Communications | Focus
Tackling the Transition to UC
To implement unified communications on campus, it often pays to take a phased approach.
- By Rama Ramaswami
You have an aging PBX system that desperately needs upgrades. You would like to dump it in favor of unified communications (UC), but you fear it might be difficult--if not impossible--to pull off the transition, given your tight budget and limited staff.
Minot State's UC revamp helped put the school on the cutting edge.
These were the challenges that faced two schools that lie, coincidentally, just 110 miles apart in the vast spaces of North Dakota. Both schools, members of the North Dakota University System, decided to bite the bullet and forge ahead with a UC implementation. And while their final solutions differ, how the two schools managed the tricky transition process carries useful lessons for institutions considering a similar move.
The secret, according to Cathy Horvath, director of information technology at Minot State University, is to take a phased approach and to set realistic goals. A small institution with 3,700 students and about 600 faculty, Minot State had a critical decision to make in December 2009. The maintenance contract for its outdated analog/PBX telephone infrastructure was ending. The provider, Avaya, had quoted a price of more than $400,000 over the next three years for maintenance and upgrades.
At the same time, affordable solutions incorporating unified messaging and voice over IP (VoIP) were increasingly available, offering advanced functionality and potential cost savings. Horvath realized that a complete switch over to UC would take time, but she believed she could handle the transition in stages. With just Horvath and two IT staff members dedicated to the project and no consulting budget, it was crucial to focus on just a few essential elements. Her key goal, though, was to integrate various communication types. "We wanted to have collaborative services and be on the bleeding edge," she says.
One Step at a Time
First, Minot State decided to outsource student e-mail, leaving only faculty and staff in the unified messaging project. "We figured we could handle the project more easily by having students off our system," explains Horvath. "You have to make some decisions about whom you're going to service and to what extent."
Second, by sticking with the old PBX system, it was clear "we were not going to get where we wanted to go," she says. "So we took the money that had been targeted for upgrades and used those dollars to set up a unified messaging environment."
Since the university was already using Microsoft servers and software, it was relatively easy to add a gateway that would move PBX voicemail to Microsoft Exchange Unified Messaging. This allows users to interface across multiple devices--computer, desk phone, or personal digital assistant--and access different modes of communication, such as voicemail and e-mail. "It required some server hardware, but not a huge investment in hardware or software," says Horvath.
Horvath couldn't drop telephones completely, however. The university also had analog fax machines that required support during the migration to an IP-based system. So, in the second phase of the project, Minot State purchased ShoreTel IP phones for call management, integrating ShoreTel's VoIP systems with Microsoft's Exchange Unified Messaging and Office Communications Server. "We are using Microsoft to do all the collaborative pieces, but the ShoreTel is to get out to the world through voice," Horvath says.
The next step for Minot State is to replace all analog phones with Shoretel handsets and, eventually, test the newest version of Microsoft Lync Server, which offers an extensive set of UC features and interoperability with existing systems. "Unified communications is a moving target for many organizations, and Lync will be changing the environment even more," says Horvath. "In 'true' unified communications, you wouldn't even have a PBX. But Microsoft offers linkages for different PBXs, which makes it easy. That's how technology works in a lot of cases--at some point you have to find a link from the old to the new."
Test and Train for UC Transitions
Unified communications (UC) is an architecture that integrates multiple forms of human and device communication in both real and non-real time. From a single point, users can access messages from multiple devices and media types--for example, they can receive a voicemail message and respond via e-mail or cell phone. UC also integrates "presence," or the ability to detect whether the intended recipient of a message is online and available to accept text chat or video calls.
Its immense flexibility makes UC a powerful tool for improving operational efficiency. In a poll of 915 IT professionals (161 from higher ed institutions) conducted by CDW-G in 2010, 54 percent of respondents viewed UC's biggest benefit as the reduction of operating costs; 50 percent cited increased productivity as the second-most-important benefit. At the time of the survey, 19 percent of higher ed respondents had already installed UC, while 66 percent were preparing a UC business case, up from 41 percent in 2009.
Implementing UC, however, requires organizational and technical changes that can be difficult to accomplish quickly in an academic setting. Staff training can be a major issue, especially for employees who may have been working with traditional telecommunications systems for decades. "Moving from a PBX into the converged IP infrastructure realm is difficult," says Todd Schmitzer, manager of networking and telecommunications information technology at Santa Clara University (CA). "Your data people also need training. The infrastructure is the same, the packet routing is the same, but the quality of service is different and the requirements are different. You're not just dealing with dropped phone calls."
It's also vital to do a test run. "Pilot it first," advises Ron Danielson, SCU's CIO. "To use a Silicon Valley phrase, we drank our own champagne. We worked kinks out in private before we went public with it."
To prevent a UC project from getting sidelined, Danielson says that schools should put together a solid project timeline, especially when resources and staff are scarce. "We did not have a defined timeline we were trying to meet," he says, as explanation for the delays that the university experienced during implementation. "We got stalled because we simply got busy. Deadlines are everybody's best friend."
Adding UC and Wireless Together
Bridging old and new was also a priority for Lake Region State College, a two-year community college that serves about 1,700 students on two campuses--Devils Lake and Grand Forks Air Force Base--and through online learning programs. Like Minot State, Lake Region was stuck with an aging PBX system that needed upgrading. But CIO Toofawn Simhai was also interested in implementing a campuswide wireless network. In 2009, she decided to do both.
The PBX system was particularly problematic. "We were getting phone service from a company located in Minnesota, so any time we had to make a change to our phone, we had to get a technician to drive 100 miles out here," says Simhai. "We didn't have any local people on campus supporting the phones." Using Corporate Technologies, a Cisco partner, Simhai upgraded to a Cisco 10 gigabit wireless network and replaced analog phones with a Cisco unified communications system, including Cisco IP phones in all residence hall rooms.
The new system has streamlined operations at the college and enhanced productivity, as well as enabled quick campuswide notification in case of emergencies. Conferencing features allow quick virtual meetings, and calls between Lake Region's two campuses now require just four-digit dialing instead of a long-distance connection.
What's more, all this came at a reasonable cost, says Simhai. "We don't have a big IT staff here, so we needed to partner with a company that was reliable and supportive," she says. "They gave us a good deal on this implementation, with educational discounts and special incentives. It really wasn't very expensive."
Rama Ramaswami is a business and technology writer based in New York City.