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University CIO calls on cloud phone service

University CIO calls on cloud phone service

Georgetown University’s move to the cloud comes as part of a telecommunications strategy shift aimed at lowering costs while embracing technologies for its digital shift.

Georgetown University is testing a cloud phone service intended to replace its 25-year-old system, which would cost millions of dollars to replace. The move, part of a broader telecommunications infrastructure overhaul, advances the private university's plan to migrate to consumer-friendly cloud and mobile software, says CIO Judd Nicholson.

Georgetown University CIO Judd Nicholson. Georgetown University

Georgetown University CIO Judd Nicholson.

"The expectations of customers have changed,” says Nicholson, who became CIO last October after a stint as interim CIO. “If you can build an IT stack that lets you ride the wave of the technology changes in the consumer space then you're providing far more value to your customers.”

Cloud software that mimics telephone capabilities is a popular choice among organizations seeking to help employee collaborate with colleagues and customers anywhere and from any device. Such software also costs less than traditional telco stacks, a crucial factor for institutions whose financial constraints require them to streamline business operations while improving service delivery.

Cloud calling and collaboration

Georgetown is piloting such a product from Dialpad, whose application is accessible on the desktop via Google's Chrome browser and iOS and Android devices. The app includes a software phone interface featuring call recording, mute, hold, add and dialpad buttons, as well as texting and video messaging. The software also integrates with Google's Apps for Education suite, which Georgetown faculty and students use for email, document editing and collaboration. The Dialpad-Google partnership makes it easier for users to connect via Gmail, look up contacts and share calendars, Nicholson says.

Moving calling capabilities to the cloud marks a shift from traditional PBX network systems, which required significant outlays of capital, people and other resources, Nicholson says. But it also aligns more closely with Georgetown's distributed workflows. As faculty and students conduct more of their coursework and research outside the classroom, they need the flexibility to connect with each other and their peers from any device.

Dialpad serves as a private option for faculty who want to keep in contact with students without giving out their personal cell phone numbers, Nicholson says. “Digital natives have expectations and the faculty wants to work with them and are open to considering technology as an integrator or differentiator,” Nicholson says.

Georgetown is currently testing the software with 200 faculty and staff in two departments, a deliberate approach as the school overhauls its telecommunications systems. Georgetown inked a $27.5 million deal with Verizon Communications to upgrade the university's networking, Wi-Fi and fiber infrastructure, which Nicholson says will provide the proper connectivity and bandwidth the university requires.

The big(ger) picture

Overhauling telco systems is a large piece of a broader strategy the institution has embarked on to transform business process workflows and modernize the institution’s technology. Under this shift, initiated by Nicholson’s predecessor Lisa Davis in 2012, Georgetown added a customer relationship management (CRM) system from Salesforce.com, human capital management software from Workday, and platform-as-a-service (PaaS) capabilities from Mendix.

Nicholson says the CRM system, along with a data analytics system from Blackboard, should help Georgetown’s “advancement” campaigns, which includes collecting and analyzing data to help promote the institution to prospective students, secure financial support from potential donors and cultivate support from alumni to foster relationships with current students. Georgetown will also use analytics to improve undergraduate and graduate students’ experience.

[ Related: CIO Quick Takes: What's your strategic focus? ]

In line with the strategy to modernize computing infrastructure while lowering costs, Nicholson is also building a hybrid cloud environment. This entails moving servers and storage from a primary data center to an Equinix co-location facility in Ashburn, Va.

The co-lo system will connect Georgetown’s on-premises systems to Amazon Web Services, which provides burst computing capabilities, backup, disaster recovery and business continuity, as well as Google, Workday, Salesforce.com and other cloud vendors. Georgetown expects to complete the hybrid cloud migration by 2020.

“We can’t afford to operate and on-premises data center and make investments in storage and compute for research,” Nicholson says. “With this [hybrid cloud] architecture we can have limited high-performance compute on-premises and scale infinitely in AWS.”

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