Apr 23 2009

Bolster Your IT Budget

During challenging economic times, IT teams need to get creative to keep their operations running optimally. Here are four ways to make that happen.

That college and university budgets wax and wane with the economy is a fact of life. The IT department budget is subject to the same forces. So IT managers need to stay nimble and be ready to adjust their operations accordingly. Unfortunately, there isn’t any one quick fix to navigating budget shortfalls.

Many IT managers say surviving the downturn takes creative deployment of a cross-section of technologies and strategies, including collaboration, virtual servers, desktop virtualization, and smarter printing and networking.

“It’s not really what gear you get, it’s what you do with it,” says Kenneth Green, founding director of the Campus Computing Project, the largest continuing study of the role of information technology in higher education.

Follow these four tips to help keep your IT operation on an even keel as you deal with shrinking funding:

Lean on Me.

Understanding that some of your neighboring communities and organizations may be seeking the same efficiency and savings that your college is looking for can be a technological as well as budgetary boon for universities, says Jerry Ader, network services manager at Fox Valley Technical College in Appleton, Wis.

Fox Valley has long relied on teaming up with local school districts and town governments to keep its IT operations running smoothly and efficiently. “We’ve saved a lot over the long run by saying to them ‘Let’s figure out how to make something work,’” he says.

Partnering can take many forms. For instance, Fox Valley shares a storage area network with the Appleton Area School District. Each organization backs up the other’s disaster recovery capabilities. The technical college has also worked with several local school districts and governments to buy fiber transmission lines, he says.

Fox Valley works with the nearby city of Neenah on a fiber network to support Gigabit Ethernet capacity to its Neenah and Oshkosh campuses, says Ader. The school serves eight regional campuses in five surrounding counties. This setup is much more cost-effective than running dedicated lines among the campuses.

Fox Valley also has some internal initiatives it’s deploying that are having a positive affect on its IT budget. Virtualization plays an increasingly important role for the multicampus school, Ader says. Fox Valley has been pumping up VMware applications to support computer classes and labs. It implemented a VMware cluster attached to a SAN that lets instructors more easily teach classes on Windows and SQL without buying individual computer hard drives for each student. VMware, with its centralized capabilities, also allows “one-off” applications to operate more efficiently, he says.

Ader is also closely monitoring a new municipal wireless networking project that will run through Appleton and the Town of Grand Chute. Aimed at wireless connectivity for the public as well as public services such as waste disposal, police and fire departments, the network is slated for completion this summer.

“Who knows?” Ader poses “That network could support training for our criminal science, truck driving or fire training courses in unique ways,” he says.

Target Your Priorities.

When budgets start to tighten, IT managers are forced to make tough choices on where their precious IT dollars go. A short list of “go-to” technologies to squeeze out efficiencies and cut costs might depend on opportunity and need, says Bob Wisler, director of information technology at Northwood University in Midland, Mich.

Because Northwood has campuses in eight states — California, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan and Texas — and an increasing online presence, Wisler says a sturdy network infrastructure is critical. Northwood recently upgraded bandwidth and installed redundant connections and equipment at its main campuses in Florida, Michigan and Texas to help tie the disparate campuses together. Multiprotocol Label Switching upgrades will also help consolidate networking among many of the 40 adult-degree sites spread out over the eight states.

Other technologies on Wisler’s “short list” include virtualization, PC replacement, re-evaluating existing IT contracts and new budgeting software. Although all those technologies may not seem to be directly related, they all support the goals of squeezing maximum efficiency from existing technology assets and maximizing IT’s impact.

Cast a Critical Eye.

“Now is a good time to look at everything,” says Wendy Chang, CIO at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven. The ongoing economic downturn has forced the university to make a more critical appraisal of how technology is deployed, she says.

“We know we’re facing a hiring freeze in which we can’t even replace retirees, but we also know that in the long run, adopting technology will reduce costs,” Chang says. “IT is the key to streamlining operations and making the university more productive and efficient.”

While SCSU is certainly watching every IT penny, the school clearly saw the value in a major data center renovation aimed at maximizing room for more servers and data storage equipment. Chang anticipates adding 50 more physical servers to the 100 already being used. Additionally, SCSU will continue an ambitious server virtualization program and is investigating a storage area network to expand its data storage capabilities.

Chang says the $500,000 spent on physical renovation of the data center and another $900,000 spent for server and storage upgrades will add directly to the overall efficiency of IT operations.

It’s the Little Things.

Savings can also be found in the nitty-gritty intricacies of everyday operations. For instance, simply monitoring and strategically adjusting power use among the hundreds of computers on a campus can save money. Berkshire Community College in Pittsfield, Mass., installed software on about 500 on-campus computers that automatically powers down those machines when they’re not in use.

The school uses Deep Freeze software to limit PC power consumption, says Rick Wixsom, BCC’s director of IT. Deep Freeze lets IT shut down computers remotely through the campus network, he says, which is not only good for the budget but for the environment as well.

A close look at printing capabilities can also reveal opportunities for substantial savings in money and resources, says Richard Holmgren, executive director for learning, information and technology services at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa.

Allegheny uses software to monitor printing and copying, allowing individual departments to break down their costs. Seeing the costs in print by department makes it clear how much is spent from the management level down to individuals in the department, he says.

“Printing costs are often a buried expense. There’s no incentive to change” if it’s not apparent that change is needed, Holmgren says. The program helps demonstrate how expensive excessive printing and copying can be. This approach allows institutions to then adjust their printing policies accordingly.