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Oxford University takes SaaS-led approach to IT department consolidation

The University of Oxford has merged several IT departments to provide staff and students with centralised support

The University of Oxford has hailed the success of its recent push to merge several of its IT departments, claiming the move has helped it to respond quicker and more efficiently to tech support issues of its staff and students.

The organisation is responsible for delivering technology support to around 30,000 users, and until Spring 2013 this was delivered by one of three IT departments, depending on the nature and source of the problem.

As such, there was a team responsible for solving departmental business IT issues, another tasked with keeping the universities networks and email systems running, and a third one focused on desktop PC-related problems.

“We got to a point where IT was so pervasive within the organisation and some of the academics needed to use some of the admin systems, while students were asking to use our business systems, and it all started to get a bit blurred,” says University of Oxford director of customer services John Ireland.

In some of the more complex IT support cases, input may be required from one or more of these teams, which could create bottlenecks and slow response times, as the individual departments were not used to working together.

To make life easier for the respective IT teams, and the users they serve, a decision was taken to merge the three organisations and work towards finding ways to deliver a consistent support service to them.

“One of the drivers for that was trying to make user access to IT support much easier, much simpler and deliver a consistent experience for users when they called through so no-one got bounced around from one place to another and teams could escalate issues effectively,” says Ireland.

“The merger’s aim was to enable that to happen, so we would enjoy better integration and cohesion within our teams, and make it easier for our complex network of technical specialists to work together whenever we had a support call coming in.”

At this point, the merged IT team had “five to six” different systems in place to help log support queries and monitor their progress, and a procurement exercise was kicked off to help find a single tool that could replace them all.

This period lasted 11 months, as the university shortlisted suppliers and embarked on periods of intensive testing of the products they were presented with, before selecting Heat Software’s cloud-based service management software for deployment in April 2015.

Private vs public cloud

Initially, the university toyed with using a private cloud-based setup, adds Ireland, but eventually decided against it for logistical reasons.

“There were different drivers that suggested we take a software-as-a-service (SaaS) approach to this because our technical teams were already heavily committed to some business projects and business application upgrades, and we couldn’t guarantee their availability to support a private cloud roll-out,” he says.

Going down the SaaS route has also taken out some of the worry and uncertainty around rolling out software updates, and has added an extra layer of resiliency the previous systems lacked.

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For example, if there are connectivity issues across the university’s network, users can still flag IT support issues because the Heat software doesn’t run on it.

“The reality is we can access it from anywhere in the world. We can work from home, we can work over 3G connections, and our team can focus on fixing issues within the university because our service tools are still up and running,” Ireland says.

Aside from providing users with a single point of contact for their IT support needs, the deployment of Heat’s software has also made it easier for the team to log reports, act on them or pass the requests on as necessary.

Common queries, such as requests for new PCs or larger email storage quotas, can be automated to a certain extent within the software, says Ireland, which makes it quicker to turn them around.

Furthermore, the Heat software has a self-service element that allows users to check the progress of any IT support tickets they raise, and the various departments within the university can also request reports into the responsiveness of the IT department to any issues they raise.

“We now have for the first time in the university’s history the ability to have a complete oversight of every IT support call going through a centrally managed IT department,” continues Ireland.

“We know what the volumes are, what the challenges are and can get access to information management reports to improve efficiency.”

Work on this element of the project officially concluded at the end of May 2015, but Ireland and his team are already looking at ways to build on the software’s capabilities to include remote desktop support, a live chat system and tools that will allow users to log IT support issues via social media.

“This really is an enablement project. By putting in a single platform that’s being used across the entire central IT department and having those processes in place, we’ve dealt with the health issues, but what it’s really done is set the scene for further work and efficiencies,” Ireland adds.

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