Each year, our sister publication Computer Dealer News hosts the Channel Elite Awards to recognize IT Solution Provider for their innovation, leadership, and commitment for creating value for their customers. As Canada’s leading IT channel publication, CDN invited solution providers to submit their best work to nine different categories for 2013’s awards. Here, we present the case studies these award nominees put forward to us. Find out who the big winners are on Sept. 11 when CDN presents them at the CEA Awards Gala.

Learn more about CDN’s Channel Elite Awards 2013

Nominee: Compugen Inc. from Richmond Hill, Ontario

Describe the solution, service or initiative
This submission pertains to Compugen’s work to modernize the unstable legacy network environment at Alberta’s Northland School Division through the implementation of new core network infrastructure and to improve stakeholder communications and collaboration through addition of VoIP and wireless capabilities. Northland School Division (NSD), headquartered in Peace River, serves nearly 2800 students in First Nations communities and Métis settlements spanning 80,000 square kilometers across northern Alberta. NSD’s 23 schools can be found in such unique locations as Paddle Prairie, Grande Cache, Cold Lake, Fort McKay, Trout Lake and in Fort Chipewyan, where the Athabasca Delta Community School is only accessible by air for nine months of the year and via an ice road constructed each winter. NSD’s primary goal is to allow students to retain their distinctive cultural identities while achieving academic excellence. NSD locations are all interconnected by Alberta SuperNet, which provides affordable high-speed network connectivity and Internet access to more than 4,700 sites across Alberta. Due to continued problems with its own internal network infrastructure interfacing to SuperNet, however, NSD teachers were experiencing increasing difficulty using videoconferencing and other network-based communications and collaboration tools. The situation came to a head when attempts by Compugen to implement Voice-over-IP (VoIP) telephony at NSD’s Peace River head office and in two new schools were not entirely successful because the internal network and underlying cabling infrastructure could not properly support it. Through an initial engagement with Compugen Professional Services, an assessment of the School Division’s existing LAN and WAN networks revealed major problems resulting from the network being pushed beyond its technical limitations – the legacy equipment was only capable of supporting a data environment, not converged data, voice and video. Numerous configuration problems with servers, switches, routers and firewalls were also identified. It appears that with only four people to support the entire Division, the local IT team lacked the time, training and tools to properly support the network, let alone continually upgrade it to meet new, more-demanding communications requirements. To address the continuing networking problems and to better position schools to meet current and future connectivity needs, Northland issued an RFP and ultimately chose Compugen as its partner to undertake a three-pronged network modernization project: 1. Revamp the core networking infrastructure across the entire school division to support a full range of converged voice, video and data requirements; 2. Implement VoIP telephony at head office and in every school, including an IP phone in every office and classroom throughout the entire district; 3. Implement wireless network coverage throughout the schools (as budget allows) to support student and faculty access and mobility requirements. “Compugen’s proposal was very detailed and provided a clear and well-thought-out architecture and implementation plan, including involvement of a third-party training partner to ensure we understood the new technologies and how to support them”, says Sherrie Buchner, Supervisor of Technology at Northland School Division 61.

What makes it original or innovative?
“While what Compugen did may not be so much “innovative” per se, it was an extremely well-orchestrated implementation and integration of existing state-of-the-art vendor technologies,” stresses Jason Juneau, Network Administrator, Northland School Division 61, who goes on to say that the effort brought NSD up to an even playing field, and even perhaps a little ahead, of what the other school division standards are throughout the province with respect to unified communications. According to Juneau, a lot of school divisions are doing VoIP and a number of them have standardized their switching and routing infrastructure, but typically through small, individual projects, while this one was a single huge project providing a complete modernization of their entire network environment. Another noteworthy aspect of the Compugen solution at Northland was the considerable logistics required to ensure that all of the new networking equipment was delivered at the right time to all the remote school locations, in small communities and settlements across the northern half of the province, where shipping is often quite difficult. The other half of this logistics equation was overcoming problems of getting Compugen technicians to these same remote locations, pretty much all of which are huge distances from one another and a number of which have no local hotel accommodations or dining facilities. This resulted in Compugen staff having to stay in teachers’ homes or sleep on a mattress on the floor of the school gymnasium, and bring several days worth of food with them in their own coolers. Overall, the NSD project required an inordinate amount of planning and effort to coordinate the delivery of products and synchronize the availability of Compugen technical people in these remote locations.

Describe the improvement this solution made to the customer’s sales or revenues and provide measurable evidence of such.
Although the school division is saving money because the installation of VoIP eliminates the previous charges associated with long-distance phone calling between the schools and head office – they’ve been saving roughly $250 to $300 per month just in long-distance charges since VoIP has been active – the goal of this project was not really about improvements in sales, revenues or cost reductions. Instead, the project was about enabling better communications and collaboration amongst student, faculty and other education stakeholders, and a better user experience for students, by addressing the technical challenges NSD was facing related to existing network infrastructure problems and enhancing the networking environment to support VoIP and new communications and collaboration tools. 

