New College of Florida converged its data and voice networks, in part, so the in-house IT team could manage services better, says former CIO Erich Matola.
Aug 20 2007

Building a Network From Scratch

New College of Florida forges a new technology direction.

The start of the 21st century brought a new dawn for New College of Florida.

For about 25 years, New College was a separate unit within the University of South Florida. Then on July 1, 2001, the Florida state legislature established New College of Florida as an independent honors institution. The Sarasota-based liberal arts institution began a phased split from USF, which was completed with USF relocating its facilities from the New College campus in August of 2006.

But when New College of Florida hired a new chief information officer in mid-2005, the school's information technology infrastructure was far from new. The college was using an aging Cisco Systems data network and a Lucent phone system from the 1980s, and it still paid more than $600,000 per year for outsourced network services.

Erich Matola, who had just come on as CIO and was charged with designing the institution's technology support infrastructure, had to make one big decision right away. Matola, who left the post this summer, weighed the headaches of stretching a few more years from its outdated and expensive systems against the hard work and cost of starting fresh with entirely new systems.

Ultimately, Matola determined that building a network would prove less expensive and provide New College with better voice and network technology with improved security and performance. What transpired is not a story about an upgrade, “but of building things out of the ashes,” says Matola, who recently left New College for Alliant International University in San Diego. “I looked at what we were paying on an annual basis and said we could do it ourselves and beat the cost.”

In the end, after several lessons learned, the college had a new infrastructure, saved more than $500,000 and set a new standard for IT service.

Outsource or Buy New?

The New College of Florida was facing a scenario that many organizations encounter: escalating demands from users in the face of limited IT resources. The school's IT department has 16 full-time employees who do everything, including application development, media and classroom services, voice and data support, tech support and Web site development, Matola says. That staff must service 800 students, most living on campus, along with more than 80 faculty members and 250 staffers.

“Our students are an elite and needy clientele,” Matola says. “Added to that, we are dealing with historic buildings and 80 to 90 percent of our students are residential. And we have our own police department.”

The ever-escalating price tag of frequent outages and a lack of control made an in-house system preferable to outsourcing from USF, Matola decided. “Our servers were on wooden shelves – it looked like Abraham Lincoln built them,” he says. “There was no firewall, so if we got hit by a virus, we had no protection. We were using '80s and '90s technology and paying 2005 prices.”

Matola encountered a failed e-mail network his first day on the job. He installed a stopgap firewall to secure e-mail, but he knew that was a Band-Aid on a bigger problem. “This was a much overdue upgrade,” he says. “When we broke away from USF, we had nothing that was ours. We literally had to build our telephony organization from scratch. On the data side, we started from a position of old and aging infrastructure and put in brand-new gear.”

Integrated Approach

The initial plan called for a phased approach starting with a phone-only upgrade, but Matola and his staff saw the merits of a completely integrated system that supported phone and data.

“We knew we had the opportunity to do things right and in a complete sense,” he says. “But we only had a few months to get everything done.” Their total budget for the new system was $700,000.

After considering a number of solutions, the company decided to use 3Com products. “We looked at pretty much every major player,” says Cody Stevenson, telecommunications engineer at New College. “The biggest factor that made 3Com stand out was the ease of centralized management and provisioning on the VCX telephony platform.”

The new voice and data network included a full suite of 3Com VCX Internet protocol telephony solutions, LAN switches, a wireless mobility system and a TippingPoint Intrusion Prevention System.

“We wanted a complete end-to-end solution that was stable and that we could manage without outside help,” Matola says. “It was always in the front of our mind to create a world where we would have the luxury of determining our own fate.”

To address the initial goal of replacing the outdated telephone system, Matola considered a PBX hybrid and a Voice over IP solution. The former won out. Although the VoIP option was more feature-rich and future-proof, it required a complete forklift upgrade of the network infrastructure. That raised concerns about equipment cost and the amount of IT resources needed to implement and maintain the system.

