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"Connectivity most industries would die for" - Mike Roch, Heriot-Watt University

At 183 years old, Heriot-Watt University is steeped in heritage. It was founded as the world’s first mechanics’ institute in Edinburgh, training technical and managerial staff at the time of the industrial revolution. 

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Mike Roch, Heriot-Watt University
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Mike Roch, Heriot-Watt University

To this day, it’s still very much focused on technology, science and business - only now it does this across its five campuses in the UK, Dubai and Malaysia, which together host 28,000 students.

Heriot-Watt's director of information services, Mike Roch, describes how he has created an integrated technical infrastructure that works 'invisibly' around the world, how Jisc and the Janet network support his work and why collaboration is crucial.

What were the main challenges you faced when you took on the role?

"My job was created in September 2011, following a review that identified that the IT department and library were working in completely unconnected ways. They had different line management, different budgets and governance yet so many important developments in universities today involve expertise from both fields. We had a very poor technical infrastructure and connections to online resources. We were underdeveloped in terms of supporting research – a field that really needs input from both IT and the library – and lots of things were held back by lack of collaboration between the two.

The university had very poor provision in terms of a central information system. It was outdated and running on poor infrastructure. The core networking needed updating and a lot of reconfiguration. We didn’t tend to have commercial partnerships with trusted suppliers, which is something I very much believe in."

What were your objectives when you started?

"To bring some coherence to the way IT supports the university and the teams across the campuses. We run services worldwide – we are the HQ. They are formally defined as branch campuses, in the context of communications and networking, but we are the design authority as they have no network staff at the other sites. So, we have one student record system and one library collection that works around the world, managed and developed from Edinburgh."

What have you achieved over the last three years?

"I’ve brought together all the customer-facing functions and relationships between information services and schools and remote campuses into one functional team that reports to me. I’ve integrated a package of student and staff courses, which we call the Power Hours. These cover a diverse range of subjects, from finding the material you require and writing an academic paper to using Microsoft Word.

This is a big step for us. The team driving that includes people who were previously in the library and IT department. We’ve had to develop relationships with schools, whether that’s through IT support or library content."

What's your current infrastructure environment like?

"The priority with academic and learning services is to create integrated services, where customers can’t see the join. The Edinburgh campus is part of the metropolitan area network for Edinburgh and Stirling and Janet's taking all of these metropolitan area networks under its wing and will bring it in-house over the next 18 months. I’m very happy with this and don’t envisage any problems. 

Janet helps us with connecting wider campuses – particularly in Malaysia, where we have an interim campus. We’ve ended up dealing with local telecomms there, where prices are high and there’s little choice of supplier. We’ve effectively been using 4G!

When it’s completed, the campus will grow to over 4,000 students, so we clearly need a proper connection. We’re looking at 100 megabits per second, which, through Malaysia Telcomms, would cost us around £110,000 a year. Janet has been able to get us a circuit with the same capacity for half the price. And, of course, we have Janet doing the supply and management for us, which solves a big headache."

As the higher education landscape continues to develop, what opportunities and challenges do you see?

"The big one has to be money. That’s another interesting thing about coming to Scotland. I won’t say money flows freely but, over the last two or three years, budgets have been maintained. Whereas I’m conscious that in England many colleagues are under pressure to deliver more for less. Doing more with less is a big theme.

We can teach our 28,0000 students as we’ve got a great virtual learning environment, available 24/7. How can we improve student experience without spending a lot of money, with Windows 365, emails, contacts, calendars, etc needing to be available anywhere, any time? We used Janet’s model contract when working out our contract with Microsoft."

What role do you think directors of IT play in overcoming these challenges?

"The imperative thing will be for organisations to collaborate more and more. Some organisations want to compete but, with the limited resources most of us have, we can achieve more by collaborating. Where there are collaborations to be made, technology is the obvious enabling infrastructure for that to happen."

With this in mind, how does IT look in the future at Heriot-Watt?

"Our goal at Heriot-Watt is that technology just becomes invisible - part of the furniture. But it must be everywhere and it must be totally reliable. There’s no point in having online services if you’re offline! In order to make it reliable we have to find models for acquiring it and managing it, which are sustainable. I have a networking team of four people – I can’t have them working 24 hours a day 365 days a year, so I need to build partnerships and make arrangements that allow my people to be adding value, in terms of the quality of network services and what our students need."

How does Jisc contribute to Heriot-Watt’s vision as a university ‘for business and industry, with a vibrant, forward-looking approach and an established reputation for world-class teaching and research’?

"The short answer is because the Janet network’s as powerful and as reliable as it is. It’s achieved that invisibility – it’s just ‘there’, no one notices it and it doesn’t disrupt or slow down. We have connectivity most industries would die for! The typical student isn’t aware of it at all, so it’s achieved its goal. Jisc has to work hard at that – it’s not magic just because you don’t see it, it’s because it’s working right.

Janet is a trusted partner, and has been for decades, and this is continuing with Jisc. It provides what is, primarily, the UK’s national research and education network. We need it – it’s indispensable to us. And the added-value services it’s beginning to develop are very interesting to us. Speaking for us and dealing with big companies like Microsoft is a big thing. We’re also interested in other commercial opportunities Janet’s identified, such as long-term storage of data."