Describe the improvement that was made to the customers efficiency, with measurable evidence.
Revitalization of the core infrastructure has given Northland School Division a network that is dramatically more stable, efficient and faster, thus improving communications and collaboration for students and faculty. The introduction of VoIP and the addition of a VoIP telephone in every classroom, for example, contribute to increased safety and security of students and staff. It also increases operational efficiency for teachers and admin personnel by making class-to-class and head office calls quicker and easier – just dial a 4-digit extension number – as well as simplifying calls to students’ parents. Also, with VoIP phones on each of their desks, teachers wishing to participate in professional development Webinars and teleconferences can now quickly and easily access the audio portion of the presentations. With the new phone system, administrators have been able to set up school answer menus, change their message regularly for holidays, snow days, etc., set up personal phone books, speed dials and customized rings, and take advantage of numerous other useful and efficient features. According to Buchner, NSD has been using the Cisco VoIP phones for the audio portion of twice-weekly online Student Information System training sessions for school secretaries across the Division. The VoIP phones allow many simultaneous speakers without problematic feedback. “These Webinars have been going very well and school secretaries are becoming more confident and independent in the work they do with student data, hopefully improving retention of these important staff members,” reports Buchner, adding that they have plans to also use the phones for the audio portion of the Literacy and Inclusion Professional Development online sessions with the Literacy Leads from each school they plan to conduct to keep the Literacy Leads connected between the times they meet in person, a difficult undertaking given the vast geography. The new phone system also makes it easier for the IT team to contact teachers to conduct troubleshooting and provide IT support. Along with adding the new telephony infrastructure, the IT staff has taken some education and Cisco classes, and has access to Cisco support resources, allowing them to be more capable, confident and efficient in terms of their system maintenance and support tasks. And with the same networking, VoIP and wireless solution at all locations, instead of the mixed bag of networking infrastructure that prevailed previously, troubleshooting by the single, centralized IT team is now much easier. “Standardizing on a single Cisco platform makes the learning, the support and the maintenance tasks much easier for our limited number of IT staff, who are now enjoying an enhanced image and seeing greater confidence bestowed on them by school principals,” reports Buchner. Efficiency improvements extend to the new wireless network coverage as well, with students and faculty now able to bring to school and use their own iPads and tablets, and with the school division ordering more sets of iPads for the classrooms now that stable and pervasive wireless access is readily available.

How did the solution improve the customer’s ability to serve internal or external clients?
The clients benefiting from Compugen’s effort and from the more stable, efficient and faster networking environment at NSD that has resulted are primarily the 2,800 students and 200+ teachers, with benefits also accruing to other internal users such as the IT and administrative staff. With respect to the students, for example, NSD has one of the lowest attendance and literacy rates in the province, especially since the kids often leave school early to work at the many northern Alberta oil and gas interests located nearby. With a faster and more stable network now in place, however, the Division is excited about the positive effects that various audio, voice and video technologies and tools will have on student engagement and learning, which will hopefully encourage them to stay in school. And for those students who do decide to leave school, at least temporarily, to find work, the new, stable network allows students to extend the time it takes for them to get their credits by enabling teachers to make special YouTube videos that can be streamed to students at a later date, when they return to school, enabling them to pick up where they left off. The addition of wireless coverage throughout the schools is enabling students to use their own mobile devices, or school-provided devices, to access information and computing resources for improved creation, communications and collaboration. “I simply can’t wait until we can see the realization of the full potential of what we’ve done here, with both students and teachers using the network, we’re seeing greater engagement with students, which will hopefully have a positive impact on our attendance and literacy challenges,” says NSD’s Sherrie Buchner. For faculty, the VoIP system and the addition of a VoIP telephone in every classroom is enhancing safety and security, by enabling teachers to connect quickly with other classrooms throughout the district, with head office and even with students’ parents. The more-capable and more-reliable network is also allowing teachers to participate in a special distance learning project with the Alberta Distance Learning Centre and also participate in literacy Webinars from head office, both of which they were not able to do previously because the network wasn’t stable nor could it properly support converged voice, video and data traffic. The Webinars are mostly about literacy strategies and how to do guided reading, how to do assessments, how to teach students to read and write and to collaborate and create online and share their work. “Adoption of teleconferencing, videoconferencing and Webinar services by teachers was slow at first, perhaps because they had been burned on numerous occasions previously due to unstable network; but once they realized that the network was now stable and working well, they are conducting more presentations all the time,” reports Jason Juneau. For the IT team, the Compugen network modernization project has boosted the image of the IT department and increased the confidence in the IT team by school principals. Even though the team still has a lot of additional enhancements they would like to make over time, standardizing on a single platform, rather than having each school running on a different technology platform, has made the troubleshooting, support and maintenance tasks much easier for IT staff, and less time is spent having to learn multiple systems. “The Compugen team was just incredible – smart, clever guys who not only came up with clever solutions based on the Cisco Connected Learning Reference Architecture, but were able to work very well despite us not always being able to answer their questions or help them because of our people shortage,” exclaims Buchner.

