Troy Neal already faced a challenge. The IT director at YES Prep Public Schools in Houston needed to revamp the charter school system's decrepit private branch exchange (PBX) telephony system while staying within a drastically tight budget. Then along came Hurricane Ike.
What followed could have been construed as nightmare scenario. Ike ripped through the Gulf Coast, taking with it the telephony system. But Neal saw the disaster as a blessing in disguise -- an opportunity to make something great for the faculty, staff and students. Starting from scratch, Neal and his small IT staff were able to build a state-of-the-art unified communications (UC) system that has helped YES Prep's network of schools thrive and grow. And he did it within that budget that had seemed like his biggest hurdle. His achievements have made Neal the 2013 SearchCIO-Midmarket CIO Leader of the Year.
The goal of unified communications is tying together voice, video, data and mobile applications on a single network for ease of use and administration. For Neal, as with many small and midmarket CIOs considering unified communications systems, a small budget was part of the challenge. Only in Neal's case, that challenge was exacerbated by a race against the clock. Without much time to shop around, he had to make a smart choice, fast.
IT should not drive academic decisions; teachers or academic folks should. They're the experts. Our job is to help them facilitate that, find what best works for them, and work on the right solutions.
director of IT, YES Prep Public Schools
Pricing out the options
After Hurricane Ike decimated the school's PBX systems, the most important job was to restore voice communications as soon as possible. Neal was well-versed in Cisco technologies and looked to the San Jose-based provider first in search of an IP telephony solution. But the approximate $100,000 entry price was too much for Neal's shoestring budget. Starting fresh with new PBX solutions also was not an option, with a potential cost of up to $80,000. Even a simple key system could run about $60,000. With plans to add new campuses to the school, the expense was out of the question, Neal said. "That's when we discovered Microsoft OCS -- now Microsoft Lync."
With Microsoft's academic licensing rate and funds from the government's E-Rate program, the school partnered with Houston-based Insource Technology to implement OCS R1, the first release of Office Communications Server, Microsoft's unified communications system that packages instant messaging, Web conferencing, audio and video conferencing, and telephony.
"Within two weeks, we had Exchange  and OCS R1 up and running for the entire organization," Neal said. Running over an Aruba Networks wireless network, the total cost was less than $3,000 per campus.
"We've been on Lync since it came out. It's all fully virtual; we basically just replaced all our PBXs and it's all linked to our [colocation] data center," he said. "We have about 650 users. We issue laptops to all our teachers with webcams built in, so that's pretty much their phone."
Unified communications creates collaboration link
When Neal's work was done, YES Prep got a lot more than an affordable telephone service. Before he and his team began building the schoolwide UC system, teachers on the school's then-five (now 11) campuses generally kept in touch by cell phone and email. Collaborating on a project or meeting up to share information with a group required a lot of preplanning, trekking across the city and hunting for parking. All of which translated to time out of their days and money out of their pockets. When the new UC system came online they couldn't have been more excited, Neal said. They could now attend virtual meetings in their classrooms, share and collaborate on documents, and talk to fellow teachers anytime with instant messaging.
"We wanted to answer, what can we do from an IT standpoint to help them gain more instructional time? How do we get data in teachers' hands when they need it? The true collaboration that's come along with this is what's most valuable," Neal said.
Unlike some other technology deployments, change management was not an issue in this one. "Most of our staff is straight out of college, so they're already tech-savvy as it is. With Lync --then OCS -- the adoption rate was phenomenal; there was very little resistance, and with the IM [instant messaging] desktop-sharing, it was an instant hit," he said.
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Within the next five years, YES Prep hopes to open 10 additional campuses and eventually branch out beyond Houston. Now, with a scalable UC system and the built-from-scratch IT infrastructure to support it, there are no worries about expansion, Neal said.
"If we go on to have another 10 schools, another 600 employees, it doesn't affect the architecture that's already in place," Neal said. "As far as cost savings, for another 10 schools at around $2,000 each, we'll pay about $20,000 versus $800,000 or more in PBXs, so it's just a huge cost savings."
It's still more of that blessing in disguise. Keeping costs down continues to be paramount as the school system has dealt with an 8% reduction in budget across-the-board over the past two years, Neal said.
Luckily, he added, his IT department, like YES Prep as a whole, is a lean organization.
"What we've done to address [shrinking budgets] in the last couple of years is stay heavily focused on being centrally managed and using tools that are forced multipliers, like Microsoft Lync and Microsoft System Center," Neal said. "That way we don't have technicians out on campus. We can stay lean and help meet the needs or organization to fall within the budget."
And that's the most important thing he can do as an IT director, Neal said -- recognize needs and enable people to do their best work.
"IT should not drive academic decisions; teachers and academic folks should because they're the experts," Neal said. "Our job is to help them facilitate that, find what works best for them and work on the right solutions."
Let us know what you think about the story; email Karen Goulart, features writer.
This was first published in July 2013