Birmingham City University revamps IT backhaul

The University works with Logicalis to overhaul its IT infrastructure, from designing two new datacentres to rolling out new wired and wireless networks

The huge rise in student fees has hit the pockets of those wanting to pursue a career requiring a degree in the UK.

But the price rise has also led to a rise in expectations, with students and their parents expecting to get what they pay for in terms of both the education and the facilities on offer.

As a result, many educational institutions are looking to renew, with IT being a key area for progression.

Birmingham City University, which hosts 22,000 students across eight campuses in the midlands hub, is one such place.

As a result of this increased pressure, the university invested £180m in new facilities across the campuses and overhauled its existing IT infrastructure.

Shaun Buffery, associate director for converged infrastructure at Birmingham City University, led the project and believed this investment was needed more than ever.

We see our infrastructure as key to our success as a university

Shaun Buffery, associate director for converged infrastructure, Birmingham City University

“We see our infrastructure as key to our success as a University,” he says. “Nowadays, you’re not only competing on the level of education students will receive, but also facilities and services.

“This new infrastructure will not only adapt to innovation in student technology and teaching resources, but also enable staff to be more collaborative with one another and with the students.”

The project highlighted three key areas that needed to be addressed and, rather than take each one individually, the team wanted to revamp all of them at the same time to ensure the financial and technical improvements would be felt simultaneously.

In 2013, the IT department chose to work with managed-services provider Logicalis to take on the mammoth task.

The first item on the agenda was datacentres because getting them in place would lay the foundation for future technologies. Two new datacentres were designed and deployed at the University, with highly consolidated and resilient server and storage architectures, and efficient solutions for power and cost saving.

Dean England, converged infrastructure architect for servers and storage at Birmingham City University, led the project from the inside along with Logicalis. "With a reference datacentre architecture, the IT team is able to work more efficiently day-to-day", he says. "We’ve reduced server sprawl, increased utilisation, and can already see savings in energy expenditure.”

Once the datacentres were in place, the next step was to look at the network. Here Logicalis and the IT team at the University decided to roll out a new campus-wide wired and wireless local area network (LAN).

The key aspect of this deployment was to improve the university’s disaster recovery options, with advanced backup and de-duplication functionality being added alongside improved storage and archive policies.

But from the student perspective, the new network would enable better use of mobile devices that are increasingly becoming part of the furniture at universities across the country.

“How students consume information is continually evolving and we have to keep pace,” says England. “Today, this means providing fast and secure access to e-learning tools and resources, from anywhere and any device. Tomorrow, they’ll probably be writing their own applications to aid the education process. We’re confident our network will adapt.”

The final piece of the puzzle was designed to support the 4,000 staff in both administration and teaching across Birmingham City University.

Logicalis chose to install the Cisco Unified Communications Manager to provide a stronger and more resilient telephony system, improving productivity of staff and improving ease of use.

CIOs in higher education need to plan for the future and be prepared to adjust their IT strategies to reflect the needs of an expectant and discerning generation of students

Mark Starkey, managing director, Logicalis UK

“The converged telephony solution will allow staff to become more independent, giving them greater opportunity to engage with students via multiple channels and manage admin tasks on the move. This means less time tied to their office and more time face-to-face with students," says Buffery.

The project was completed at the end of 2013 and is now offering staff and students improved ways of teaching, learning and living day-to-day life on campus.

“As student fees continue to increase, so too has the need for universities to be competitive," says Mark Starkey, managing director at Logicalis UK. "Students not only assess the quality of teaching and degree/career ratio, but also the facilities and services institutions can provide. 

“Years of research commissioned by Logicalis points to a student body and future generation that expects to use and have access to a business-class IT infrastructure. Moreover, IT-literate students are aware that technology supports new learning behaviours – for instance, remote learning. Some are expecting to create or re-program the applications and learning environment to suit their individual needs.” 

“Our most recent survey suggests that 70% of 13-17 year olds are planning to go to university," he says. "CIOs in higher education need to plan for the future and be prepared to adjust their IT strategies to reflect the needs of an expectant and discerning generation of students.”

Read more on Data centre networking