Gippsland TAFE gets a desktop facelift

On the tail end of a three-year upgrade plan that began in the year 2000 the Central Gippsland Institute of TAFE will invest $1.5 million on both hardware and software refreshes this year.

This includes a move from Windows 2000 to Windows XP on the desktop, from Windows 2000 Server to Windows 2003 Server and from Novell Groupware 5.0 to version 6.0 for e-mail.

The institute's IT centre manager Rosemary Burns said refresh activities revolve around a strategic IT plan, set every three years, to meet the needs of a demanding end user base.

"We spend a lot of time in R&D by trialling new products with potential vendors, so there's some strict selection and project planning before any upgrade. Also, if we make any changes to our upgrade plans it is done with subtlety and careful timing to slower periods in the year like during TAFE holidays and towards the end of a term," she said.

Burns said that, combined, the products will prove their value over time because of their currency and "improved" functionality.

"One of the problems with IT is that companies throw a flush of money at it for a year, but the investment needs to show sustained benefits over a few years," she said.

With 6500 students, the institute cannot afford to remain on ageing software and hardware because its lifeblood - students - demand to learn on the "best" technology, Burns said.

Moreover, IT capacity will need to increase this year with student enrolments expected to swell to 9500 by the end of 2004.

"In a learning environment, it's amazing what some users will and won't put up with. They have high expectations from our technology and they won't put up with an unstable IT environment," she said.

With IT budgets traditionally fed to the education sector on a drip, and time pressures to get projects done quickly, wasting resources is not an option.

As such, Burns said the key to keeping upgrade costs down is fierce adherence to a project timeline.

"It is also crucial to leverage your IT team in smart ways like ensuring they have the necessary professional training and development to keep pace with changing technologies and user demands," she said.

"Organisations can also maximise their IT resource capacity by allowing support staff to administer IT remotely if necessary, which can help cut down their travel and fire-fighting time.

"We only have 6.5 employees supporting and maintaining IT across our nine campuses, so such methods do ease the burden on the helpdesk."

Also key to any successful upgrade strategy, she said, is the ability to maximise vendors and resellers for their consulting expertise in things like product benchmarking, project planning and implementation.

Gippsland TAFE has also found consistent value in leasing some of its desktop PCs, Novell servers and Cisco switches. Acquiring technology this way ensures it stays current and supported because of warranty agreements, Burns said.

"We try and use state-of-the-art but cost-effective solutions and that has meant partnering with the likes of Acer for desktop PCs, Citrix for networking equipment, Microsoft desktop applications, Novell for serverware and Citrix for networking," she added.

Year of the upgrade

2004 is certainly the year of the upgrade for the Central Gippsland Institute of TAFE which is also moving from a Frame Relay network across its nine campuses to a fibre optic cable network for more effective use of broadband.

"Three years ago our network was on the verge of collapsing. We simply needed to redevelop it," according to TAFE IT centre manager Rosemary Burns.

"Our LAN and WAN will now have the same speed (4GB). To achieve this, we've been creating a Citrix farm by moving to Citrix's thin client technology. We had to go with thin clients because we don't have a high level of bandwidth, being in a regional area."

The latest rollout is an enterprise portal (based on Novell software), designed to improve service delivery to students and staff by taking vital processes online. The portal will give users 24x7 access to educational resources such as library reference catalogues and books, enrolment records, student marks, and eventually allow them to enrol online. Ultimately the portal will integrate with core business applications for campus staff and also enable them to create and post student assignments online.

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