Unified Communications at Illinois

Several sessions were held this week by Campus Information Technologies and Educational Services (CITES) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to explain the campus move from “legacy” technology to Microsoft’s unified communications system.


August 11, 2010

Several sessions were held this week by Campus Information Technologies and Educational Services (CITES) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to explain the campus move from “legacy” technology to Microsoft’s unified communications system.

The session I attended, for faculty, was held in a three-ballroom space filled with hundreds of chairs. It was staffed with six or eight people, including three Microsoft reps, and they had enough technology among them to run the Bulgarian space program. Two large screens, one on either side of the dais, had been set up for the demonstration so everyone could see, but only about three dozen faculty, lecturers, instructors, or teaching assistants attended, which is to say, less than one-fifth of those who teach in my department alone.

A Beatles’ session tape was playing as we waited. One of the Microsoft reps shut it off during “The Long and Winding Road” and began with a wry and perhaps premeditated comment that there had been “some years of work already” to get us to this point.

Illinois currently uses different tools for e-mail, conferencing, “calendaring,” instant messaging, and telephony and voice mail.

“…Microsoft’s Exchange Server and Unified Communications products…will replace [individual] systems,” the CITES website reads. “These changes, which will result in significant savings in time and money for the campus, will leverage our world-class data network and cutting-edge communication and collaboration tools.” The update was a mandate at a school that not only prides itself on its engineering and computer science programs but also belongs to a state system in deep financial trouble.

“June 2012 is the date for turning off all non-unified systems,” said Charley Kline, IT Architect at CITES. By spending two million dollars for upgrades now, he said, the university will save three million dollars each year until then, what he described as “an ROI [return on investment] any business would like to have.”

Existing e-mail and calendaring “have to go away,” Kline said. “They’re at the end.” And instead of multiple e-mail addresses, phone numbers, and other ways of routing communications from various users, “your e-mail address will become your [sole] identity in the future.”

The advantages of the new system, we were told, is that Illinois faculty would: A) use one communications tool and one sign-in; B) have access to all their messages from desktops, laptops, PDAs, cell phones, or landlines; C) be able to read voicemail by email, and listen to and reply to email over the phone; D) see “colleagues’ real-time status and identify their preferred method of communication”; and E) personalize the features of the system, such as level of contact with others.

A Microsoft rep did several of these tasks and projected them on the big screens. Much of it worked well, though it was a little dizzying as the screens and popups flashed by, driven by an expert user who occasionally made mistakes and wandered around at lightning speed in the applications to fix his problems. The audience laughed when the pleasant voice of the computer interface chided him for not speaking his commands more simply, during the hands-free demonstration, though it completed his requests. The video conference he tried to put together on the spot didn’t go through, and while describing the ease of “bringing people in real quick” he admitted to having hit the wrong button in a demonstration at Northwestern and auto-calling 22 people on a list. “I had to send e-mails for two days saying sorry,” he said.

I know too that transcription of voicemails to a text message or e-mail can be tricky. I left a voicemail for a friend recently, as I was driving my boys home from a visit to see his parents, where the band .38 Special was playing at the local festival, and tickets were $12. The e-mail version he received read:

Hey, you know man. Peace in the boys are driving home. Mr Aaron faster Curran. It's a color monitor so I guess we got to go home now. The interested last night with your mom and dad appreciate that. Peace lot of. I guess. Go over to his from drinking and player tub of Miller Beer with so it was. Yeah. And yeah, I would like to try to get all as well, so I just wanna go over it that anyway. 38 Specialist plant last night but as i said, i think i did you go from being like and Syria. Chin, M, T V, 1 M, T V or something down to play on the Herrin fast or Tickets are $12 billion. Anyway, and we're doing well and I'll catch you later. Bye.

But it's clear the new system will do many things, including provide the ability to poll students in real-time during a lecture (“do you understand the lecture?” was the example provided) and record lectures and capture other materials for archiving. (“Some professors who think of their lectures as ‘theirs’ might have some problems with this feature,” a Microsoft rep said after the session. “But I think those used to thinking in the newer ways will realize that it benefits their institutions to have that material available to, say, the whole Big Ten, the entire nation, to third-world countries.”)

