London, and the subsequent London MAN were managed by the NOC (Networks Operations Centre) at ULCC, which also operated the national network. In the late-1990s there was a concern that the upgrade from London MAN to the next generation would present a conflict of interest if it was operated out of the same NOC which was responsible for the operation of JANet (along the lines of, “if there was a problem on the national network and the London network, which would take priority for the NOC?”).
There was also a push from the funders: HEFCE/JISC wanted metropolitan area networks — regional networks as they were starting to be called — to take more responsibility and become more businesslike for a number of reasons:
- a concern that UKERNA was not sufficiently close to the end-user institutions to understand their particular needs;
- a recognition that UKERNA’s remit (to provide one primary JANet connection to each nominated site) did not extend to connectivity between the sites of multi-campus institutions or between institutions seeking direct links for collaboration; and
- a view that regionally-based organisations were better-placed to deal with their local telecommunications suppliers in an era when access to fibre-optic cables and managed circuits at reasonable prices was difficult, especially in the more distant regions of the UK (this was particularly important when it came to provision of the additional connections).
UKERNA was instructed to direct a proportion of SuperJANet funds to regional network organisations through a formula based on the numbers of primary connections which would be delivered via those organisations. This funding was made up of both capital and revenue elements.
LMN was passed the responsibility for operating the London MAN and managing the upgrade to a multi-gigabit-per-second backbone with a separate network operations centre. Volunteers from member organisations were sought to join the LMN Technical Group chaired by Professor Roland Rosner at UCL. With the exception of a part-time Executive Director and contributions from the network experts in the NOC, the collaboration between LMN members was hugely-important for the process by which the LMN network was designed, RFCs and ITTs were issued, suppliers shortlisted and, finally, the network was built which has served London – and JANet – extremely well for a decade or more.
My association with LMN continued until 2005, first as a member of the LMN Technical Group and latterly as a Board member and Chair of that group. In 2005 I moved to King’s College London to work on secondment to JISC, managing its SLA with JANet. It was — politely but firmly — suggested that I could not act as poacher and gamekeeper at the same time.
I stepped down from the LMN board and watched from the other side of the fence (for example, at the meetings of the JISC Committee for Networking aka JCN) as LMN’s (and the other regional networks’) relationship with JANet was gradually resolved through the negotiation of the “JANet Partner Agreement” (JPA). In 2009, JANET(UK) informed LMN that it wished to cancel this arrangement and take the operation of the network back in-house. In 2011, after more than 10 years operating a highly-successful metropolitan area education network for London, LMN found itself looking for a new purpose.
Looking back; looking forward — what is the Ethos of LMN?
All organisations have an Ethos and LMN is no exception. Re-invention can work with the Ethos, or it may require a change of Ethos. The Ethos of LMN has its roots firmly based in what came before. Some observations.
LMN was established to operate a data network and its membership is drawn from the ranks of Network Analysts, Network Managers, Heads of ICT and (in some cases) IT Directors (many of whom came up via the network operations path). The one exception to this is the Board, which has always included representatives from the Vice-Chancellor/College Principal/Finance Director level of the member organisations.
Data networking has long been a male-dominated profession. Without being pious or getting into complicated discussions about why this might be, I merely note the significance of this in terms of the Ethos of LMN (and JANet for that matter).
The Ethos of LMN (and JANet) owes a great deal to the shared experience of its members, and that shared-experience goes back into the very early days of JANet in particular and of data networking in general. Regardless of the now-ubiquitous nature of the internet, we are still within living memory of the time before it existed. The members of the generation building data networks in the 1980s were pioneers, drawn by the fascination of the new. The backgrounds of the men (mostly) who built the first iteration of JANet were in computer science, engineering, physics, chemistry, mathematics and — in at least one well-known instance — glacial hydrology. In many cases they were exposed to the use of mainframe- and mini-computers in the course of their studies then became fascinated by the challenge of getting the machines to talk to each other. There was a lot of craft involved and it was not unusual to find people who not only negotiated for connections but also built (or modified) the equipment which was used to connect to the early networks which were based (in the UK) on British Telecom “X” networks (circuit-switched systems derived from telephony) such as X.25 and X.29. The US defence establishment was building ARPANet around about the same time, based on a completely different packet-switched approach.