In what ways does the solution go above and beyond industry expectations?
Recognizing the difficulty NSD was having with the technical capabilities of its legacy networking infrastructure, specifically its inability to support the advanced technical requirements required by converged data, voice and video traffic, Compugen’s project plan included a detailed inspection of every aspect of the existing infrastructure at each school site – every server, router, switch, firewall, cable, wall jack and even the cooling. They also had the foresight to assess whether existing ‘smartboards’ and videoconferencing units in the classrooms would ultimately work on the proposed new network infrastructure. The Compugen inspection revealed that in order to have VoIP and have it be crystal clear, complete new wiring would be required in every school, especially with videoconferencing also running on it. In some cases, the old wiring (i.e. cat5) simply needed to be replaced with newer cables (i.e. cat6). In most cases, however, old cabling, which had actually been installed over a period of time, in some cases by non-technical staff, was more problematic. Without a master plan, it lacked proper labelling and had been installed over lights, over heating ducts and frequently criss-crossing on itself, and as a result, could not support the types of upgrades planned. “While a thorough, detailed, school-by-school assessment of all existing networking infrastructure may not be considered ‘beyond industry norms’, it was certainly critical to establishing a baseline profile of where we were, and thus a roadmap for improvement,” explains Juneau. Once new wiring was installed by a separate cabling contractor chosen by NSD, Compugen was able to proceed with implementation of the new core network infrastructure, VoIP and wireless. This included providing onsite training and video training for the four NSD technical people, through a third-party training partner that Compugen brought to the project, to give NSD IT staff a comprehensive understanding of the various Cisco networking technologies Compugen was implementing. “When it comes to the ‘norm’, I expect that most businesses would tackle just one aspect of such a project, say the switching and routing, and update that and be happy with that. Then later perhaps, they would tackle the voice aspect and the cabling changes that came with it, etc. But since the scale of our project was greater than normal, and Compugen completed the whole thing as a single project – the re-cabling, the core network upgrades, the VoIP, the wireless – the planning, orchestration and project management had to beyond normal expectations,” stresses Juneau. The extreme geography challenges, which are a large part of what makes NSD unique – 80,000 square kilometres spanning the entirety of northern Alberta – also required an effort and project and logistics management on Compugen’s part that were clearly beyond normal. All NSD schools are near First Nations reserves and Métis settlements, some as small as only 20 students and several of which are so remote that they must be accessed by air or by ice road in the winter, and NSD must provide housing for faculty. These factors added significantly to the overall project complexity – the number of schools and distances involved made it much more difficult to coordinate the delivery of products and to schedule the availability of technical people. “We were very happy with the work by the Compugen team – very responsive; and they were gone from home for weeks at a time into small remote towns that didn’t have lodgings or even a restaurant,” says Buchner. With the work complete, Northland School Division schools will be able to use technology to create, collaborate and communicate better, for the benefit of all stakeholders, taking each school into a new era of curriculum delivery and a richer student experience. “We were very happy with the work of the Compugen team and the strong project management role they played on our behalf, especially since we were not able to give them the type of support they were likely accustomed to because we have so few IT people,” states Buchner. “They proved themselves capable in terms of finding ways around this and making decisions on their own, including working with our cabling partner and managing the communications, since we sometimes couldn’t.”

How does the solution further your customer’s green or environmentally friendly plans?
While Northland School Division does not have an official ‘green’ strategy or policy that imposed any requirements on this project, the Compugen solution was designed to deliver ‘Greener Services’. Through the use of Cisco’s EnergyWise architecture, Compugen has given NSD the capability to reduce energy consumption across the district by enabling the network administrator to measure the power consumption of network infrastructure and network-attached devices and manage power consumption with specific policies, reducing power consumption and thus costs, and potentially affecting any powered device. EnergyWise encompasses a highly intelligent, network-based approach to communicate messages that measure and control energy between network devices and endpoints. The network discovers Cisco EnergyWise-manageable devices, monitors their power consumption and takes action based on business rules to reduce power consumption. The Cisco Catalyst 2960-S Series Switches selected for Compugen‘s design are designed and engineered to provide optimum power saving, low-power operations for industry best-in-class power management and power consumption capabilities. The Cisco Catalyst 2960-S ports are capable of reduced power modes so that ports not in use can move into a lower power utilization state.

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