Case study: Lancaster University revamps unified communications

Lancaster University works with Logicalis to install new Cisco systems and bring unified comms to staff and postgraduates

Based in the north of England, Lancaster University is a well-known and respected university with a strong research heritage and alumni ranging from the managing director of Waitrose to TV presenter James May.

With 18,500 people on campus, made up from students, staff and researchers, the need to communicate is high on the university’s list of priorities – but its ageing legacy infrastructure was not up to the job.

“Like many organisations, we first did telephony onsite in the early 1980s and were still running the same platform,” says Ian Anderson, networking group leader at Lancaster University. “As with those other organisations in this position, the kit was getting older, it was harder to support and didn’t support flexible working.

“Fast-forward to 2011 and 2012, not only were we looking at the potential end of life for the system we had, but we also saw the opportunity for a step change. If you're going to spend six-figure sums, you don’t want to just replace desk phones with a new handset and a bigger screen.”

Instead, Anderson embarked on a project to bring unified communications (UC) to the university. Working closely with solutions provider Logicalis, he picked out a number of products from Cisco – a supplier the university had been partnering with for some time – to unite systems and bring in new capabilities.  

“From the unified communications manager, to Jabber for instant messaging and collaboration, as well as integrating it into the room-based systems we have, we now have a fully unified communications setup,” he says.

“People were getting confused as to whether they had been invited to a Skype video call, a webinar or needed to book a room. We wanted to break down this user confusion so they could access meetings from wherever they were on their choice of device.”

Bring your own device

When asked about why he decided to go down the bring your own device (BYOD) route, Anderson claims the industry trend was nothing new to Lancaster University.

“BYOD is a huge buzzword right now, but we have been doing it for many years,” he says. “Some of that is down to us having very tech-savvy people around who want to have things working on the devices they are buying, but we have also used systems like eduroam for some time so people can login to Wi-Fi at various educational institutions.

“Providing support and ensuring the look and feel of applications is the same across different devices can cause headaches, but saying 'sorry, you can’t use the device you want to' doesn’t wash with our users,” says Anderson

UC roll-out took careful planning

While showing speedy adoption in an area such as BYOD, Anderson and his team were much more cautious with the timescale of roll-out when it came to the new UC system, wanting to make sure everything was ready, step by step, for the organisation.

“We have taken the roll-out slowly and with a measured approach,” he says. “It took us 12 months to come up with a communications strategy, talking to the units within the university, from central admin through to researchers. Then it took another 12 months to look at what was available, carry out trials, and eventually do the procurement.”

Once the solutions had been decided on, it took six months to install the core network. The university is now embarking on the roll-out phase.

“We chose the areas that would benefit first through two criteria,” says Anderson. “First, we wanted to address areas that were low on capacity, and second, we wanted to deploy it to areas likely to benefit the most. For example, the first department we chose was education research, which is big on distance learning.”

Potential user adoption challenges

The aim is to get all staff and most of the postgraduates onto the system by July 2014, which should cover around 4,000 people. However, Anderson understands that not every individual will want to embrace the technology.

We will not be walking into offices and ripping out landlines, but will instead give users the choice

Ian Anderson, Lancaster University

“Working at a university, we have every gamut of personality trait, from lecturers who had put in answer machines to screen their calls and didn’t want to change, through to new researchers who had experienced other communications technology at other institutions and saw us as quite outdated,” he says.  

“We are still early in the deployment phase, and I am sure we will come across those who have issues with the system, but it won’t be enforced. We will not be walking into offices and ripping out landlines, but will instead give users the choice.”

They key to bringing the masses on board will be getting a few early adopters to sing its praises.

“I don’t want to be seen as the bad guy,” says Anderson, “but the small percentage in the initial take-up have had good reactions. From there, it ends up being peer pressure – colleagues saying, 'Oh, you are not on this system?' – then we see a trickle of requests coming through as they want to be on it too. It is the users driving the change.”

Collaboration tools to attract research funding

But what can Lancaster University really achieve through this new system?

As an international university with partners around the world, it can keep its own alumni closer together, but in the competitive world of research and fighting for the grants to conduct it, Anderson believes the system will be pivotal.  

“In the university market, it is all becoming about the power of collaboration to bring in research funding,” he says. “Most projects now are done through partnering with another group of academics at another university, or even an industrial partner, with not many kicking off from a single university or with a single leader.

“The ability to bring external partners in through these collaboration tools gives the university a real [boost] in this field.”

Although still sounding somewhat cautious, Anderson is confident when talking about the first wave of deployments, and he believes the future will see more enthusiasm for the system.

He says it has been well received by those who are using it already: “The key thing is that people have started to use it and we can see the numbers of instant messages, users on presence, etc.

“Only time will tell, but the numbers are not dropping, showing it is more than just a novelty factor. As long as user numbers stay and increase, then I will be happy.”

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