Oxford University provides a study in unified communications


Oxford University is the the oldest in the English-speaking world but that’s no reason to skimp on providing staff and students with a thoroughly modern digital unified communications experience, says deputy CIO Darrell Sturley.

oxford-universityTradition may count for a lot at an institution that dates back some 800 years, but that’s no excuse for Oxford University to lag behind on technology deployment.

That’s the opinion of Dr Darrell Sturley, deputy CIO at Oxford University and lead sponsor of a project to roll out unified communications (UC) to around 40,000 students and staff using more than 100,000 devices:

There’s a perception that Oxford University is old-fashioned, that it’s all dreaming spires and punting. But there’s a lot more to it than that. This is a cutting-edge research university, as well as a world-leading teaching university. We have to have very good IT, because that’s what every modern workplace should have. We have to give students, teachers and researchers a fantastic digital experience while they’re here, because people who come to learn, teach or research shouldn’t feel short-changed.

With a view to providing that thoroughly modern digital experience, Oxford University signed a deal earlier this year with Unify (formerly Siemens Enterprise Communications) that will see the company replace the university’s existing integrated services digital exchange (ISDX) with a new UC-based system, ‘Chorus’, based on its OpenScape UC platform. Sturley comments:

The digital exchange we currently have in place was installed back in 1986 and is due to go out of support in 2017. So in a sense, this is something we have to do, but at the same time, we’ve no intention of doing a like-for-like replacement. We realised early on that there was an opportunity here to do something quite different, something that would totally transform the University’s approach to communication and collaboration.

Unify was selected after a procurement process that took the best part of a year, says Dr Sturley. He declines to put a price on the contract, but stresses that is a “multi-million pound deal” for the University and an “extremely important” one.

From the start, key requirements of the new service included the ability to support users’ communications across a wide range of devices, including desktops, laptops, smartphones and tablets, many owned by staff and students themselves. But it will also open up a new world of different communications mediums, he adds:

Some of the staff at the university already make use of things like Skype, on an ad-hoc basis, but setting up audio conferences can be a bit of a nuisance, especially with participants who are not on Skype.

The new system will enable them to do that on the fly. They’ll also be able to find colleagues using an electronic phone book, see if they’re available for a call and, if they are, click to dial. If they’re not, they can send an instant message to ask when they will be available.

So that should make contacting people a lot easier. And as they move between departments, colleges and home offices, for example, their number will be able to ‘follow them’, so that people can reach them on the most convenient device.

Back end build

Today, Sturley and his team are hard at work on rolling out the back-end infrastructure on which OpenScape will run. They’ll be testing this architecture up until Christmas 2014, in preparation for a pilot project in the new year involving around 250 staff and students.

From there, they’ll figure out how to introduce the technology across 38 colleges and numerous administrative functions and university departments, and the project is expected to take around four years in total.

But first, the university’s networking infrastructure will require an overhaul and that’s something that needs to be done with care, given the university’s impressive architecture, says Sturley:

That’s one reason that we’re not, for example, overplaying the video aspect of this project right now. Desk-to-desk video conferencing will be possible, with the new systems, but it won’t be rolled out until we have the bandwidth in place to guarantee a smooth experience for people using it.

We have some beautiful buildings here, both very old and very new, and they do pose challenges. But we’ve got a lot of experience in working around those challenges and we find that new technology developments often provide an answer, with clever deployment of wireless access points and so on. It’s a matter of investing time and thought into it.

oxford_475x300Ultimately, as well as providing firm foundations for a ‘bring your own device’ approach, students will also benefit from being able to make free calls within the university system. Sturley explains:

We’ve arranged with Unify a commercial arrangement whereby all of our students will be able to call each other and academic staff for free, as long as they’ve downloaded an app to their smartphone and have suitable Wi-Fi coverage. We anticipate that this will go down very well with the entire community, despite the bandwidth challenges it presents.

Unify was very flexible in understanding the needs of students and recognising that they are a vital part of our community. These free calls will be a great addition to the distinctive teaching approach, based on the tutorial system, for which Oxford is famous. Students have always had plenty of one-to-one time with their tutors – this won’t replace that, because it’s an important part of coming to Oxford, but easier communications between tutors and students will add another flavour to that experience.