The Open University makes significant cost and efficiency savings through the use of Microsoft Lync 2010

Contribution from freelance writer, Gerald Haigh.  Gerald writes regularly for the Microsoft UK Education blogs. 

I graduated from the Open University, I’m proud to say, as a member of the very first intake – the “Class of ‘71”. Earlier this Summer we were royally treated to a celebration at the Milton Keynes Campus that few of us had ever seen before. You see, it’s a feature of the Open University’s brilliant use of distance learning techniques, constantly updated over forty years, that students are hardly aware of an actual university campus.


Sure enough its there, though, with over 3500 academic and administrative staff. An additional 1500 also work in 14 National and Regional Centres across the UK. It’s clear that efficient communication between these people, and beyond, is vital if the level of service to the university’s quarter of a million students is to be maintained.

It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that when the OU IT Infrastructure Team looked to update the university’s internal communications, they decided to take a leap beyond a straight like-for-like replacement of the existing phone system. Instead, they went for a 21st Century solution in the form of Microsoft Lync Server 2010, which offers fully interactive integrated communications, including voice, instant messaging, conferencing, meetings and shared desktops, all from a single interface.

Why go with Lync?

With the University’s current PABX system up for renewal or replacement at the end of 2012, there were some clear options. One was to take an upgraded version of what was already in place. Another was to look at integrated communications systems from Microsoft, and others. However, for Adrian Wells, the OU’s Assistant Director of IT Infrastructure, the decision to go with Lync wasn’t difficult. Not only would the system provide the right kind of integrated support for the OU’s project teams, it would also, says Adrian, be substantially more cost effective.

“We believe,” says Adrian, “That the cost saving will be in the order of £2million over five years.”

The key lies in the ease, efficiency and cost-effectiveness of installing and running Lync as compared with either updating the existing system or changing to a competing VOIP provider.

“We’re a mainly Windows-based organisation, so the software was included in our Campus Agreement. And Lync offers strong integration with our MS Office 2010 platform, SharePoint and Windows desktop, in a way that another system wouldn’t.”

Making it happen

The story began with a trial in 2009 of Lync’s predecessor, Office Communications Server (OCS), as a possible replacement for the existing phone system, which was coming to the end of its life.

“We were looking at functions such as working from home, and team working using instant messaging and integrated email.”

Spring 2010 saw a limited further roll out of OCS, but Adrian and the team knew that Lync, with increased functionality, was on its way. So rather than face two major changes, it was decided to wait for Lync, and roll it out during 2011, beginning with Instant Messaging and “Presence” (which indicates a user’s level of availability) and moving to full enterprise telephony for the whole campus and national and regional centres. The aim is to have the existing telephone system completely replaced by early 2012.

By comparison with OCS, says Adrian, “Lync’s additional features closed the gaps, especially with provision of resilient services to our 14 national and regional offices.”

Rolling Out

A roll-out of this nature is a management challenge. It’s often a matter of finding a balance between bringing keen early adopters on board on the one hand, and working methodically through the structure of the organisation on the other. It’s a fine judgement for an IT leader to make, requiring deep understanding of the institution and its people as well as mastery of the technology.

Describing his approach to the roll out of Lync enterprise voice, Adrian says, “We quickly had 100 early adopters. We then began to turn down requests from individuals and went into a systematic overnight roll out, floor by floor, building by building.”

That process, which began in May 2011, went on at rate which saw 35 handsets installed each night, four nights a week. Each handset was left with a short A4 booklet with the top tips and feature differences for the new system aimed at getting users up and running in a short time. Next morning, the newly installed area was covered by a small team of trouble-shooting “floor walkers” -- 2 for every fifty handsets for about two hours each morning. This, says Adrian, can actually be all the training that some users need.

One of the attractive features of Lync, after all, is that it’s easy to use and makes fewer demands on the IT team when, for example, users move offices or desk. At the same time, it’s important to ensure that everyone understands just what it can do for them.

“We’re doing a series of workshops on how to get the best out of it, some aimed at mobile users,” says Adrian. “We also use a lot of Microsoft’s own videos. But we find a lot of the knowledge spreads by word of mouth, as people learn how to interact with colleagues. Quite quickly you reach a critical mass of users.”

Reaping the benefits

It’s clear that the benefit curve of Lync, plotted against the working pattern of an institution like the OU, just keeps going up as people start to use advanced features.

There are obvious cost savings, for example from having licensing within the Campus Agreement.

Most impressive, though, is the direct saving of £2m over five years that Adrian estimates comes from not having to replace hardware and by the elimination of third party maintenance of the previous system.

The availability of Microsoft Active Directory also means, says, Adrian, “We’re make substantial savings by doing the roll out ourselves. We have help from Dell, but really most of it is down to us.”

Then there are the efficiency savings within the IT team and beyond. Routine maintenance becomes easier. And observation during the pilot, for example, indicated that travel for staff between OU centres and the main campus could reduce by at least five to ten percent.

“Lync supports remote workers much more effectively,” says Adrian. “Integration of email and voicemail is very powerful, and so is Presence, especially with Office 2010. And Desktop sharing is great even for people in the same office building.”

And beyond, of course. Adrian describes a typical scenario in which an urgent document was created by people working in Milton Keynes, Peterborough and Sweden.

“It couldn’t have been done any other way.”

Working at home, too, with all the savings that brings, also becomes much more feasible, with Lync’s “Presence” indicator removing the psychological barriers that could make colleagues reluctant to call.

For the future

The immediate target is to finish the roll out of enterprise voice across all fifteen OU sites. It’s envisaged that the integration of the other sites will increase the current low use of desktop video conferencing.

Also for the immediate future will be the addition of a client for Mac users within the OU, which will bring a further set of efficiency gains.

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