Interview: Andy Butcher, Sales Manager for Research and Education, Axians
Andy Butcher is the Axians Sales Manager responsible for the UK Research and Education market, and is focused on helping universities deliver carrier-grade network services and business efficiency to their academic stakeholders and students.
Q: How long have you been working in the higher education sector?
I have worked with the education sector since the later 1990s. My first major sale was to University College London where I won a contract selling computers. My background in building, surveying and dealing with specifications and tenders meant I fitted quite well into the market and I have mostly worked in HE since.
Over the last 10 years I have regularly visited a 100 or so HE/FE institutions every year and it has been interesting to see who is doing what, when, the early and late adopters of different technologies and the technical and economic challenges they face. So over the years I have come to understand their technical and economic drivers as a business.
Q: So how has demand for network security in the research and education market changed in that period?
You have thousands, or tens of thousands, of young adults bringing a multitude of devices to the university campus expecting that they are going to be able to connect, work, learn and socially interact.
Taking a top down view, networks were primarily built to serve the needs of researchers and academics. Then they had to be transformed into consumer networks for thousands, or tens of thousands, of young adults bringing a multitude of devices to the university campus expecting that they are going to be able to connect, work, learn and socially interact. So the networks built by and for researchers and academics have had to be more open to meeting the needs of students as well.
A change we have seen over the last five to ten years is that HE institutions have started to hire IT directors and CIOs from outside of the industry. Previously it was people who had worked only in HE, who might have been had 30-40 year tenure that saw them gain seniority. Today more people with business skills are entering the world of HE, but they are still learning how to influence academics. A traditional IT director may not gain a seat at the top table because although they understand technology, they also need to understand how to use IT to transform challenges in the education sector into solutions.
Q: What applications are campus networks typically required to support?
Perhaps the most important application on every university network is YouTube
We typically have to support, in a virtual learning environment, primarily Moodle and Blackboard, then general finance packages, student credentials applications, customer relationship and management (CRM) and enterprise resource planning (ERP) software, but not much beyond that.
Perhaps the most important application on every university network is YouTube, which is used as a learning application as well as for entertainment, and, if we manage the halls as well, it is closely followed by Netflix.
We tend to find that most universities today are moving to cloud services, Office 365 or Google Docs and Mail. We see a few people picking up Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure, and moving into shared data centres so they can take space and have their own private off site cloud facilities.
Q: Does greater use of cloud workloads force network and/or security upgrades?
Research clusters still exist across co-joined data centres on university premises and that can be challenging
No, definitely not. When moving to a cloud application generally the only thing needed is a higher speed Internet link and this can be managed because most universities have not saturated the bandwidth they are already have. However, the cloud might force them to look more closely at the security aspect.
We still find research clusters that exist across co-joined data centres on university premises and this can be challenging. For example, if a research grant is given to one university and one team of people that is great because we can locate it in one private place. But increasingly research projects are collaborative with a number of universities joining together using a shared infrastructure for number crunching and clustering, and also sharing knowledge across many teams. Increasingly, this requires a level of security that was not needed in the past. So before a research grant is issued, the institution will be asked many questions about the security domain where the data will be hosted and will require Security measures including encryption, IP virtual private networks (VPNs), and identity access management (IAM) platforms.
Q: What is Axians strategy for the HE sector?
The major challenges we are starting to see in the research and education market revolve around the student experience, bring your own device (BYOD) and the Internet of Things (IoT).
We try to have conversations with HE customers about both the technical challenges they have and their challenges in the industry, such as delivering a better student experience and enabling greater collaboration for research.
The major challenges we see in the Research and Education market revolve around the student experience, bring your own device (BYOD) and the Internet of Things (IoT). They require the network to be very different from the kind of network you would have in an enterprise where you can fix and predetermine the kind of devices and applications, the amount of bandwidth and the location of users, for example.
In a university campus environment, there is none of that control, quite the opposite in fact. Students are actively encouraged to bring their own devices, work at a time and location that suits them and access data that can be hosted anywhere in the world. So, to provide the best possible user experience, we have to make sure the network is always on, the bandwidth is adequate, and the resources are there to be accessed as and when they are wanted.
That all has to be done in way that is sympathetic to security, not limiting people too much but also not putting anybody that connects to the network at risk. At Axians we understand what needs to be put in place to meet these requirements and work with universities to implement them. We always start with a network assessment to ensure we have a clear picture of the existing infrastructure and look at how best to utilise the existing systems and only add new kit where it is needed.
Q: Tell us about the changes on the near horizon for UK universities?
BIS are changing the rules and we would expect to see more private universities popping up
The Department of Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) produced a report earlier this year which highlighted a few things it was not happy with, in particular that it is difficult for institutions to gain the power to award degrees. In the US and the rest of the world, many universities, especially the top performing institutions, are private and can award degrees, but the UK has barriers to entry that effectively restrict the establishment of new universities.
BIS are changing the rules and we would expect to see more private universities popping up. At the moment there are only really two of any significance – the University of Buckingham and Regents University in London. But we think it is very possible that there could soon be a Pearson, or a Microsoft or a Google university in the coming years.
Since the government put a cap on the number of foreign students coming into the UK, and capping their income, some of the redbrick or middle ground universities decided to concentrate on increasing their income from research. This led to an alleged drop in the standards of the quality of teaching. So the government are implementing something called the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) which is a bit like an Ofsted report where the universities are all tested on the quality of the output of their teaching and lectures, not just on how many people get a degree or how many graduates get a job at the end of the course. This will give prospective students an effective way of measuring how good a university or course is and help them choose where to study.
The third thing changing concerns the infrastructure architecture and how it is all put together. The Office for Students (OfS) and the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) are going to be responsible for fund allocation and measuring the security and compliance of the network.
Q: How do those changes affect Axians’ business?
IT has a significant role to play in making sure a university can offer the bandwidth and device access that makes sure its those students can use the online resources they want whenever they want.
I don’t think that will change Axians’ business immediately, but it will in the long term. If you think about student satisfaction – I am a father of five and I know that they consume WiFi like it’s air – how good the WiFi is on campus is an important part of their evaluation. So IT has a significant role to play in making sure a university can offer the bandwidth and device access that makes sure those students can use the resources they want whenever they want.