New components that will be installed with the change include fake telephones on every desk—actually small computers transmitting on the wireless network—that have no hardwired phone lines, and the possibility of “adjunct thumb[-print recognition] swipers” for people who share phones in group offices.

The tradeoff, Kline admitted, is that software systems won’t be as reliable as hardware, and any system that allows remote use from personal computers is even less so. In the telecom world, there’s a “five nines” rule of reliability: public phone systems must work 99.999% of the time, which allows for only five minutes per year of unplanned downtime. Cell phones, he said, are typically 99.9% reliable, with 8.76 hours of downtime per year, and desktop PCs are just 99% reliable—3.65 days of downtime. A unified system such as the one at Illinois will be tied to that weakest link.

Personal computer, software, server, and network failures, and building or city power-outages become, with this kind of system, blocks to productivity at best; at worst, they’re life-threatening emergencies, such as if someone gets trapped in an elevator and can’t call the police, or there’s a fire in a lab and no one can dial the fire department. Possible solutions, Kline said, include both education (awareness and training of alternatives in case of the coincidence of emergency and outage) and old-style hardwired phones in key locations such as elevators, hallways of buildings, and “blue light” emergency kiosks around campus.

While it seems many might balk at losing reliability for any reason, at any time, Kline said that our society has already chosen the increased functionality of smartphones over their lesser reliability, so it shouldn’t be a problem.

In the brief Q&A session following the presentation, a few of those present asked about other concerns. One woman said she taught large lectures and stored all her grades on her laptop. “Since everything I do now will live in some server cloud, will Microsoft guarantee the security of all this personal information?” she demanded.

No, said the Microsoft rep, he would not commit Microsoft to the security of everything that was on her personal laptop. The audience laughed, and she looked flustered and angry. He gently went on to explain that she could choose how much access anyone on the unified system had to her data, and that there were always risks, every time she got on the Internet, through any portal.

She responded by saying she never got on the Internet with that computer, ever—admitting a breath later she sometimes downloaded some things—then asked, “Am I paranoid?”

The Microsoft rep paused and said, “Maybe above the mean.” The room rang with laughter.

But a CITES employee told me privately that unless users know how to use the system well, it might be easy, if using a personal laptop or home desktop, to leave open a path to data that could be shattering in the wrong hands. If, for instance, you let students or friends have access to something on your desktop—say, an open-source program like Audacity—they could suddenly find their way into your personal bank statements, medical information, perhaps mean-spirited correspondence, or stash of porn.

For reasons having nothing to do with paranoia I can say with some certainty that I will never in a million years use all the features of the new system. As an adjunct in the humanities I don’t usually get invited to participate in video conferences—though I was once nearly a junior participant in a State Department-funded video conference on Chekhov, until the gig fell through because there was no easy way to get us to a video link—and I don’t online chat or “calendar” as a verb or do voice-recognition tasks or check to see if my peers have blocked their calls with “in a meeting” messages. I don’t teach online, and my big lecture classes rely on, at most, a microphone, an overhead projector, and sometimes a DVD player. I don’t even use my ancient office phone.

The last question of the day, for which there was no time, was from a prof who reminded the corporate reps that the university had strict rules against using school resources (including phones and computers) to do any personal task. Indeed, the state-required ethics test we all take online once a year makes it clear that violations can be punished by loss of job, fines, and legal prosecution. I could be fired, for instance, if I used my university e-mail account to send a message to my editor here at IHE. With a unified system “there’s no longer a wall” between work we do as employees and work we do for ourselves, the prof said—especially if our e-mail addresses, which are the same as our university IDs, become our sole online identities in a system meant to subsume all ways of communicating with each other.

Charley Kline blinked and said that the “state rules were archaic,” but the man who asked the question wasn’t convinced. A Microsoft rep stepped forward and assured him that a committee had been formed to look into that. As his co-workers shut down their system connections, e-mail accounts, chat spaces, electronic calendars, address books, onboard cameras, and internal and external microphones in their laptops, along with their projectors, Bluetooths, and who knows what other software and hardware, the rep said the committee would “help us perhaps re-think those archaic rules.”


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