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"Video is the new voice" CIO talk with Torsten Prill, director of the university's computing center

Dec 16, 2015

CIO-talk with Torsten Prill
Administrators at Freie Universität Berlin certainly don't see mediocrity as something to aim for. No, the university, which offers some 150 different degree programs and now has more than 34,000 students, is focused on quality. In 2012, FU Berlin was again successful in all three funding lines offered by the Excellence Initiative, a program of Germany's Federal Government and state governments. It was one of eleven universities in Germany to be so singled out. And the university's ICT systems and equipment, distributed throughout more than 175 buildings and associated outdoor spaces, can certainly also be termed "excellent." Soon, university faculty members will be able to conduct videoconferences either directly from their desks or from mobile devices located anywhere on the campus grounds. For Torsten Prill, director of the university's computing center, known as the "Zentraleinrichtung für Datenverarbeitung" (ZEDAT), the new videoconferencing capabilities will take researchers' interactions with colleagues in their fields to the next level.

Mr. Prill, we take it you love videoconferences.

As far as I'm concerned, video is the new voice. It's simply fun to be able to see the person you're talking to. And video certainly facilitates interpersonal communication. If that were not the case, we would never feel a need to talk to people in person. What is more, videoconferencing technology has come a long way. Now, starting a videoconference is as easy as picking up a telephone. And within seconds you can be in contact with someone just about anywhere in the world.

And you've rolled out FU Berlin's new videoconferencing system in cooperation with T-Systems?

Yes, that's exactly what we've done. As a result, a state-of-the-art videoconferencing system is now available to our researchers, technicians, students and administrators. With it, videoconferences can be conducted from office desktops, in classrooms, in conference rooms, in laboratories and from mobile devices located anywhere on the campus. The videoconferences are live calls with excellent-quality video and audio – both are in HD. And the system is interoperable with the different providers and types of systems in service around the world. By the way, I like to bring such IT innovations with me every time I return from a trip to Silicon Valley!

Why have videoconferences become such an important tool for FU Berlin?

Scientific endeavor today depends very much on teamwork. Researchers now tend to work highly interdisciplinarily. A key aspect of research at FU Berlin is that it involves a great many different cooperative ventures with researchers located elsewhere; in fact, much of this cooperation is highly international. As a university involved in many national and international networks, we maintain a great many contacts to universities and organizations in Germany and abroad. Our international contacts are supported by our seven international liaison offices, located in Brussels, Cairo, Moscow, New York, New Delhi, Beijing and São Paulo. What is more, we also cooperate with non-university research institutions in Germany and abroad. This category includes institutions such as the Max Planck Society and Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft. Our teaching faculty, doctoral students and undergraduates interact frequently and intensively with scientists at those institutions. Our videoconferencing capabilities will greatly facilitate and enhance such cooperation.

Could such systems and equipment be a factor why students and researchers would choose FU Berlin as a place to work and study?

Universities, like companies, now have to compete for good "entry-level staff." In other words, we have to ensure we are an attractive place for students, young scientists and researchers and other personnel. People certainly take state-of-the-art IT systems into account when they are considering institutions. Technologically, we are among the leaders in the university sector, and our computing center has been moving our innovation in this area forward.

For example, with your campus network?

We've set up a high-speed mobile network on the campus that provides nearly complete coverage. In our more than 175 buildings, and on our outdoor areas, T-Systems has installed a total of more than 1,800 access points for us. As a result, our employees, students and guests can now access the Internet at up to 877 megabits per second – from just about anywhere on campus. In addition, we have more than 7,000 state-of-the-art IP telephones in place.

Are these services really being used?

Currently, we're now administrating about 50,000 accounts. Every new staff member, and every new student, is assigned an email address and an authorization to access our WLAN. And believe me, they use the Internet – for research, for homework, for writing papers and for chatting with other colleagues and students. And they love having mobile access. In short, our WLAN is very popular – especially since it works so smoothly and well!

Are other universities now also using such videoconferencing systems?

More and more of them are, but we're definitely way ahead of the pack in terms of the bandwidth and technical standards we're now offering. Another thing that has really helped us is that our videoconferencing system, which is Cisco-based, is interoperable with other systems running via the German Research Network (DFN). This means that our researchers can talk to people who are using a different system on their end.

Are you planning to field any other new systems soon?

Our network is a next-generation network. It gives us a basis for implementing additional applications. Videoconferencing pure and simple is just a first step. Different types of communications applications can of course be combined in different ways. For example, our archeologists could soon be scanning their artifacts in 3D and then analyzing them virtually with experts at other universities via videoconferences; such 3D images can be turned any which way. Or they might use a virtual-reality application to collaboratively explore a pyramid. The sky really is the limit. The technology we now have in place serves as our foundation for all these things.