Purdue CIO GERRY McCARTNEY says his university saved $600,000 in hardware costs last year by combining resources across departments to build a high-performance supercomputer.

Survival Strategies

Facing historic budget pressures, colleges and universities turn to collaboration and consolidation to manage IT effectively.

When Gerry McCartney joined Purdue University as CIO and vice president of IT four years ago, the university had 44 e-mail systems, 67 data centers and no standard way to manage computers and periph­erals.

In today's economic climate, McCartney says, that infrastructure has grown untenable.

His solution is an IT reorganization plan in which the different campus IT groups collaborate on projects and consolidate equipment, software and services to save money. Rather than individual departments choosing and buying their own hardware and software licenses, they will standardize on equipment to simplify management and lower support costs, combining their buying power to obtain volume discounts. The university expects to save $5 million in fiscal 2011, $10 million in fiscal 2012 and up to $15 million annually in future years.

 “Through the 1990s and into this millennium, individual departments on campus responded to their local IT needs by purchasing their own systems,” McCartney says.

“It was more important to be agile and quick than to be frugal,” he continues. “They may have felt that central IT was not doing it the way they wanted or fast enough. But with the economic downturn, we can't afford to do business that way anymore.”

Purdue isn't alone. As recession-ravaged states cut funding to higher education, university and college technology leaders are deploying the same strategies to survive the budget crunch: collaborate and consolidate.

They all seek new, cost-effective ways to deliver IT services. DeVry University is taking advantage of virtualization to collapse its data center services and save money on hardware and power and cooling costs. At Clemson University, the IT organization will leverage its IT infrastructure to generate income by offering computing and hosting services to outside entities.

“In the past, higher education IT officers have not had the typical command and control authority that their counterparts in corporations and government agencies had,” says Kenneth “Casey” Green of the Campus Computing Project. “With the budget cuts, it's a catalyst to put everything on the table, redraw the organization chart and find ways to do things better.”

The Purdue Strategy: Centralize and Save

Purdue's three-year IT reorganization plan calls for cutting unnecessary spending and eliminating duplicate applications, services and infrastructure while maintaining high quality services. This spring, a diverse team of 22 academic, administrative and IT leaders, faculty and students developed the plan.

Vital to this strategy is a new IT governance model that offers a clear line of authority, with IT heads from individual departments ultimately reporting to McCartney. “We had a chaotic situation before, where people could do whatever they felt like,” he says.

Individual IT units will retain operations that are unique to their colleges' needs, such as a biology lab where six professors use gene-sequencing software. But the college's central IT organization, called IT at Purdue (ITaP), has taken over common hardware and software services.

$500,000

The amount Purdue University saved over the past two years since the college's administrative departments began combining IT purchases to get the lowest possible prices

In recent years, ITaP consolidated the university's 44 e-mail systems to roughly half that amount. With the new IT plan in place, Purdue will consolidate messaging systems even further, aiming for four to six in total. The central IT group previously virtualized its own servers. Now, it will virtualize and consolidate data centers across campus to reduce the hardware footprint and reduce power and cooling demands.

Other technology projects include desktop virtualization, installing video conferencing to save on travel expenses and consolidating the campus' 280 computer labs to save on equipment and support costs. To reduce the electricity bill, Purdue will purchase software that turns computers off overnight. ITaP will also review existing maintenance and service contracts to identify and eliminate duplicative services.

“There are a lot of savings opportunities,” McCartney says. “We will just have fewer choices, and that reduced complexity will make support better and cheaper.”

Not surprisingly, IT is not the difficult part of the equation. McCartney points out that getting approval to reorganize IT campuswide can be a political minefield. He says Purdue overcame those obstacles because budget realities necessitated the changes. The university's president backed the effort in part because the CIO team had implemented several successful IT collaborative projects and built up credibility over the past several years, McCartney says.

For example, two years ago, the CIO launched Purdue's community cluster program, in which faculty-awarded research-­grant teams pool their funds to build a supercomputer each summer. Previously, individual faculty built their own small server clusters. But by combining resources, faculty who receive enough money to purchase five- or 10-node server clusters can now take advantage of a supercomputer that features 10,000 processing cores. It's worthwhile because that performance radically speeds up their research.

With such a big purchase, ITaP can negotiate the best prices. It spent $2.5 million on the supercomputer hardware last year. McCartney estimates that the college saved $600,000 because he was able to negotiate lower prices.

Purdue built its third supercomputer this past summer for next year's research projects. As in previous years, about 200 IT employees from across the different IT groups on campus will team up to build the supercomputer, which will feature mostly HP ProLiant DL165 G7 servers and 10-Gigabit Ethernet network connections.

The project is highly successful – and popular, McCartney says. “Most people aren't using their computer all the time, so not only can I buy the hardware cheaper, but you have access to a much bigger machine. This benefits everybody.”

