Singapore Institute of Technology - SIT takes the fast track with Office 365

Established in 2009, the Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT) represents the centre of a unique tripartite collaborative model, responsible for planning, managing and implementing degree programmes offered by reputable overseas universities in partnership with the five local polytechnics.

SIT adopts a distributed campus model where an SIT building will be constructed within the grounds of the each of the five Polytechnics. This model allows greater synergy and efficiency by giving SIT students greater access to existing resources within each Polytechnic. Three years into its formation, SIT already offers some 26 degree programmes to about 2,500 students, supported by a teaching faculty of about 40 comprising SIT staff and lecturers from overseas university partners.

"IT'S TRUSTED, it's tested, and it's free or low cost." As far as the Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT) was concerned, the choice of Office 365 was a no brainer as it set its sights on delivering a unified communications platform for its students and faculty, said Director of Communications and Information Technology Huang Ee Choon.

When it was first established in 2009, SIT adopted the cloud-based Live@Edu service to meet the email needs of its students. "Compared with implementing our own email server, with Life@Edu we didn't have to set up and test the infrastructure, and the sign-on process was managed by the service rather than us having to allocate manpower to handle it. That made quite a huge difference in terms of time and effort," said Huang. Another factor was the assurance of support, scalability and reliability that came with Live@Edu, with an industry giant like Microsoft behind the service.

In April 2012, when SIT wanted to introduce a more holistic communications platform for its students and faculty, the decision to move from Live@Edu to Office 365 was an obvious one.

Towards more holistic communications

With the SIT corporate offices using the on-premise version of Microsoft Exchange, Office 365 allowed for seamless integration between the two systems. "If we were to use another platform for the students, another component may be needed to bridge the two systems," said Huang.

Beyond email, SIT's ultimate goal was to deliver unified communications for its students and staff. In view of this, it evaluated Lync Online, one of the components of Office 365, and also looked at Microsoft Communications Server. However, based on its past experiences with Live@Edu, it saw no reason to go back to an on-premise solution. "From what we have observed, Live@Edu is used extensively by many organisations, and especially by a lot of educational institutions. It appears to be reliable and secure. We hardly see or hear any negative news about it," said Huang.

In terms of data protection, SIT has also been satisfied with the level of security provided by Live@Edu in the two years that it has been using the system. "We will expect Office365 Team to provide equal and better security for our SIT student mailbox," said Lee Kok Sin, Assistant Manager, Communications and Information Technology, SIT.

Cost was another factor that made SIT lean towards Office 365. While Microsoft Communications Server offered similar capabilities, Lync Online was available free to educational institutions as a component of Office 365. "It was a very easy decision for us to move to Office 365 and to implement Lync for staff and students for unified communications, said Huang. "It's there, it's working, and it's free or low cost. We don't have to crack our brain to look for another solution."

The deployment of Office 365 also provided SIT with an opportunity to introduce single login for its students. Previously, SIT was using Active Directory for its internal systems, while Live@Edu made use of separate active Directory accounts managed by Microsoft. This meant that students had to maintain two IDs. Office 365, however, allows federation with Active Directory, which means students can make use of one ID to access both systems.

Migration

As the first Institute of Higher Learning (IHL) in Singapore to deploy Office 365, there was quite a bit of ground work to be done before carrying out the actual migration.

"We needed to ensure that we understood the technical portion of Office 365 - what it was doing, and what was happening in the background. It was a black box to us," said Lee.

However, support was readily available from Microsoft to guide the SIT team through the migration. "Whenever we had a question, we would send them an email and we would get a reply from the support team, even on a Sunday."

The students also had to be prepped for the migration from Live@Edu to Office 365. A new ID and password had to be created for them to use as a single login to access their emails and the SIT systems. They also had to be notified that their emails, which were parked in the Skydrive under Live@Edu, would be stored separately under Office 365.

As one of the first IHLs in Singapore to move to Office 365, SIT also took no chances when it came to the actual migration. It buffered in eight hours for the entire process, which was eventually completed in four.

Since then, Microsoft has ramped up its resources to accelerate the computing cycle and the same process can now be easily completed in under an hour. A schedule is also drawn up for the migration so that the organisation involved will have a clear indication of exactly when the user accounts will be moved over. Over at the data centre, a Microsoft team eyeballs the operations to ensure that the migration proceeds smoothly.

The SIT migration was completed without a hitch and by August 2012, Exchange Online was rolled out to the entire student cohort. SIT also went on to pilot Lync Online with users from the IT department and the academic programme department, testing out feature such as presence management and conferencing.

Benefits

Office 365 enables SIT to achieve its goal of unified communications, delivering to end users a full set to tools ranging from email to instant messaging and video conferencing. The smooth integration between Office 365 and Microsoft Exchange also creates a seamless environment which gives students and staff a sense of being "within the same family".

Unified communications

Office 365 has enabled SIT to introduce unified communications in a distributed environment, which is important as it has its corporate offices and campuses in various locations in Singapore.

For example, it provides a platform for videoconferencing, which allows staff at different departments and different locations to come together for discussions without having to have a face to face meeting. On a recent overseas assignment, academic staff made use of this capability to communicate and provide updates using the conferencing tool.

SIT also has a facility which makes use of Office 365 to allow students to come together for online discussions and share documents. This helps enhance collaboration and provides opportunities for teamwork, without the students always having to meet in person.

Enhanced collaboration

Office 365 has also paved the way for enhanced collaboration beyond SIT itself. The platform allows for federation with other organisations such as the polytechnics, allowing staff to make use of unified communications tools to work with their counterparts on joint projects. This rides on an initiative led by the National University of Singapore to introduce federation across all Institutes of Higher Learning in Singapore. "We are able to use Lync to take advantage of that federation to allow staff, especially those who are adjunct staff of SIT, to communicate seamlessly within this environment," said Huang.

Besides setting up federation with the IHLs, SIT also federates to Microsoft for problem resolution. In the longer term, it is also looking to federate with industry partners and overseas institutions.

"As we are poised to become Singapore's fifth university, collaboration becomes even more important to us," said Huang. "Our main key focus is to be an industry- relevant institution. We are actively looking towards greater collaboration with industry in all areas, including the relevance of courses, internships and scholarships. The collaborative capabilities of Office 365 will help us to be more productive and effective in this respect."

Reduced user administration effort

With Office 365 allowing federated sign on, the IT team can now spend less time administering user accounts, for example, provisioning IDs, resetting passwords and answering related help desk queries. Besides this, it no longer needs to maintain physical hardware to store the passwords, as these are managed by Office 365 in the cloud. IDs are now provisioned once on Active Directory and automatically synced to Office 365. This has helped reduce the time spent on user administration by up to 20 per cent, said Lee.

Scalable

Scalability is an important requirement for SIT, which has been experiencing tremendous growth. In just three years, it has signed agreements with 10 overseas university partners to deliver 26 degree programmes. Its student cohort is expected to double over the next two to three years. Office 365 helps the IT team to keep pace with this growth by allowing for rapid provisioning of services and facilitating with user account management. "With the number of students growing so fast, we can count on Microsoft to provide the capacity we need," said Lee.

Future plans

Going forward, there is tremendous potential for Office 365 to be used also in learning and teaching, said Huang. Examples include the collaborative use of Office software. SIT will be examining how these can be incorporated into the development of SIT's own academic programs.

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