Despite open-source ideology, QUT embraces Microsoft integration

Organisations considering a change of productivity suites may do well to follow the example of Queensland University of Technology, which has taken a cautious approach to Microsoft Office 2007 and instead focused on sprucing up its back-end messaging environment.

Organisations considering a change of productivity suites may do well to follow the example of Queensland University of Technology (QUT), which has taken a cautious approach to Microsoft Office 2007 and instead focused on sprucing up its back-end messaging environment.

The university, which has more than 40,000 students in a variety of disciplines, began revisiting its messaging environment -- a concatenation of standalone best-of-breed products that were poorly integrated -- after a Gartner review suggested it encourage collaboration by embracing unified messaging.

The strong integration between Microsoft Office 2003 components made it a natural target for consideration, and an early 150-employee pilot of Microsoft Exchange Server 2003 proved successful. However, by 2006, it became clear that a rollout of the aging products would be poorly considered given the impending launch of Exchange Server 2007 and Office System 2007.

QUT began working under the auspices of Microsoft's Rapid Deployment Program (RDP) to gradually evaluate and introduce the enhanced messaging platform. Before long, 110 QUT users were up and running on a beta version of the new product.

-Early on, moving to Exchange was seen by the steering committee as a very high-risk step to take," says Graham Keys, director of infrastructure services within QUT's Faculty of Information Technology. -However, more than a month of testing time showed us it was a stable product, and gave us insight into some of the issues we needed to put Exchange into the QUT environment. Once we went through the [RDP] it was recognised that we were able to mitigate those risks quite well."

Jumping on the Microsoft bandwagon posed both technical and ideological issues for the university, which has long made a point of investing in new IT and traditionally pursued a best-of-breed purchasing philosophy that saw it roll out disparate e-mail, directory services, calendaring and other applications.

However, as identified in the Gartner audit, such a strategy meant that QUT's employees were missing out on many of the benefits available to users of a horizontally integrated application suite. -Like most people, we have tended to do [collaboration] very badly," Keys concedes. -We would make changes and the send them to a bunch of people."

-When you start moving into real collaborative environments where people can work together in the same room or different countries, you find some of those decisions tend to impose road blocks," he continues. -Having one consistent user experience is a huge advantage, and Microsoft does all of the integration work to give one environment where you can easily manipulate information and use a variety of tools to communicate."

Introducing these tools, however, will involve a series of upgrades -- first to the messaging backend, then to the desktop productivity suites, then to the eventual rollout of Windows Vista. Official university policy requires that the IT division use the current or last version of applications, and the recent rollout of Exchange Server 2007 put QUT on the path towards a fully Microsoft environment.

That's a major change from the open-source approach currently favoured by many academics, but Keys says that despite years of progress QUT's testing found the open-source solutions available on the market just weren't ready for prime time.

This was true both in terms of core infrastructure, and particularly in the extension of email and other messaging services to mobile users -- something for which he says the new Microsoft environments are particularly well suited.

-We went through [the evaluation] process as part of this exercise, and found that in this space a lot of the open source solutions are not as mature as we would like to have when we're going to roll this out enterprise wide," he explains.

-It's OK in small workgroups, but when you want to roll out across the entire organisation, they're just not there. Tools like Lotus Notes and the like have a level of maturity that the open source community is still looking at. We do have an obligation to consider [open source], but we have a business outcome to achieve, and need to choose the best tools for that."

QUT's new Office
Keys says the current project includes a commitment to revisit open-source solutions by 2009, but for now the university is taking the first steps towards a broad rollout of Microsoft Office 2007 across its staff desktops this year.

Supported by the Exchange Server 2007 back-end, Keys is confident the new environment will facilitate better collaboration by delivering unified messaging -- as recommended by Gartner those many years ago -- as well as presence management and online knowledge repositories fuelled by Microsoft Office Sharepoint Server 2007.

Although vertical and horizontal integration through the Microsoft products should improve information flows, Keys concedes that early experiments with Microsoft Office 2007 confirm the move won't be without its difficulties.

The rearranging of commands via the new Ribbon interface, for example, was -quite a significant shift" that saw productivity drop for the first week of use and would be seen as -a bit of a shock to the system" by many users. -It would be easier for most people if they were in a half-day or one-day conversion training program, but even then you'd still have a one to two week period where you're familiarising yourself."

Superficial differences aside, document compatibility is expected to be a significant issue for the university -- so much so that QUT will continue to run Office 2003 in tandem with Office 2007 for the foreseeable future. -We have to make the commitment to save documents into older formats," he says.

With so many users potentially affected by the new system's rollout, Keys is aware of what a significant change the rollout of the new back and front-end applications will present for the QUT community. In the long term, however, he believes the new environment is the right approach to help the university deliver the benefits that were identified as lacking so many years ago.