The Royal Naval College in Greenwich has got to be one of the most picturesque places to work in London. Designed by Sir Christopher Wren, it houses one of the sites of the University of Greenwich, whose recently-departed head of IT Alan Broadaway is himself a man with a long history, although not quite so long as this waterfront building.
At the same time as many CIOs in office today were experimenting with computing as schoolchildren or undergraduates, Broadaway was building systems for electricity generating grids and oil rigs.
Until his departure from the role shortly after we met late last year, Broadaway’s primary concern was the infrastructure that supports the university’s three sites: the main campus in Greenwich, a second 10 miles further south in Eltham and a third in Chatham, close to where the river Medway runs into the Thames.
Many of the college’s 18,000 undergraduates are the first in their family to take a degree course. Widening access into higher education is a deliberate policy of vice chancellor Baroness Blackstone and so its mission statement involves the care of its students, who may be totally unfamiliar with the university environment. Many students are from overseas.
“It can be a bit daunting and there is a whole range of support mechanisms in place for students,” says Broadaway. “What we look to do within IT is to provide as good an experience as you can get within the constraints of our funding.”
As with most higher education bodies, Greenwich is dependent on revenues that are closely tied to student numbers. Now they have to pay their own tuition fees, students are becoming more selective about where they go.
At the same time, they are very aware of the technology that will help them in their studies, so the demands on universities to keep their IT services as up-to-date as they can are very high.
Low availability for internet connection will prompt students to complain to their friends back home, who will be less likely to apply to that college when their turn comes.
At Greenwich, many of the students are still working to pay for their education, exposing them to the levels of IT accessibility expected as normal in the private sector which the university then has to match.
Broadaway has many years’ experience in delivering strong infrastructure services across a campus and arrived in 2006 with a remit to integrate a number of systems and make communications more readily available to students and lecturers alike.
“I’m linking all the buildings, all the rooms together with a high-speed, reliable and secure network. We’ve achieved that and the next thing to do is to build the applications on top of that,” he says.
One thing students demand is the availability of wireless networks to feed their own high-bandwidth devices. This caused Broadaway to concentrate on the university’s wireless network infrastructure over the last 12 months and make sure it was robust and reliable.
It’s all about 24-hour accessibility, vital when a significant proportion of students’ homes are in different time zones across the world and they are using the college’s network to contact family and friends.
At the other end of the scale, Broadaway had to serve specialist academic requirements that demand high-bandwidth connectivity. The university is heavily involved in fire safety research, where computer modelling is so much safer than conducting experiments with real fire. Broadaway implemented a completely separate network to support this and other research so that it didn’t get swamped by the day-to-day demands of undergraduates.
It was a grand scheme considering the meagre funding opportunities at the moment and Broadaway admits that one of his tasks was to make those difficult choices about where investments are made.
Although the Greenwich campus carries a lot of cachet because of its history, it also presents a problem as a heritage site. Any IT projects that affect the physical fabric of a building that dates back to 1696 have to be squared with the owner, English Heritage.
Broadaway would make sure the owner is consulted well in advance of any work, but English Heritage did expect him to stick strictly to his plans.
“You have to do what you say you are going to do. If you deviate at all, it can have drastic penalties,” he says.