Done Doing More With Less?

Let’s face it, over the last few years everyone’s budget has been optimized and right-sized till the eagle screams. But if a school doesn’t stay on the cutting edge of technology it will lose its competitive edge. How does an IT department decide what to keep, what to cut, and where to invest?

“Strategy-wise we’ve had to deal with a flat budget for the last few years, but the costs of services continue to grow,” says Edward V. Chapel, vice president, Information Technology, Montclair State University in Montclair, NJ. One quick and easy way he stretches his budget is never extending beyond the vendor warrantees. “We look to optimize every place we can. We had a Ph.D. student do a study and found that we can safely raise the temperature in our data centers a few degrees.”

Chapel even got out of the real estate business when he found that students need computer time, but not necessarily in a computer lab. Montclair State has replaced the traditional computer lab with carts of laptops available at the library. “The library was underutilized anyway. Now students can borrow a laptop loaded with the appropriate software for three hours at a time,” he explains.

Student population at Montclair State has grown about 25 percent in the last few years, with faculty and facilities keeping pace. Yet Chapel’s staff has stayed the same size. While the tips he shares help pinch pennies, he has saved serious money by joining, a statewide consortium that buys connectivity services in bulk. “We get consortium prices on telephone services, calling plans, video conferencing, and VM ware,” reports Chapel. “Yes, we have to give up some autonomy for membership and maybe not get all of a product’s bells and whistles, but it gives the greatest value to our community.”

Try Things On, Find What Fits

Lots of different technical solutions have been tried and tested. “Everyone has already gone to storage virtualization and cloud services, both public and private,” says Charlie McMahon, vice president of information technology and CTO, Tulane University, New Orleans. Virtualization saves money, energy, and space by reducing the number of servers needed. Virtualization also reduces administration work and gets better use from hardware. Estimates bump the typical 15 percent of server usage to as much as 80 percent after virtualization.

Cloud computing has also gained favor among IT professionals. The cloud allows infrastructure, applications, and business processes to be delivered as a service over the Internet or a private network. “Ten years ago it was crucial to run your own e-mail server,” says McMahon. “Now everyone has moved their e-mail services to the cloud.”

Clouds can be public (virtualized data centers outside a school’s firewall), private (visualized data centers inside a school’s firewall), or a hybrid of both. The cloud offers elasticity and scalability, allowing it to grow or shrink depending on demand. Billing for the cloud is a pay-as-you-go model, meaning a school pays only for what it uses.

In the end, an IT department must decide what to spend on and what to cut — and that decision can be hard. “’IT rationalization’ means you put all of your university’s priorities in a hopper and rank them top to bottom,” says McMahon. “The top and bottom are usually pretty obvious. It’s drawing that line that becomes controversial. It’s important to be transparent in this process. Let the community have a say.” Often the answer is more about effectiveness than efficiencies. For example, Tulane pays more for Blackboard, even though there are less expensive open-source options available, because it works better for them. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” says McMahon.

Talk Can Be Cheap

One way schools are saving money is with “voice over Internet protocol,” or VoIP phone service. The University of Pennsylvania’s PennNet Phone project allowed the school to save money and eliminate infrastructure. “We had 21,000 phone lines and we are now down to 16,000 with a goal of 7,000,” says Michael Palladino, associate vice president for networking and telecom, Information Systems and Computing, University of Pennsylvania (U of P).

U of P did this by building its own VoIP system. They started discussing the concept in 1999, and by 2004 a model for using existing open-source solutions had been demonstrated. They then spent five years researching existing solutions, but found that they would be too expensive or bad technical fits. VoIP itself, however, would save a lot of money, including $200,000 on annual replacement of cables and conduits, $400,000 on annual costs of telephone calls, and $330,000 on annual contracted staff salary.

The road, however, was bumpy. Limited service features, stability, and high costs early on slowed U of P’s initial adoption of the system. “We really had to harden it up over the last couple of years,” says Palladino. They also developed comparable or even superior features to the old system. “With the financial climate the way it has been lately, groups have been more eager to sign on,” he says. Palladino admits that developing their own system was slow and requires a large R&D team, but, “the investment made sense to us. It was cheaper and we get all the features we want.”

Savings on the Move
Despite cuts and belt tightening, no school wants to look like its technology is lagging. That’s why Pennsylvania’s University of Scranton has just launched their iPhone and Android app and mobile Website in March ( “Our students always have their phones in their hands,” explains Lori Nidoh, director of Marketing Communications for the University. “We have to be nimble and ready to respond to trends.”

They are not alone. As of the fall of 2010, 13 percent of institutions had a mobile app, according to Nidoh. More are bound to come as Educause, a non-profit association whose mission is to advance higher education by promoting the intelligent use of information technology, estimates that by the end of 2011 one out of two Americans will have a smartphone. “Technology changes and if we want to be good communicators we have to change with it,” explains Nidoh.

The University’s app, which will soon be available for BlackBerry as well, allows access to news videos and sport scores as well as streaming campus radio, and access to the school’s social media site and maps. The app will grow and evolve as needed. Admissions, library, and alumni modules are set to be added by the end of the year.