Charles Sturt University embraces unified comms

Charles Sturt University’s unified communications deployment has produced some surprises, such as higher-than-expected demand for softphones, says Phillip Roy, Director of Operations in the University’s Division of Information Technology.

Lots of IT projects don’t meet their goals, but at Charles Sturt University this outcome has been positive: an initiative to replace analogue telephony with unified communications (UC) has seen more staff than expected adopt advanced collaboration tools.

The University decided to adopt UC and VoIP in 2008, as the cost and features of its previous systems presented the organisation with several challenges.

“Our old phone system could not integrate with other forms of communications like email and instant messaging,” Phillip Roy, Director of Operations in the University’s Division of Information Technology, told SearchCIO ANZ.

“The limitation was the hardware-based PABX, and any change in functionality needed an engineering solution based on replacing hardware. We also had multiple lines and phone systems around the University,” Roy said, and as the University operates several campuses around New South Wales this diversity meant complexity and cost.

As a distance education provider of note, Roy also felt the University should consider “options to reduce distance between students and members of the University community. Things like presence and mobility can make communication more effective.”

Roy settled on Interactive Intelligence, after deciding that it represented good value and “architecturally, we thought that it would suit us better in that it is primarily a software-based phone system so it relies less on engineering infrastructure and boxes. Instead it requires servers sitting in data centres.” A final factor, he said, was the fact the software “has grown up from a call centre environment there are aspects about the functionality that are quite advanced and we knew this would provide us with some advantages in the future.”

Roy says the product has worked as advertised and brought many hoped-for benefits.

“One clear example is where we have staff travelling between campuses,” he said. “Now a staff member can move from one campus to another, log in with phone and computer, and have the same features and services from their primary location. When someone logs into a phone, it is their phone. We are no longer tied to the facility at your desk.”

This helps the University because some of its functions are distributed between campuses. Staff can now visit different locations without disruption.

That flexibility also means the institution can create teams that span sites.

“We could go so far as to have call centres located across geographically dispersed locations,” Roy said.

The University is also enjoying lower phone bills, thanks to VoIP interconnect between campuses. A single network is also proving easier to operate, as the University chose to daisy chain phones from the Ethernet ports already present on desktop PCs.

“The backend is composed of redundant sets of servers across two data centers,” Roy said, an arrangement he finds far easier to manage than his previous fleet of nine PABXs.

The central infrastructure is also, as advertised, proving easier to manage.

“We have had new buildings come online where the commissioning of the telephony runs hand in hand with the data service and is simple to do.”

Well-laid plans pay off

Roy said realising these benefits was the result of plans that aimed to ensure users would be comfortable with the new system.

“We managed the transition closely,” he said. “We put in place a solid process and resources to manage the transition, because we thought we needed extra effort and it paid off.”

One of those extra efforts was designing a transition process for each staff member, including a range of training options that varied from introductory guides to more advanced material.

“Every phone came with a package that explained it and where to go for more info,” Roy said. “For advanced features we provided online training and structured training events. We budgeted for and costed that into the project and it really paid off. We have really good user acceptance.”

So good, in fact, that an unexpectedly large number of users opted for the advanced softphone client.

“We budgeted for one in six,” Roy said. “We had a lot more take it up. The advanced client gives a lot of control over the deskphone, allows users to set status, divert calls, manage bridge calls and conference calls, or arrange quite advanced routing.” Staff, he said, are happily empowered to operate these features themselves and revel in the productivity they afford.

Not all went well on the project: Roy admits he “underestimated timeframes” required for deployment.

But overall, he’s pleased and now plans to eventually adopt power-over-Ethernet to simplify infrastructure further, while also considering ways to take the new telephony infrastructure’s services to off-campus users, be they staff or distance learning students.

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