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Higher calling: Case study

A U.K. college provides its “digital natives” with a secure environment that can be accessed anywhere from any device. Greg Masters reports.

To keep up with advancements in mobile technologies and the expansion of its many campuses, Birmingham Metropolitan College (BMC) faced a daunting challenge: Offering anytime/anywhere access – in a secure manner – to its students and staff, whether they were on campus, at end-user workstations or on mobile devices at remote locations.

BMC consists of eight campuses around the city of Birmingham in the center of England, a two-hour train ride northwest from London. 

It has 35,000 students and 1,300 staff members, and provides services for a range of learners – from teenagers to college-level to post-graduate positions. Additionally, it offers continuing adult education courses and, working with global organizations, provides an apprenticeship program to train students for future positions. 

Jamie Smith (right), director of systems and policy development at BMC, and his team, understood that new students were by nature “digital natives.” To maintain leadership in a competitive educational landscape, they were tasked with providing a curriculum model accessible from the campus, office and home. The goal was to create a seamless learning ecosystem. This included a cloud environment for classes throughout the college's various programs, as well as new social community options for students and staff to help drive collaboration. However, Smith and his team also knew that security had to be a priority in the implementation. 

Smith's team looked at technology offerings from several leading vendors, but ultimately decided to leverage IBM Virtual Desktop and IBM SmartCloud as Smith and his staff found that the virtual desktop offered new security benefits that were not achievable in a traditional desktop environment. And, Smith says, as the school adopted these new technologies, the security benefits of the cloud were an added bonus.   

Also, Smith's team was convinced that representatives from IBM were not merely trying to sell software, but were more interested in building a lasting partnership with the college. Further, the IBM solution offered the flexibility that the college needed to build its secure cloud and open community environment.

IBM SmartCloud delivers secure and scalable hosted IT infrastructure with on-demand access to virtual server and storage resources, says Martin Borrett, director of the IBM Institute for Advanced Security Europe. “IBM protects cloud environments with cloud security strategies and a comprehensive portfolio of solutions that span the entire cloud lifecycle and all security domains,” he says. “With an emphasis on visibility, control and automation, IBM cloud security solutions help meet regulatory compliance and defend against the latest threats, delivering a robust, security-rich cloud tuned to your specific needs.”

BMC has a social mission, Smith says, and a secure cloud allows the college to reach students who are not always able to attend courses in person due to personal and financial reasons. An added benefit, he soon realized, was that the deployment of the new technologies was also helping to drive enrollment because the college can now offer students a so-called “Classroom of the Future,” which fits in well with the college's ambition to be a global leader in the field of technology-enabled learning.

With the help of IBM business partner Virtual Bridges, BMC was able to deploy the new technology offerings in a fraction of the time anticipated. In fact, in the case of the virtual desktop solutions, the college went from zero to fully operating in the cloud in three months.

As well, IBM Virtual Desktop is designed to enhance the overall quality and reliability of virtual desktops, with options that cover a range of end-users, Borrett says. “It provides secure remote access to user desktops and applications, while keeping confidential data safe and backed up.”

And, since IBM SmartCloud requires no hardware or software deployments, it is a one-stop shop, says BMC's Smith. “[The college] has been able to securely host online courses and an online community to help drive a secure ecosystem of learning and nurture a new culture of collaboration.”  

The IBM solutions also take into account the required “safeguarding legislations” in the United Kingdom. The technology helps to ensure that students are not subject to any inappropriate materials on the collaborative social networking platforms provided by BMC.

The implementation reaches across the entire BMC network, and Smith sees opportunities to implement further deployments in the near future, but no action is underway at the moment.  

Implementing cloud-based and social media technologies has changed the way that BMC operates from a security perspective, Smith says. Educating students and staff on how to properly use the new cloud environment and social communities has been their biggest challenge, Smith says.

“There are many ways to do this with the IBM solutions that the college is using, such as implementing an acceptable-use policy, tagging data to track important documents, as well as rigorous training and education,” says Smith. 

But, there are always new threats with which to contend. Currently, Smith and his team are concerned with keeping up with the extreme pace of advanced persistent threats to network security. Other challenges include bring-your-own-device (BYOD) and social media. 

But, the IT department at BMC is assured that new tools will be there to assist. “The key point for Birmingham Metropolitan College is to use technology to help achieve its goals to reinvent education,” says Smith.

For reprints of this case study, contact Elton Wong at [email protected] or 646-638-6101.

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