University unified communications includes presence…and video…and IM

As University of Birmingham rolls out its first unified communications solution, it is addressing a whole host of issues from load balancing to cultural change among staff.

As English university students face a steep increase in fees, universities must gear up for a competitive market in which students will more closely scrutinize the services provided along with their basic education. To gain some edge in this market, Birmingham University is deploying a university unified communications solution that will improve contact among staff and offer students better access to faculty and administrators.

The university IT team -- which serves 8,000 staff and 25,000 students --began by implementing a pilot unified communications (UC) program that included unified messaging and enabled voicemail messages and faxes to be sent directly to Outlook inboxes.

Then the IT team linked its networked Aastra MD110s phone system with a Microsoft Office Communications Server (OCS) to trial Microsoft OCS Enterprise Voice for 150 users. Those users can now redirect calls coming into their main office numbers to other phones, including home or mobile devices. Calls can even be routed to a user’s laptop via Wi-Fi. The system also incorporates presence technology, so all staff members on the system can see their colleagues’ location and availability status.

The next step will be to roll out Instant Messaging (IM) to all students and most staff in time for 2011 intake, which will be a substantial piece of work, said head of telecoms at Birmingham  Rob Derbyshire. IM will be supported on mobile devices, including iPads, through third-party apps. Then the IT team will roll out OCS for IM and VoIP calls to a large portion of the staff, Derbyshire said.

By October 2011, all new students will have OCS for IM and video, but they will not have access to enterprise voice, as there is “less perceived need for it at the moment,” according to Derbyshire. Staff will also have access to OCS for IM and video, and some will have access to enterprise voice depending on need.

The UC launch at Birmingham has taken longer than expected, but the IT team has worked hard to make the infrastructure as resilient as possible for the overall implementation.

The university deployed two Brocade ServerIron load balancers to support the UC implementation, as well as Aastra Collaboration Link to deliver Remote Call Control to some users.  This enables the IT team to profile its users and offer the right level of UC service to each portion of the user base depending on need and policy.

“We have made all the servers resilient, i.e., two servers for each function, and we have load balancers in the system now,” Derbyshire said.

University unified communications solutions: The cost

Despite the new technology implementation, the cost of the overall project has been “relatively small fry,”  Derbyshire said.

“Some of the features of OCS are built into the MS licensing scheme we have called MS Campus, so in a way we were paying for functionality we were not using anyway. A small investment in hardware just allows us to realise the investment in our software license,” Derbyshire explained, adding that the university’s solutions provider Damovo guided his team in the selection and implementation of the system.

“I think that the project would have been stopped if it got too expensive and there was no discernable value in the system. As it happens, neither of these have happened, but what delayed the project has been a change in key staff, and also the development of a new IT strategy,” he said.

Unified communications solutions call for cultural change

In fact, the organisational challenges have been the largest complicating factor in launching the project.

“[UC] is one of those systems where you need to get decision makers using it and playing with it, and it is not an overnight process to decide whether it is an appropriate thing for the organisation to have,”  Derbyshire said.

Training and the beginning of a cultural change will form a major part of the roll out. Until now the university has had a 9-5 desk-based culture, but that’s likely to change.

“One thing we haven’t touched on yet … are some of the HR issues around, do we need to provide some training for managers in terms of how they manage staff who aren’t necessarily office based?”  Derbyshire said.

He believes there is a balance to be struck. “The balance is, when you use a system like UC, it [shouldn’t] fully replace all that proper human contact. It might be a substitute for it 50% of the time, but it is not the be all and end all.”

--Tracey Caldwell is a professional freelance business technology writer.

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