That 1980s generation is now at retirement age. The 1990s generation which is now at senior-management age is still bound together by the common experiences of the transition from the JANet X.25 network to the JANet IP network and the struggles to get adequate bandwidth, particularly across the Atlantic, to join the global internet. (Internal networks at this time were still using now-archaic protocols such as IPX and NetBEUI, with TCP/IP not yet built-in to many desktop operating systems, presenting further complications in the process of providing users with access to the nascent internet.)
There is a particular quality to the people who truly understand how data networks operate which is, in my experience, quite rare. It has something to do with the ability to combine the skills required by a computer programmer with an ability to visualise how networks are laid-out and operate. I should say that there is nothing gender-specific about the ability to “get” data-networking. Some of the best network analysts I have worked with have been women. The gendering of the field has a lot more to do with context than ability, and the sector — in common with many other professions — is the poorer for it.
To understand the Ethos of LMN, we need to understand this context, the circumstances in which it arose and then consider the question: where now does this take us?
A cluster of experts
My vivid recollection of LMN (and the London MAN which preceded it) is of a cluster of experts in the business of building and managing data networks. Today there is much talk about “shared services”. Back then, the buzz-word had not been invented but it would be fair to say that building the London — and UK — education networks was a truly collaborative effort. (Perhaps, in our exploration of what makes LMN an exceptional organisation we need to reclaim the term and talk about collaborative services.)
In the middle of a cache of LJUG (London JANet User Group) minutes (carefully-written in neat plain-text e-mail by Roland Trice) from 1996, I find the following note:
THE LONDON MAN.
- The London MAN will be officially announced at a launch meeting on the 6th of February . Contracts with ICn will be signed shortly.
- Phase One of the project will consist of a 155 Mbit/s ATM [SDH] ring between 6 core sites; ULCC, UCL, Imperial College, Telehouse, Greenwich [Woolwich] University and SouthBank University. An additional 18 leaf sites will be connecting to the MAN using 34 Mbit/s PDH circuits. 12 of these sites are JISC funded as part of the SuperJANET project, the remainder are self funded. Phase Two will see the connection of another 29 sites.
- The connections offered by the MAN on day one will be IP over ATM as the preferred option, or IP over HSSI at sites with no ATM capability.
- The MAN will provide three distinct services:
- SuperJANET connection to the attached institutions via Imperial and UCL.
- Transit connection between SuperJANET and the International Links via ULCC and Telehouse.
- Inter-site connectivity between institutions with distributed campuses. In some cases, links will connect via the core sites, in others, institutions will be directly connected together.
Here is a rich tapestry of collaborating institutions. The first London MAN depended upon network staff in all of the institutions listed above, making space in their machine rooms, negotiating way-leaves into their premises for the new data circuits, learning how to configure the new equipment and attending meetings to assist in the process. The work was led by staff at ULCC who were all employees of the University of London, operating out of the same ethos as the staff at the collaborating institutions. This collaborative approach continued as LMN took over from London MAN and is one of the keys to understanding the organisation.
Service brokerage and CPD
Part of the process of building LMN had resulted in the contract for network management being let to a commercial supplier, which was able to use its economies of scale (it operated a Network Operations Centre for a number of large commercial clients with hundreds of sites) to manage LMN for a much lower cost than would have been incurred if LMN had had to employ staff and set up its own centre. This freed up funds for LMN to take on staff for other functions, including new initiatives. Two initiatives in particular are relevant to the discussion about LMN futures: service brokerage and CPD.
As a membership organisation tasked with providing primary JANet connections to 110 sites (at that time), LMN had the opportunity to negotiate on behalf of its members for services under framework or franchise arrangements. The procurement of telecommunications circuits for the JANet connections (for example), included a framework under which LMN members could take additional connections from the supplier at a fixed-price (within the M25). Other examples included arrangements for e-mail filtering and a managed data backup service. On the CPD front, a series of seminars and IT Director’s fora were advertised via a regular calendar of events.
JISC and JANet: an unstable relationship (now resolved?)
JISC used to operate as a permanent standing committee of HEFCE with governance provided by a Board and a Steering Committee and its funding supervised by 6 sub-committees. This governance was inscrutable to almost everyone, including many of its staff and its services. JANet was the largest service-provider with whom JISC had a relationship but the JISC Services Portfolio accounted for more than £55M p.a. of recurrent funding across 5 or 6 major and a dozen or more minor partners.
JISC negotiated an SLA with JANet to define the services it would provide using funding channelled via HEFCE. JANet at that time was a membership organisation with a number of different categories of member, of which the primary members were the funding- and research-councils. Although JANet’s members nominated its Board, the primary governance in terms of SLA came via JISC. Strictly speaking, the customers (in ITIL terms) were the funding councils and we, the recipients of JANet services, the users.
