Innovation central

Innovation central

Swinburne University of Technology has never been better primed for the internet, thanks to a master of co-ordination.

Richard Constantine's journey to Innovative CIO of the Year began nearly six years ago, when Swinburne University of Technology kicked off a standardisation drive. The intervening years have been busy, and they haven't been spent in introspection, for Constantine believes in getting things done. As CIO of Swinburne University in Melbourne, he innovates through practice and design. He is disparaging of those who implement impractical technology practices or applications to give the veneer of innovation - but is an executive who has taken an innovative approach to leading an entire organisation, or in his case, university, through a rigorous standardisation program.

There are two reasons for Constantine's selection as Innovative CIO of the Year by MIS Australia (sister publication of CIO New Zealand). First, for his work pushing IT infrastructure across Swinburne's five campuses as a standardised base that has allowed for full wireless coverage and campus-wide Voice over IP, and second for the inception of their brand new IT governance committee.

While expressing reluctance at blowing his own trumpet, he says it was necessary for him to regain control of the university's IT organisation, which had become a devolved system of departments with inconsistent networks.

When he embarked on the project to standardise IT infrastructure across the five campuses in 2001, he had no idea he would eventually end up with an end-to-end IP telephony network to rival that in Cisco's own US headquarters.

The network, with 12,000 connection points and 500 base stations, eventually needed two backbone upgrades to support campus-wide VoIP. Constantine says that when they began, the network was scattered, with parts ranging from new to aged to completely obsolete.

"A year ago we rolled out the new network and we now have 10/100G speeds to the desktop and full IP telephony everywhere,'' he says.

"We also have a policy of using inline power to switch so we are using that to power our CCTV cameras."

Constantine says the students can now download lectures as podcasts and use other high bandwidth applications on a solid backbone.

"It means we can roll out new technology very quickly as the education sector is very competitive and IT requirements are constantly changing. But whatever the technology is, I am pretty sure it will work on our network."

The pilot stage of implementing wireless went live in 2001, however students had to mindlessly walk 10 paces in any direction to either find or lose internet connectivity. For Constantine, this was not good enough. He was acutely aware of a stated aim to emulate a private sector service with end-to-end connectivity. He hoped for "Qantas Club connectivity", but initially got fly-by-night service.

The pilot project proved there was a sold business case for wireless internet access for the university and students. Constantine describes the service students got during the pilot simply as "crap" because there was no end-to-end connectivity and only sporadic coverage.

In 2002 he secured the funds needed to put in full wireless access that now provides internet access for about 4500 students and 45,000 staff.

Once the security of the wireless system was ensured and locked down, Constantine tackled the next biggest change - opening the network up to allow visiting professors and others the same internet coverage and access which was available to staff and students.

Constantine says they segregated critical elements of their network (four key university systems) to a "demilitarised zone", however he resists the temptation of saying the systems are 100 per cent secure for fear of tempting fate. The university regularly conducts security audits of the wireless system and considers them integral to the health and operation of the wireless infrastructure. Changes in policy are easily handled.

"We had a policy where nobody from outside could access our network, so before we just wouldn't give visiting professors wireless access," he says. "Now when visiting professors want access we have various subnets in place at the university so when they come onto the campus we just have to give them a day account and its almost like being in a hotel room - we just have to allocate them an account on a guest network."

Constantine says in the past it was embarrassing when the infrastructure could not even such allow visitors to "get on with business". The innovative approach to standardising a network backbone has allowed him to continue rolling out innovative services at the drop of a hat, such as the podcasting and ethernet-powered CCTV cameras.

However, the university is taking an innovative approach to getting key business heads, regardless of background, to sit on an IT governance committee to discuss IT projects - whether they have the funding to go ahead or not.

The committee is chaired by the CIO.

The committee of seven people includes the deputy vice chancellor of higher education, the pro-vice chancellor of research, the director of student operations and the chief financial officer. It is backed by a firm governance policy outlining all new IT projects, which must have been approved by the committee.

Constantine says the process works by voting in or out ideas, and the projects or ideas that appeal go directly to the vice president (whom Constantine himself reports to). He says it is an ideal process to get a university-wide take on how a project may or may not interrupt other non-IT related projects and guarantees work on any project does not get started without a proper business case.

"This process analyses the capacity of the organisation to take on extra work," Constantine says. "While we might have the IT staff capacity to complete a project, the organisation as a whole may be going through other changes that will impact on the overall success of the project and make it unviable.

"We develop templates for the business case as a mature way to deal with IT projects across the university."

Career highlights

* Standardised wireless infrastructure to allow quick and rapid deployment of new services.

* Easy and simple deployment of new user accounts.

* Massive user of Power of Ethernet cabling to drive innovative services.

* Viable IT projects given green light by committee.

* Joined MIS's Editorial Advisory Board in 2007.

© Fairfax Business Media

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