The DeVry Approach: Turn to Virtualization

DeVry University, which has more than 80,000 students taking classes online and at more than 90 locations in the United States and Canada, has seen rapid growth in recent years. With new locations opening and enrollment increasing, DeVry realized its data center was reaching capacity.

By consolidating stand-alone servers, virtualizing them and moving to an offsite collocation facility, DeVry saves $114,000 on server maintenance annually, says IT manager RAJ GREWAL.

Callie Lipkin

In response, Raj Grewal, IT manager for DeVry Inc., the parent organization of DeVry University, developed a data center strategy that positions the university for future growth and improves uptime and reliability – all while cutting costs.

Last fall, the data center at the company's former headquarters in Oakbrook Terrace, Ill., was packed with 300 stand-alone servers. Grewal crunched the numbers and determined that buying new blade servers, virtualizing existing servers and moving systems offsite to a nearby collocation facility would:

  • result in a tenfold reduction in physical servers;
  • save $114,000 in server maintenance costs;
  • reduce power consumption by 295.8 kilowatts annually.

Grewal took his idea to management, and they approved the plan. DeVry is continuously looking for innovative solutions to run its organization more efficiently, while maintaining the high-quality services it provides to its students. Management saw that virtualization accomplished both objectives.

This past winter, the IT team migrated the university's applications to the collocation facility and virtualized them using VMware vSphere. Virtualized applications include the university's e-learning system, which is running on Citrix XenApp and supporting Microsoft applications such as Exchange, SQL Server, SharePoint and Office Communications Server.

737.6 square feet

The amount of data center space saved by DeVry University through its virtualization and data center consolidation efforts

In the six months since implementation, the university added nearly 100 new applications. Now, more than 400 virtual machines run on 20 HP blade servers – a 20-to-1 virtualization ratio. About 10 servers still run stand-alone applications that require their own servers. With the move, DeVry also upgraded from an EMC Clariion storage area network to a new 80-terabyte EMC Symmetrix DMX SAN.

“By going virtual, we could lower total cost of administration and respond to our business needs much quicker,” Grewal says. “Instead of ordering a server, waiting a week for its delivery, unpacking it and installing the OS, we could spin up a couple of virtual machines in a couple of hours.”

Grewal, who is building a backup data center in Cleveland for disaster recovery, isn't finished pursuing new technologies that will improve IT services while reducing costs. The university is considering whether to deploy virtual desktops to employees and students. Within the next year, he will work with the business units and IT staffs from several campuses on a virtual desktop infrastructure pilot. To save more money, he's also exploring whether to move employee and student file storage to a cloud computing environment.

The Clemson Method: Generate Revenue

Clemson University is pursuing an approach that pushes services beyond the institution's users, offering IT serv­ices to outside entities to generate income.

“We've had quite a bit of unsolicited interest from places that are looking to us for disaster recovery, business continuity, network monitoring, access to high-performance computing and just straight-out hosting,” says Clemson CIO Jim Bottum.

About 25 years ago, computer science faculty at the university helped South Carolina build the state Medicaid system, and Clemson has hosted it ever since. Today, the university supports several other customers, including hosting a clinical trial database for a statewide consortium of universities and private medical organizations. It also offers network monitoring for external entities, and other universities have bought into Clemson's high-performance computing cluster.

To gear up for additional customers, Clemson is upgrading its main data center by doubling its floor space and its power and cooling capacity.

“My marching orders to my staff: We have to make sure Clemson's needs are taken care of. But let's expand the data center and come up with a strategy to earn income,” Bottum says.

Clemson, which like other campuses has been hit hard by budget cuts, has yet to market its services. But based on the number of interested customers, Bottum believes offering IT services will deliver significant and sustained revenue.

“Colleges need a strategy to deal with declining revenues. You can cut back on what you are doing and become more efficient with what you are doing,” he says. “We've done both those things. But we're also leveraging what we have to create additional revenue that will help subsidize our main mission, which is supporting our education and research service missions.”         

Working Together

Want to work with other universities on IT projects? Indiana University CIO Brad Wheeler says it takes long hours, dedication, communication and trust for projects to succeed.

But the hard work is worth it because it provides institutions with a technology or service that they couldn't implement or afford on their own. Here are some collaboration best practices that Wheeler recommends:

  • Develop a vision that shares risk and responsibilities. Each institution must agree to deliver funding and staff for the project.
  • Choose the right partners. Having four to seven higher education institutions launch a project is ideal. Once a project is established, you can add investors and users.
  • Determine who will lead the development process. Formulate a strategy that assigns responsibilities and creates a timetable to build the technology. Software developers from different universities may be distributed across various time zones, so they must work in concert with one another.
  • Be prepared for challenges. Expect delays. For example, software will always take longer to develop than originally planned. Bugs, glitches, miscommunications and mistakes can delay a release and test a group's resolve. Rather than point fingers, roll up your sleeves and solve problems together.
Chris Bucher
Aug 03 2010

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