Chancellor Eric D. Fingerhut (right) and Pankaj Shah aim to restructure IT for Ohio's universities and state agencies. The program is part of a larger effort to help spur an economic recovery in the state.

Ohio's Higher Ed Engine

Colleges and universities unite with the goal of sparking an economic recovery in Ohio – and IT plays a leading role.

In Ohio, colleges and universities provide more than just a place to study and pursue a career – they serve as a catalyst for economic growth in a state that has lost 595,200 jobs over the past decade.

Economic adversity pushed the state to make some major changes. Two years ago, Ohio Board of Regents Chancellor Eric D. Fingerhut released a 10-year strategic plan that outlines three goals: graduate an additional 230,000 students over 10 years, keep more graduates in Ohio and attract more degree holders from outside the state.

How will Ohio achieve these ambitious goals? By working collaboratively, state agency and education officials plan to create a streamlined bureaucracy that will produce new graduates for the local workforce who will conduct research, start new businesses and revive the state's sagging economy.

Fingerhut says none of this can happen without IT playing a leading role.

He now meets biweekly with the state's top IT leaders in higher education to develop strategies for making IT more efficient – but he is striving for more than just efficiency.

“What I tell the IT people is that everything we do must be put in the context of how it will drive the state's economy,” says Fingerhut, who by law is now a cabinet member with the full support of Gov. Ted Strickland. “We need to use our resources more efficiently. When a college receives a $100,000 research grant, instead of spending $50,000 on IT equipment, they can spend half that amount and spend the other $25,000 on a graduate researcher.”

Toward that end, the state's top IT people are leading an effort to consolidate most infrastructure and major technology needs for all schools and agencies. The first step is virtualization with VMware, followed by the development of an internal cloud that will offer storage and data backup services.

In the Vanguard

The point person for IT in the chancellor's 10-year strategic plan is Pankaj Shah, executive director of the Ohio Academic Resources Network.

OARnet is the backbone network for the state's 47 private four-year colleges, 15 public four-year colleges, and 23 community and technical colleges. It also serves one academic hospital, NASA's Glenn Research Center, the Air Force Institute of Technology and the Ohio Aerospace Institute.

Shah says OARnet became the logical infrastructure choice for the strategic plan because the backbone team has relationships with just about every higher education institution in the state.

“When all the IT leaders came together, we saw that it made a lot of sense for us to work together to procure and manage IT equipment,” Shah says. “And it became clear that OARnet can put new technology out on the network at incremental costs.”

One of OARnet's first real success stories was a January 2009 VMware deal that promises to save the state $130 million through 2011. All private and state colleges in Ohio can now access VMware tools through OARnet. Plus, so far, 17 of 24 state cabinet agencies and 27 of the 40 largest state agencies also have begun using virtualization tools via OARnet.

Ohio's colleges and state agencies can buy VMware products for a 70 percent cost savings over retail and 50 percent over the educational discount. Software maintenance costs are also reduced by 35 percent, and the colleges also have access to professional services at about a 16 percent savings.

“Along with the hard savings, there are also the soft savings associated with the reduction in power consumption and space as a result of virtualization,” Shah explains. “These savings, in many cases, result in the ability to extend the life of the data center while reducing the expenses associated with purchasing power or having to lease or build new data center space. These resources can then be reallocated to other priorities, such as academics and research.”

Top IT managers at the colleges confirm that the savings and efficiencies are real.

Paul Hernandez, director of computing and telecommunications services at Wright State University in Dayton, says Wright State was already receiving substantial savings on VMware from a regional consortium, but OARnet saves it an additional 40 percent. The university virtualized 94 percent of its Microsoft Windows servers using VMware, Hernandez says.

J. Brice Bible, CIO at Ohio University in Athens, says because of the statewide VMware agreement, his group consolidated 300 servers for the university's colleges and five regional campuses in less than nine months. “We did it that quickly, with buy-in from the colleges, something that would have never happened otherwise,” Bible says.

The Start of Something Big

But the consolidated VMware initiative was just the start. The next step included building a $1.5 million private cloud for storage and data backup for the five main technology organizations in the chancellor's office.

Shah says the cloud infrastructure will deliver storage and backup services to OARnet and the chancellor's administrative offices, as well as the Ohio Library and Information Network (OhioLINK), the state's online library service; Ohio Learning Network, which offers distance learning to higher education; and eTech Ohio, the state's K–12 distance learning organization.

The infrastructure will rely on HP blades and storage virtualization gear, VMware ESX, Oracle Real Application Clusters, Oracle WebLogic Server Clusters, F5 Networks load balancers and Juniper Networks for Border Gateway Protocol network failover.

“If each organization plus the chancellor's office purchased a cloud infrastructure on its own, it would have cost an additional $2.2 million in hardware costs alone,” Shah says. The ultimate plan calls for OARnet to build on this cloud infrastructure, opening the services to other state colleges and agencies.

Following the lead of the chancellor's office, many colleges also have partnered with OARnet to pilot projects that turned into additional statewide services, providing additional avenues for savings.

$2.75 million

The estimated amount Ohio higher education and K–12 schools saved on VMware licenses, maintenance and professional services from the state VMware contract as of June 2010

Source: Ohio Academic Resources Network

One good example: OARnet, Ohio University and Wright State negotiated with Juniper Networks to save 30 percent on the cost of network upgrade equipment. Much like VMware, Juniper products are now available to all colleges and state agencies.

“We're talking about networking equipment that we replace every three to four years, so finding a way to do it with aggressive pricing was great,” Wright State's Hernandez says.

Ohio University and Wright State are also working with OARnet to build a virtual data center. The two colleges intend to identify excess server and storage capacity and, through OARnet's backbone, develop a cloud service that can be offered statewide.

“We're in the early phases of this,” Hernandez says, adding that part of the reason Wright State
can even consider something like the virtual data center is because most of its servers are now virtualized.

Jim Sage, vice president for IT and CIO at The University of Akron, is also working collaboratively with other colleges and universities. Akron started by hosting Oracle PeopleSoft applications for Lorain County Community College in Elyria.

Sage says Lorain now runs all of its back-office services on PeopleSoft, including human resources, payroll, finance and its student system. In a second phase, Sage says Akron and Lorain Community will run pilots to combine functional departments. The goal over time is to combine functional units to serve both schools.

According to Sage, by sharing IT across functional departments, the two colleges can save 5 percent to 10 percent of their IT budgets. If Akron and Lorain can figure out how to share administrative units, they will save 30 percent to 40 percent of administrative budgets, a more significant amount.

“The private sector has been sharing administrative services for years, so our challenge is to make it work in higher education across multiple institutions,” Sage explains.

Keep Rolling

“The basic idea is to leverage this crisis to transform higher education and other industries,” Sage says. “Our financial challenges will no longer allow us to fund duplication that provides no competitive differentiation.”

Bible of Ohio University says there's a sense that “we're all in this state together.”

Hernandez agrees: “What's great is that it's true leadership by example. The chancellor is encouraging the campuses to collaborate more. And with the success of the VMware contract, there's now a sense that ‘This can be done; let's move forward.'”

Ohio's Technology Vision

Build a single infrastructure for all Ohio higher education institutions that delivers:

  • A common application system
  • Access to online advising services that will let students and parents determine the best way to obtain a college education in Ohio, apply for admission and register for courses
  • An easy-to-use online system for researching courses at different schools, enrolling, transferring credits and completing financial transactions
  • Federated authentication that lets students and faculty access resources at multiple campuses through a single account

SOURCE: Ohio Board of Regents, Strategic Plan for Higher Education 2008–2017

Chris Cone
Aug 05 2010

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