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Posted: 1/29/2013
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GESS GESS achieves seamless collaboration with Office 365

Two campuses, 280 staff and 1,500 students, to be supported by one communications and collaboration platform - this was what the German European School Singapore (GESS) set out to achieve when it began looking to consolidate its email systems in late 2011.

Its ultimate goal, however, is to go beyond that. “Our long-term strategy is to create a seamless system for user authentication and communication, and to use it as a basis for other systems incorporating email, calendaring and online directory services,” said Dr. Matt Harris, Head of Learning Resources.

As GESS evaluated its options, it became clear that Microsoft Office 365, with Microsoft Exchange Online as its hosted enterprise email service, was the way to go.

Tackling complexity - Over the years, GESS had gone through various email systems - an in-house hosted solution, followed by a blended system with two different versions of Gmail and a hosted Exchange system. Gmail was used by students as well as the teaching faculty and general staff, while Exchange was used by the management and administrative staff.

With three email systems in place, only very basic document sharing was possible among the different groups of users. There was no shared calendaring or resource booking, and the users had different email interfaces, which meant that the IT department had to support them in these different modes.

To address these issues, GESS began looking to consolidate its email systems. At the same time, it seized the opportunity to restructure its internal Active Directory.

 “We had a rather complex internal networking system with networks that were physically and virtually separate. What we wanted to do was to collapse them physically and have virtual separation for the various systems,” said Dr. Harris. “Going forward, when we design our systems, we want to be able to connect them to the Active Directory for account creation and authentication.”

Evaluating the options - GESS had two options – to go with Microsoft Office 365 or to standardize on another vendor’s solution. As the school evaluated the two systems, a key consideration was how well the consolidated email solution would work with the school’s new Active Directory structure.

Office 365 had an edge in this respect. With Office 365, there were readily available tools to synchronize users with Active Directory, so that they would be able to access their emails and other systems with one Active Directory password. This also made it easier for the IT department to enable or disable user accounts in the background.

Another advantage of Office 365 was that it provided GESS with a one-stop solution instead of having to incorporate third-party tools to deliver the functionalities that it needed. For example, besides offering robust email and calendaring capabilities, another Office 365 feature that was important to GESS was access delegation. This allows the school’s management to provide personal assistants with access to their email and calendaring systems in order to manage their communications and schedules.

Considerations over data privacy and security were also central to GESS’s decision to move ahead with Office 365. “The school spends a lot of effort to ensure that communications are kept private, student data is protected, and curriculum and assessment data are secure,” said Dr. Harris. “We believe that the level of security, access, and privacy available on the (Office 365) system clearly aligns with GESS’s policies.”

Another compelling reason for consolidating on Office 365 was the guaranteed service uptime of 99.9 per cent, and the fact that tech support was readily available should the school encounter problems with the system.

“Microsoft provided us with a matrix on service availability and ways of getting help if we needed to. We had a direct phone line to call and could ask very specific questions,” said Dr. Harris. “With the other vendor, we basically had to trust that the system would work because it had been working for other people. But if it went down, there was nobody to call.”

Making the transition - GESS’ transition to Office 365 involved creating a new Active Directory structure and connecting it to Office 365. In all, the process took about three months. “It was not a straightforward migration because of the multiple systems involved,” said Dr. Harris.

For example, when users were moved from Gmail to Office 365, certain features such as the labels and color coding could not be ported over. Another issue was that users who were on the Microsoft Business Productivity Online Standard Suite could not be moved over directly to the Office 365 server but had to be migrated to the new system using a migration portal.

Other teething problems included difficulties syncing Groups so that they could be shared among the teachers, and the additional effort needed to create context whenever external contacts had to be added to mailing lists.

However, help was always just a phone call away. “Microsoft has been very responsive and helpful. When we called them, they would get back to us very quickly to follow through and resolve the various issues,” said Dr. Harris.

* The school spends a lot of effort to ensure that communications are kept private, student data is protected, and curriculum and assessment data are secure. We believe that the level of security, access, and privacy available on the (Office 365) system clearly aligns with GESS’s policies. *

Dr. Matt Harris,
Head of Learning Resources, German European School Singapore


Benefits With the initial transition issues ironed out, GESS began to reap the benefits of having a consolidated communications and collaboration platform.

Pavestheway forsharingof systemsWith Office 365, GESS has been able to migrate from the use of spreadsheets to a shared online calendaring system. For example, the entire European section of the school has begun putting major events on a shared calendar that everyone can subscribe to. “We’re generating a culture of using calendaring to have a clearer understanding of where our people and resources are located,” said Dr. Harris.

Likewise, the online room booking system has given the school better visibility into resource availability across its two campuses. “Up till now, there was no good way to reserve rooms. We were either using pen and paper or an unreliable and overly complex online system. But with Office 365, we have been able to synchronize bookings and get instant updates on resource availability.”

Enhances communications and information sharingPlatform independence also means that users can access Office 365 functionalities from any device, and have confidence that the information will be synchronized. Communication has also improved with all users now presented with a common email interface. “Uniformity of access for everyone is very important for us. The teachers and students see the same interface and have the same interactions.

Communications gets a lot easier with everyone being on the same page,” said Dr. Harris.

The deployment of Office 365 also ties in nicely with GESS’ 1-to-1 laptop programme for students from Grades 9 to 12 (14 to 18 years old).

By having email and calendaring in a unified system, teachers are better able to help students with task management and communication.

Facilitates end-user supportFor the IT team, the consolidation of email systems and deployment of Active Directory means that time spent on user support and back- end administration has been reduced by up to 20 per cent.

The creation and modification of user accounts can now be done in Active Directory and populated throughout the system where previously, different databases had to be created and maintained for different user groups.

There is also better control over specific features that users can have access to. For example, Office 365 allows the instant messaging function to be disabled in class, to prevent its use by students during lessons. Furthermore, with data synchronized across the system, the risk of data loss has been reduced.

In addition, Office 365 makes it easier for the IT department to deploy and recover Office 2010 licenses. By assigning the relevant Office 365 subscription plan to a student’s email account, the student will be able to download and install Office 2010. This eliminates the need for the IT department to install Office 2010 onto each laptop using the Activation Key. Likewise, when the student leaves school, the subscription plan is de-assigned from the email account and the Office 2010 on the laptop will be automatically downgraded to a trial version. For the same reason, GESS is also converting its Office 2010 volume license for staff to the Office 365 licensing scheme, to allow for greater ease of installation and deactivation.

Going forward In the longer term, the ability of Office 365 to connect into other services such as Microsoft SharePoint Online, Microsoft SkyDrive and various web collaboration tools will also pave the way for GESS to tap on these and other hosted solutions to improve workflow and collaboration across the organization. “It will allow us to get away from locally-held systems and move more into the cloud,” said Dr. Harris.

Microsoft Office 365
Microsoft Office 365 brings together cloud versions of Microsoft’s most trusted communications and collaboration products - Microsoft SharePoint Online, Exchange Online, and Lync Online - with the latest version of the Office desktop suite and companion web applications. For academic institutions that are ready to take advantage of the cloud, Office 365 offers free email, instant messaging, group video and voice chat, and online document viewing and editing.

Simple to use and easy to administer, Office 365 is financially backed by a service level agreement that guarantees 99 per cent reliability. It also features robust security, IT-level phone support, geo-redundancy, disaster recovery, and the business-class privacy controls and standards that you expect from a world-class service provider.

For more information, go to: www.office365.com

Solution Overview

Organization Size: 228 employees

Software and Services
Microsoft Office 365

Vertical Industries
Primary & Secondary Edu/ K-12