University outsources for competitive edge: Comfort levels and competition drove integration

Outsourcing has had some rocky reviews of late, with major contracts falling behind or missing the scope altogether. But sometimes, outsourcing can be a boon, as Western Australia-based Curtin University has found.

The university was suffering from a bad perception from students as having an outdated and badly integrated IT environment, not a promising atmosphere for higher learning.

"We had some of our overseas students comment they were uncomfortable with the level of IT at Curtin," said Paul Wilkins, general manager information management services at Curtin.

As full-fee paying overseas students make up 23 per cent of the university's revenues, Wilkins stressed "to retain that source of income, which is under threat from other universities, it was necessary to modernise and integrate our IT environment".

This included standardising a mixed environment that currently supports Unix and Open VMS (Digital Equipment), Microsoft NT servers, Novell IntranetWare and Sun equipment.

Wilkins said this was the result of an uncontrolled IT acquisition regime, particularly at the desktop level. "We had almost every piece of technology since the PC was invented," he said.

"Our ability to support the resulting environment was severely compromised."

Curtin chose to outsource this task, committing $20 million to establish a unified acquisition regime to roll out a standard operating environment.

According to Wilkins, Curtin wanted the contract to achieve a number of aims:

* Provide a financing package to help the university go from a purchase to leasing situation;* Bundle the provision of commodity-type services at the desktop that were not wedded to Curtin's IT environment; and* Standardise installation, disposal and upgrade of desktop equipment, providing uniform level of service across the university.

RentWorks, which was brought in as prime contractor, lined up BankWest as financier for the university. Two hardware companies were chosen as preferred suppliers - Acer and Apple. And information and communications technology specialist Getronics was contracted to provide integration and support services for Curtin's 7000-strong fleet of notebooks and PCs.

"We specified Wintel machines on a three-year lease,' Wilkins said. "We anticipate a standard fleet by the end of 2002."

And the strategy underlying the decision to outsource was straightforward for Curtin, Wilkins said.

"This is not an ideological outsourcing contract, rather it is a mechanism to achieve a business goal of a sustainable and current desktop environment at lower cost. However, it underpins our core competitive goals of retaining valuable overseas students," Wilkins explained.

The new network is being built on fibre optic connections and high-grade unshielded twisted-pair copper cabling.

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