Is Lean IT Here to Stay?
On the surface, balancing tight budgets with a steady stream of new demands for technology services sounds like an untenable challenge for higher ed IT managers.
Still, many tech leaders at colleges and universities across the country have found the answer: They're living lean, and liking it. Case in point: Rutgers Business School, which has seen undergraduate enrollment skyrocket by more than 40 percent over the past four years. Today, nearly 8,000 students are enrolled at the school's campuses, in New Brunswick and Newark, N.J.
Despite the rapid growth, the IT department has maintained its staff of eight, who deliver IT services and support two new, state-of-the-art facilities with 70 technology-enabled rooms and more than 1,400 computers that came online in recent years.
What's their secret? The team capitalizes on the expertise of professional IT services firms and takes advantage of cloud-based Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) solutions.
"I would love to have a giant IT staff, but we can do a lot with a small group if we manage things right," says Kevin Dowlin, assistant provost for technology and learning spaces at Rutgers University-Newark. "Higher education shouldn't be reluctant to outsource IT services when it makes sense."
It's a lesson other IT managers are also learning. The College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences at the University of California, Davis relies on a tight, nine-person IT team, including help desk personnel, to serve ever-growing IT needs there.
"We're in an era of small teams and small budgets, but with the cloud, we can focus on writing code rather than making sure servers are up, or addressing any new security vulnerabilities," says Scott Kirkland, enterprise architect at UC Davis.
Higher ed isn't the only area discovering the value of IaaS. IDC estimates that worldwide spending for public IT cloud services, which includes IaaS, will rise steadily over the next three years, to $107 billion. But the ability to support super-lean IT departments isn't the only catalyst fueling this growth.
"IaaS gives IT managers better control over their costs, as well as over how quickly technology updates happen," says Greg Schulz, senior advisory analyst with the Server and StorageIO Group. "Because the cloud data center is in a different region, enterprises increase business resiliency from a disaster recovery and business continuity standpoint."
An IaaS strategy began paying off late last year at Rutgers Business School upon its deployment of Microsoft Azure, a platform that provides server, storage, networking and related capabilities. Dowlin's IT staff subscribed to Azure computing resources to run Microsoft Active Directory Federation Services (ADFS), which allows faculty, staff and students to use one user name and password to access the institution's new portfolio of cloud-based applications for business automation, collaboration and customer relationship management (CRM). Since the fall, the IT team has delivered a host of important new services, while making them easier — and safer — for end users to access.
"Moving to the cloud and federation services is similar to building a road," Dowlin says. "The benefit is not in building the road itself; it's using the road to get somewhere. For me, that means bringing more value and services to my organization."
The percentage of senior executives globally who say cloud computing is delivering efficiencies and cost savings today
SOURCE: KPMG, "The cloud takes shape," February 2013
Separately, the IT staff identified a handful of applications to be provided by vendors via a Software as a Service model, which makes programs available to the school's staff members on a pay-as-you-go basis. The lineup includes Microsoft Office 365, a cloud-based version of the widely used Office suite; Microsoft Lync, for video meetings and desktop sharing; Salesforce.com, a CRM program that supports recruiting and marketing efforts; Microsoft SharePoint, for collaboration; and a faculty reporting system.
Dowlin was adamant that such a raft of new services should not be launched without first addressing an essential consideration for end users: easy access through single sign-on. "I came up through the support side of IT, where part of my job was to help people deal with password challenges," he says. "Multiple passwords and ones that automatically expire after a period of time create complexities and confusion for end users and support nightmares for the IT staff. I became a fierce proponent of single sign-on."
To deliver single sign-on capabilities across the institution's entire IT services portfolio, Dowlin and his staff chose Microsoft's ADFS, which would build on the access identities in RBS's existing Active Directory Domain Services in its own data center. To simplify management responsibilities for the IT team and reduce capital expenditures, Dowlin decided to run ADFS on virtual machines hosted on Microsoft's Azure IaaS platform.
Using cloud-based resources to maintain uptime is another goal that resonates with Dowlin. When Hurricane Sandy struck the East Coast in 2012, Newark lost power for three days, forcing the school to shut down until the city recovered.
"Based on that experience, we wanted to move critical components out of the data center to promote greater availability," he says. "Azure is based on high-availability architecture with redundancies throughout the environment."
Today, nearly half of Rutgers Business School's 300-person staff and full-time faculty take advantage of their new cloud-based services.
"We're seeing a lot of excitement around the value users are realizing as they leverage Salesforce, Lync and SharePoint," Dowlin says. By the fall semester, the entire business school staff will have full access to those capabilities. "Now that the groundwork is set, the sky's the limit. We can roll out these capabilities to anybody who needs them."
The Azure infrastructure also speeds up the time to provision new computing capabilities — a real plus for an IT staff that copes constantly with growth demands. The IT department can now stand up new virtual machines in less than an hour.
"In the past we didn't have the level of expandability that's now possible with the Azure platform," Dowlin says.
As more users take advantage of cloud services and single sign-on, they're also giving Dowlin the best feedback a former support professional could ask for: relief from help desk calls.
"As long as everything is working correctly, no one says anything," Dowlin says. "We wouldn't have been able to roll these services out and achieve that level of success without Azure and ADFS."
At the UC Davis College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences, the nine-person IT staff uses Azure to run four large production systems supporting web applications and SQL databases. Offloading server maintenance, management and security responsibilities to Microsoft is paying resource management dividends for the IT department, Kirkland says.
"We used to have a part-time person who was responsible for keeping the servers running. Now that this role isn't necessary any longer, that person has become a full-time programmer," he says.
Azure also provides dynamic computing power, allowing the IT staff to flexibly provision resources according to prevailing needs. For example, for one week each quarter, a campuswide course evaluation system gets flooded with feedback from tens of thousands of students. In the past, preparing for that spike in traffic was a challenge; today, the IT department simply dials up additional server resources using the Azure management console. As soon as the influx subsides, an administrator returns the server allotment to normal levels, which means the university isn't forced to pay for idle capacity.
Similarly, Azure also helps the group to quickly spin up temporary websites to show clients ongoing progress and elicit their feedback for new application features.
"Once we get it perfect, we just hit a button and the app goes to production status," Kirkland says.
The cloud technology delivered some other unexpected, but pleasant, surprises. "I hadn't expected that, once your applications are in the cloud, you can take advantage of related services such as caching, service bus queues and sophisticated file storage APIs for huge files," Kirkland says.
While the technical aspects of the cloud technology are largely glitch-free, Kirkland says the school is facing some related challenges. The IT group, university legal staff and others are updating policies for information management to create comprehensive standards for storing data in the cloud.
"There are a lot of old policies calling for data to be housed on campus or in a particular part of the campus," Kirkland says. "We may not want to put healthcare information or Social Security numbers in the cloud, but we're now revising policies to define what data can be addressed by the information age, where not everything is kept in a filing cabinet."
The success of the ongoing project is prompting his group to determine other resources and projects that may be right for the cloud.