Quick update on IT

Wow, where does the time go? I haven’t posted on the Blog since February – that’s bad, sorry about that. There has been lots happening since then, so here is a quick general update.

On Wireless, we still had a few problems with the new system but we have had great feedback from students through Facebook and face-to-face and this has really helped IT Services to identify and work through some of the problems. As I said in January, we can see from our logs that large numbers of people have been able to connect and use the system successfully, but we knew from feedback that quite a few were still having problems. We’ve worked with the manufacturer and have made a number of changes to the controllers and feedback from students now is that it is greatly improved. We still have to extend the coverage to ensure that all areas on the Campus are covered, and that is now planned for the summer.

We have been looking at the “old Library” area in the Aberdeen Business School and are right now finalising plans to put in more IT workstations, a help point, AV facilities, and better group work areas for students to use. IT Services along with Estates are just in the process of finalising cost estimates, and hopefully that will be approved and the work will commence in the near future.

Behind the scenes, IT Services are working hard on preparations to move our St Andrew Street datacentre. We moved one of our datacentres last year to the shared datacentre at University of Aberdeen and now we are moving the other one. It’s going into a new facility which we are also sharing with the University of Aberdeen so by the summer we will have all of our server kit in two new state of the art datacentres, each with environmentally friendly cooling and generator backup. We are moving ourselves too – once we get the datacentre out of St Andrew St the three remaining departments will move out of there and we will have to disconnect all the IT and remove the building from our Campus network. St Andrew St has been one of our main “hubs” for IT since IT began, so this is very much going to be the end of an era!

This is the time of year when Schools and Departments submit their planning statements for the forthcoming year and we are also looking at all of the IT related project requests so that we can update our forward plans. These are all going through the approval process as I write, and once things are finalised I’ll put a summary on the blog. Some of the key areas we are likely to be looking at are:

– A major investment in our storage and server infrastructure to replace end of life equipment and increase capacity and performance;
– Improvements to our Learning tools, including an upgrade to Moodle and improvements to access to Library e-resources
– Enhancements to our portfolio of communication tools to provide new video conference facilities across the Campus, more flexible access to telephony services and integrated access to Skype communications;
– Enhancements to the Staff and Student portal (RGyoU), particularly looking at the provision of more information for students in one place, and better document management and collaborative tools for staff;
– A new system for managing student placements
– Preparation for the opening of the new Scott Sutherland School of Architecture at Riverside East

These are just a few highlights – just as importantly we plan to spend some considerable time on preparatory work for initiatives which will start the following year, but more of that later.

Good Bye PBX – did you notice?

Ok, what’s a PBX? It’s the old University telephone exchange that until Tuesday 22nd January 2013 was used to connect the University’s internal telephony system to the public phone system. All incoming and outgoing calls went through that system. We actually had two – one at Schoolhill and one down at Scott Sutherland.

 I explained back in November what we were doing to move from the old “analogue” phones to the new “VOIP” phones. The old “analogue” phones were each connected to the PBX by their own copper wire, and the PBX then connected us to the public phone network. As long as we had some analogue phones, we had to keep the PBX – but now that all the analogue phones have been replaced we don’t need the PBX systems any more. They are old, they are very inflexible, and they are “single points of failure”. If one of the PBX systems fails, then we lose all outgoing and incoming calls linked to that PBX. Not something you want to happen at critical times of the year.

So, the last step in the telephone switch over was to remove the PBX systems and that was done on Tuesday. In their place, our phone system is now connected through the National JANET network. We have dual connections into the University, and the fact that we are connected through a modern voice and data network will give us greater flexibility in future. For example, if we ever need to add additional capacity (more lines) it can now be done much more quickly than was possible before.

The switchover had to be done without a hitch – it was essential that incoming and outgoing calls across the University were not disrupted. So there was a heavy programme of testing the week before the switchover, and a final batch of testing on the Monday, and then the system was handed over from one telecom provider to another early on Tuesday morning. Hopefully you didn’t notice!

That’s the core of the new, modern, telephone system very much complete now apart from some tidying up. Oh- apart from fax machines. We still have 70 people wanting to keep their fax machines . . . that’s maybe a topic for another day.

Unified Communication – bringing it together

As part of the refurbishment of the University Estate, we are replacing the University telephone system.

The first task, which we will do over the summer this year, will be to concentrate on the basics – just the new telephone system. Those of you who already have one of the new phones will notice little difference, those with older phones will get a new phone and immediately some better features on call forwarding, voicemail etc. You will also be able to use software phones to access the University phone system when you are on the move or at home. Behind the scenes, we will be installing the equipment to run the new system which incidentally will also make our whole system more resilient as part of our disaster recovery plans.

Once this is installed this system can become the hub for allowing much greater video communication, internally and externally. It will be possible to run video links from your desktop, iPad, iPhone or Android and link to Skype. We will equip a range of meeting and teaching rooms with video conferencing ability. A key aim is to make it easy for you to start a video link by looking up somebody from the Outlook address book. The equipment in the main video conferencing room in the Faculty of Health and Social care will also be upgraded. 

We will also be integrating Outlook with the new system. You will be able to pick up your voicemail messages directly from Outlook. We will also be deploying an instant messaging system. More about that nearer the time, but very simply it allows you to see instantly if someone is available and fire off a quick message or start a phone call. It keeps email traffic down, and avoids you wasting time phoning someone if they are not available. 

All this represents quite a big change in the ways in which we can communicate, and other organisations which have adopted this have welcomed the flexibility that this brings. We’ll send out more information nearer the time as we are ready to start making this available for use.