The decision to integrate voice and data also affected the list of must-haves for the data network. “Ease of use was another big factor,” says Jeff Smith, network engineer at New College. “We knew we would look at VoIP so we needed to handle quality of service, and we wanted a reliable name. Finally, not everyone offered Power over Ethernet [PoE] and we needed the data network to have that.”

PoE is an emerging technology that transmits electric power with data to remote devices over Ethernet cable instead of separate power cords.

On the security front, New College went from having a single firewall for Outlook Exchange servers before the upgrade to a campuswide security system. Off-campus users can now access PCs via a secure virtual private network connection, which was missing before.

Living in the New World

New College reaped benefits almost immediately. “Now, everything is brand new and state-of-the-art, and our cost is still lower than what we paid for 20-year-old equipment,” Matola says. “We've probably saved 25 percent over what our operating costs were, and I suspect it's even much higher than that since we weren't aware of many of the services that we were paying for.”

The college also realized significant savings on its telephone costs. With a converged network, New College has complete control of its phone network – the IT staff controls telephone billing and phone maintenance and can customize programming to meet the college's specific needs. The school negotiated directly with its telecommunications provider, US LEC, to cut its long-distance rate in half and expand the local calling area.

More important, the new network gives New College advanced features such as call history, redial and conferencing. These features are used extensively on campus and bring cost savings over the old setup.

The system also improves campus communication in the case of a dis­aster. “Our system is in place in case of disaster,” says Matola. “Anybody on our team can leave a voice mail message or a blinking red light on a phone. Anybody who wants to use the phone would first have to listen to that message.”

With the exception of one data line that New College still shares with USF for its human resources and payroll applications, its converged network is completely autonomous. And with the money saved, New College diverts funds to other cost centers.

At a Glance

  • Location:Sarasota, Fla.
  • Founded: 1960 as a private college for honors students; became a public college in 1975 through a merger with the State University System of Florida; established as the state's independent honors college by the Florida legislature July 1, 2001
  • Enrollment: 800 students
  • Cool architecture: Architect I.M. Pei designed campus dorms; other campus buildings are on the former estate of Charles Ringling, of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

Lessons Learned

New College of Florida learned some important lessons about launching a large-scale IT project.

Do Your Homework on All of Your Partners.“You really have to do a little bit of homework on potential partners,” former CIO Erich Matola says. “It's not just about the manufacturer, but also about the third-party installer. You have to know their expertise and ask the hard questions.”

Master the Art of Communication. New College had a small window to get its project done so good communication was critical. And its staff proved that IT folks could be good communicators. “We pushed the envelope in doing the project quickly and doing many things simultaneously while disengaging from the old system,” Matola says. “IT staffs are sometimes criticized for not being good human communicators and [not] sitting down and speaking plain English about what needs to be done. We were willing to talk to everyone until the job was done. We worked to create good relationships with all of the vendors.”

Keep End Users in Mind – Including Staff and Students. “We had a couple of miscommunications with the business side of the house about what the system could do, and we had to tell them that the system couldn't do something,” Matola says. “We worked to make users understand that their actions and choices make an impact.”

Customized Conferencing

Besides reaping cost savings while providing its IT staff more control over the telephone system, the institution has better telephony features now. The most important is improved teleconferencing.

3Com's Internet protocol conferencing application lets New College staff members set up a teleconference online in less than five minutes using a simple Web interface. The teleconference feature saves New College the expense of using an outside teleconferencing provider.

“The intangibles are tougher to argue with people who hold the purse strings, but the ability to have free teleconferencing or to forward calls wherever you need are huge to the end user,” former CIO Erich Matola says. “For college employees, their jobs are a lot easier now. Without this type of technology, we wouldn't be able to provide services that students expect, like wireless.”

Pulling the system in-house also brought service benefits. “[Before the upgrade], a telephone order could take three weeks or longer to get,” says Cody Stevenson, telecommunications engineer at New College. “Now, I can do it within a day or, if I am busy, the next day. People are really able to see the speed of that system administration and are happy with that.”