Converging communications

Converging communications McGill University

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McGill Reporter
January 11, 2001 - Volume 33 Number 08
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 33: 2000-2001 > January 11, 2001 > Converging communications

Converging communications

In an effort to deliver better service to the University community in a more efficient and cost-effective manner, McGill has spent the last eight months merging the Computing Centre and McGill Telecom into an integrated department, Network and Communications Services (NCS). The move accomplishes the consolidation of all voice and data technologies under a single administration.

Photo NCS director Gary Bernstein
PHOTO: Claudio Calligaris

"Thanks to the convergence of technologies, all communications -- voice, voice-mail, email, fax -- can run off a common network platform," Gary Bernstein, the NCS's director, explains in response to a question about why this is the right time to effect the merger. "The network is the thing."

True enough, but Vice-Principal (Information Systems and Technology) Anthony Masi adds a note of caution.

"When's the last time your phone went dead? Now, when's the last time your computer crashed?" he asks rhetorically. "Our intention is to make sure that computers achieve a level of stability akin to that of the telephone before we commit to a fully integrated VOIP (voice over Internet protocol) system."

He goes on to add, however, "My own vision is that convergence will come about sooner rather than later."

Back in 1986, when McGill Telecom was established, computing and telecommunications technologies were distinctly separate. Hence, the logic in having two separate departments. With current configurations, the division becomes increasingly artificial and, moreover, a hindrance to maximizing limited resources and user friendliness.

For example, the University was staffing two separate help desks. When a student or professor experienced a problem, unable to determine whether the glitch was related to their computer or somewhere along the lines transmitting data, it was difficult to know which help desk to call.

The time it took the technicians simply to determine whether it was within their purview or ought to be transferred to the other unit was time lost. Now, a single help desk handling all network problems will know exactly where to direct a query so that it can be resolved all the more quickly. As Masi points out, the emphasis is on service.

Eventually, Bernstein assures, guidelines for service level agreements (or SLAs) will be established, guaranteeing a prescribed response time for each type of correction NCS has to implement following notification of trouble.

Along with improved service, the merger promises increased economies of scale. Redundant support positions have been eliminated, so that there is only one secretary where before there were two, one purchasing section, one human resources manager, etc.

Also, the process of creating a new department provided the opportunity to refine the core responsibilities upon which it would focus. For instance, the Computing Centre had extended its reach to offering courses in applications that were already available through the Centre for Continuing Education. Under the NCS, this duplication has ceased and its role in managing the network infrastructure has been specified. Savings are expected as a result.

A related, ongoing challenge is to blend two departmental cultures into one. Bernstein acknowledges, "It takes time for everybody to get comfortable with one another and to cultivate a sense of belonging to this new entity."

The merger is not merely an administrative invention, but reflects a genuine centralization of service. Bernstein outlines the several ambitious initiatives the NCS has underway that are illustrative of this.

By the end of March, a high-speed, one-gigabit per second backbone network will be in place across both McGill campuses, as well as the Montreal Neurological Institute. It guarantees voice and video transmission across the Internet without interference by ensuring such data gets priority while en route between destinations.

Connecting with the national CA*Net3 line, to which all universities have access, will permit, among other things, the real-time exchange of medical scans for consultation purposes anywhere in Canada.

The multitude of local area networks is being consolidated and the mainframe, which the University rents, is being phased out, resulting in savings as well as enhanced web-based functionality.

NCS is responsible for installing a University-wide security system of pass cards to control and restrict building access.

Of all its accomplishments, perhaps the most visible are those that facilitate contact between people at McGill. A universal email system is being implemented. Everyone -- students and faculty alike -- is now assigned a common email address (an alias in addition to the addresses they may already have), firstname.lastname@mcgill.ca. Furthermore, beginning with the graduating class of May 2000, students can retain this address for life, giving them continuity where they might otherwise fall out of touch due to transient email accounts. The plan is to eventually offer this service to alumni.

The online White Pages are administered by NCS and permit those members of the community wishing to appear to publish and amend their own contact data.

The rapid-fire development of technology makes it difficult to foresee too far into the future. Masi thinks it's impractical to look further than two or three years ahead.

"The parameters for NCS are evolutionary," he says. "They will evolve along with technology and we are planning to ensure McGill adopts the most modern infrastructure."

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