Feb 07 2018
Data Center

Campus Partnerships Bring Together IT Experts, Students and Businesses

Student-run data centers thrive with insights from tech industry experts.

Many institutions that operate student-run data centers couldn’t do it without the support of tech vendors, who in turn rely on them as a resource for expertise and experimentation.

For example, Marist College, with 5,000 undergrads and nearly 1,000 graduate students, operates a research data center that both trains students and helps companies solve thorny problems.

Roughly 150 students work as paraprofessionals on Marist’s help desk and in the networking operating center and data center, says Bill Thirsk, CIO and vice president of IT.

“We have a very rich paraprofessional program for technology,” he says. “Even that kid in journalism, English or history can come work on the data center floor, in our security operation center or on the help desk. It’s for anybody who wants to get trained in a data-centric environment.

Typically, students start out on the help desk and move into networking, security or data center management, depending on their interests and technical acumen, says Thirsk. From there, they can compete to work on joint studies with private companies.

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Tech Firms Give Students Insight on Real-World IT

As with most colleges that run their own data centers, Marist maintains close ties with nearby tech firms, most notably IBM, whose Poughkeepsie, N.Y., headquarters are a short drive from campus.

“We work very closely with IBM,” says Thirsk. “The company gives us two or three big problems they’re trying to solve — things like identity management or open-flow networks. We assign a team of students, faculty and professional staff in the research center to solve that problem. They work on the problem for a year, then we turn those results over to the company.”

Solutions often end up being commercialized, and the students who helped develop them usually get hired by the company that funded the study, says Thirsk.

“I’ve heard CIOs say, ‘You trust these kids way too much,’” he says. “I tell them that out in the oceans, we have 18- to 21-year-olds running nuclear reactors on aircraft carriers and submarines. These kids are highly trained, highly proficient, highly dedicated and smart. And they’re solving problems we gave up on years ago.”

For more on how colleges have made student-run data centers into a vital part of curriculum, read our Winter 2018 feature, "Student Data Centers Provide Hands-On Training for Future IT Professionals."

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