Guest blog post from Gerald Haigh. freelance writer. Gerald writes regularly for the Microsoft blogs.

We’ve already described the impact of Lync 2010 in three universities – Nottingham Trent, De Montfort University and the Open University. In each case it’s proving to be a real boost to efficiency and cost-effectiveness. Now, though, we have an excellent example of a school that’s adopted Lync 2010, improving communications and saving lots of money at the same time – exactly the combination of benefits we are always looking for.

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Benenden, in Kent, is a girls’ boarding school with 530 students aged 11 to 18 and 300 teaching and support staff. IT Services Manager, Wade Nash, describes a network fully up to the demands of a rigorous curriculum and the high expectations of staff and students.

‘We’re pretty much a Microsoft house, fully virtualised with Hyper-V and we have a resilient campus wide fibre and wireless data network.’

The school’s Nortel PBX telephone system, however, was a different matter, and last year, when planning for the completion of our new science building, it was evident that the obsolete system couldn’t continue to cope and would run out of extensions.

At that point, Wade and his team began a long search for a replacement. By Autumn 2010, they’d explored a number of options including Avaya, Mitel, Shoretel and Cisco and actually come close to settling on one of these, when they began to hear about the emerging Microsoft product called Wave 14 (later to be known as Lync). Wade made enquiries at Microsoft, discovered what was planned, and was pointed to a preferred Microsoft voice partner, Modality Systems of St Albans.

Modality were able to help Benenden meet their requirements, realising the benefits of Lync while at the same time fully integrating it with the existing PBX system during the migration, and completely replacing it by the end of 2011.

‘We started the roll out Lync in November 2010, as soon as it was formally released, starting with the IT department, Facilities, and the Accounts departments, looking at people who would really use it and give it the best possible test.’

The key features soon started to show themselves:

‘The ability to quickly add new physical extensions. Before, we had people sharing phones, and now they are all able to have their own, either physical or virtual. And it’s now so easy to move phones and extensions around internally when people move offices, classrooms or simply job share.’

The work of the receptionist has been transformed, too, with a headset and a 26inch touch screen she can now quickly see if people are at their desks and are able to receive calls, or divert calls to their voicemail if necessary.

Mobile staff, who move from room to room or who are working offsite, are now in complete control of the way they want to be contacted on a minute to minute basis.

Other features, such as video conferencing are starting to take root. Core examples are for interviewing prospective staff applying from abroad, and increasingly for governors’ discussions and meetings.

‘Now that it is installed there are many real savings with Lync, however, as many are as a result of it enabling us to change the way we work many are difficult to quantify,’ says Wade.

But the real cost saver was on the capital cost of buying the system. Wade says that the two systems they were looking at before they discovered ‘Lync’ were finally quoted at £115,000 and £125,000 after extensive negotiation, much of that being for licensing at up £95 per user for each full unified messaging mailbox. Lync, however, came in at £65,000 on a like-for-like basis, most of the costs being accounted for by handsets and initial consultancy. As the Lync software licenses were already included within the school’s existing Microsoft licensing agreement the software costs were minimal.

With the full rollout complete by Christmas 2011, and the legacy system off to the recycle bin, Benenden now has a state of the art unified communications system. To begin with, though, as far as most staff were aware, their beige Nortel phones were simply replaced by a black Polycom ones. It was only when staff had become comfortable with the change they were then introduced to the additional advanced features of Lync. Wade thinks that hitting them with all of the features of such a powerful system in the beginning would have been counter-productive. Although, Lync was initially being used primarily as a telephone system replacement, its advanced features are now being extensively utilized by an increasing number of staff within the school.

Prior to working in education, Wade previously designed and managed large multinational corporate communications networks and, from his experience in industry, he immediately realised Lync’s full potential. Wade believes, in fact, that for the best uptake by schools Lync should be marketed to them more on the basis of being an effective telephone system replacement rather than as a full collaborative communications environment. He suggests that many of the senior management teams (and budget controllers) in public and independent schools today have difficulty in understanding the real value of investing in a unified communications platform until after they have seen it in operation within their own school environment. Wade had previously been trying to justify the costs of implementing a unified communications environment within the school for several years without success as the value of instant messaging, presence, video conferencing, meetings on demand and desktop sharing are difficult to convey to people who have no previous experience of them. With Lync, Wade was able to replace an obsolete phone system whilst also providing the school with a full unified communications system at no additional cost.

Next step is to give Lync unified mailboxes to all of the students in their boarding accommodation through their personal PCs, tablets and mobile phones. Technically this is easy to do, but the challenge is providing it in a way that does not compromise child safety. The increased communication capability is potentially a real issue in an 11-18 all-girls school and Benenden is currently working in the internal procedures required to ensure that students are fully safeguarded against unwanted calls before Lync can be released to students.