This was an uneasy relationship at the best of times and has now changed dramatically. JISC has become a company limited by guarantee (similar to LMN) and a registered charity (which LMN is not). The owners of JISC (as a company) are no longer the funding councils but three groups which represent the sector (the Association of Colleges, GuildHE and Universities UK). JISC is now the owner of the company which operates JANet and JISC Collections.
Central government is fiddling around with HE and FE funding arrangements without any clear idea of the consequences. Strictly-speaking, we are still not customers of JISC/JANet but users of services commissioned by its primary customers on behalf of their constituents – but who are those customers now, in the new arrangements?
The changes which are happening around the JISC/JANet arrangements may have far-reaching effects upon the way in which services – especially networking in our case – are delivered. What is not yet clear is what the outcome of these changes will mean for us, the users of the services. We need to look closely at the changes in the external environment.
The external environment (1) – the money
My first observation is, “follow the money”. The net effect of changes in HE funding is to move money away from central grant to repayable loans which go direct to institutions. This means that HEFCE’s budget is being reduced and it has cut both core and marginal grants. Teaching funding has been cut down to and beyond the bone. Research funding is protected in cash terms (so far) but not inflated. Many Special Funding lines have been cut (e.g. Historic Buildings) or are subject to scrutiny. In spite of this, the government claim is that, by the end of current cutting rounds (2015/16) there will be circa £3Bn more per annum going into HE.
Where is this going?
The JISC/JANet “owners” are now AOC, Guild HE and UUK but its web site still refers to its “funders” as “all the UK post-16 and higher education funding bodies as well as the research councils”. There is obviously an aspiration at the level of the “owners” that the current central funding will continue (with sound evidence that this is a very efficient model compared with most others) but we are facing an ideology of “austerity” and an election within the time-frame of the JANet6 network upgrade. In customer/user terms, the traditional JISC/JANet customers (if they still exist) may not have the wherewithal to continue to purchase services on behalf of their stakeholders. We might, at some point, discover that we have become the customers of JISC/JANet.
The external environment (2) – uncertain institutional futures
A new market ideology is being imposed upon HEIs and their ability to deal with this varies tremendously. The government has completely mis-sold what is effectively a graduate tax as a “loan”. The transfer from quotas of students to open-market for AAB (ABB next year) at one end and low-cost courses at the other blasts traditional recruitment assumptions to pieces. The number of guaranteed places is reduced but still heavily-regulated. Institutions are starting to talk about being “85% private” or even “95% private” (for teaching) and internal discussions have moved dramatically onto “student experience”, and “market proposition” as well as the more traditional “value for money”, “core business”, “outsourcing” and – current buzzword – “shared services”.
Research funding (HEFCE and RCUK) is becoming much more instrumental and recent proposals about Open Access to funded research push institutions to become publishers in their own right (on the one hand) or to take a much greater interest in the choice of publisher (on the other).
In this context, JISC/JANet faces a major risk if it is seen as an optional service rather than critical shared infrastructure, especially if the changes in funding mean that they have to move towards a subscription model.
Look at what is happening to the NHS: how long will it be before that ideology starts to take hold in our sector?
External environment (3) – it’s not about IT any more
In the early days of the internet, networking and all the things associated with it used to be mainly about IT. Connectivity is now pervasive and used for a multitude of purposes — some IT-related, many not — only some of which are directly-relevant to HEIs. Much of what was pioneering in the 1990s has moved into the commodity field and beyond.
For HEIs the primary focus is on content, on management, on efficiency in the use of ICT, on Information Systems (especially business systems) which are fit for purpose and on recruitment and retention of students.
External environment (4) – what is (or isn’t) JANet?
It may be easier to say what JANet is not:
- JANet is not an ISP (although it has some ISP-like functions);
- JANet is not a Telco (although it dabbles and may have aspirations);
- JANet is not a service-provider in the traditional sense (selling services into a market);
- we are not JANet’s customers (despite what it tells us).
What JANet is (or has been) is a membership organisation which provides a framework for the provision of a range of services defined by its customers for provision to their constituents or to fulfil their strategic aims. Its primary commission is to deliver infrastructure to the education sector on a “free at the point of delivery” basis.
It is helpful to read and fully-understand the JANet SLA. As JISC/JANet repositions – perhaps inevitably – as a service-provider which will invite us to become customers, it will become crucial to understand the offering and explain to distracted senior management why JISC/JANet as a centrally-funded infrastructure resource is not an optional service which can be considered alongside other offerings e.g. from Telcos and ISPs (who are currently doing some quite aggressive advertising into the School and FE sectors).
Building a new model – and new USP – for LMN
Looking back, there are three key elements which I would regard as the strengths of the LMN model upon which we can build:
- collaboration between members on the development and provision of services across or based upon the shared network;
- the function of LMN as a mechanism for demand-aggregation and stakeholder engagement;
- the opportunity, being small, and (now) without a permanent staff, to be quite nimble in responding to the changes in the environment.
LMN when it ran the network under the JPA had a USP which was its captive membership based on the fact that it was commissioned to provide services as a delivery-partner for JANet. LMN was able to add value to these relationships in a number of ways. With the loss of the JPA, LMN is faced with some interesting choices about how it might re-invent itself: starting from the position of a membership base and some accrued funding. A classic approach at this point is to conduct a Gap Analysis and an Options Appraisal to consider the choices.
What gap is there in the field which LMN might fill? What do its members want/need? This is a crowded field: how can LMN find its new USP? Some observations:
On the services front, gaps exist in
- the infrastructure for digital curation and preservation;
- business systems which are fit for purpose to manage HEIs;
- services delivered with economies of scale to smaller institutions;
- shared facilities such as data centres;
- extended-hours support and assistance as institutions move onto 24hr/7day operations.
With the changes in JISC/JANet there is also a potential accountability gap as the governance provided by JISC through its committees and working groups breaks down.
Option Appraisal (1) – continue as a service-provider
LMN could seek to continue as a service-provider to its members (and could sell services to non-members). Service-provision binds members in and provides the basis for other activities e.g. lobbying, stakeholder engagement. (In this context, it could be argued that JISC/JANet has moved into the established-service space and there is little scope for attempting to continue as a network service operator unless it becomes clear that there is a gap in provision. LMN needs to move on.)
Possible service models include:
- a provider of new shared- or collaborative services which do not currently exist e.g. a London-based 24-hr help desk (maybe in collaboration with NorMAN), provision of large-scale research repositories or innovative business systems based on the emerging open-source alternatives to the traditional vendors;
- a demand-aggregation organisation (deliver a captive market to vendors, reducing their cost to market, perhaps for an introduction fee);
- a service brokerage (the “channel partner” approach) re-selling services for a percentage.
It is pointless to build or commission services which are already available. Such services lend themselves to the demand-aggregation model. LMN has had some success in the past operating the channel partner model.
Option Appraisal (2) – stakeholder and/or lobby group
Is LMN a lobby group? If so, to lobby for what?
In the acronym jungle (UCISA, UUK, AOC, GuildHE, SCONUL, RUGIT, RLUK, LGfL, BCS, CILIP etc) the LMN voice may be seen as “just one of the stakeholders” and its voice diluted in a general consultation.
Is LMN a stakeholder group? If so, stakes in what? JISC/JANet?
In a scenario where we become customers of JISC/JANet: could LMN become the “intelligent customer” on behalf of its members and engage in collective bargaining for the services which JISC/JANet provides? For this to work, LMN would need to be recognised as the voice of its members and have an agreement with the service provider that it will treat LMN as that representative – a bit like a Trades Union or Professional Body (e.g. UCU or CILIP) with a “recognition agreement”.
There are questions about the way the JANet SLA works: the old way of doing things has gone; what is the new way? LMN, having previously delivered the JANet SLA to its members, is well-placed to understand the issues. How can it ensure that its views are heard?
Previously, JISC commissioned a third-party Monitoring Unit which then had three-way conversations with JANet about the performance of the SLA, seeking reassurance about what actions were being taken in cases where service fell below the standard. What will be the methods by which standards are assured in the new arrangements?
Option Appraisal (3) – CPD organisation
Is there a body in London for Network Professionals and IT Directors? Building on its contacts and experience from its previous core business (delivery of a high-quality shared network) might LMN see a gap here?
Again, there is a risk that LMN is trying to operate in a crowded space e.g. UCISA, RUGIT, BCS. What is its unique contribution?
Conclusion – if there is one
LMN has an opportunity to re-invent itself.
LMN has resources which it can apply to this process and could reasonably invest in some consultancy to work up some proposals.
LMN needs to know what is feasible.
LMN needs to know what its members want or need.
There are 3 clear options: service-provider; stakeholder/lobby group; CPD.
Which one has resonance?
What have I missed?