Standardization is one strategy for simplifying IT maintenance and troubleshooting at the Community College of Denver, says Director of IT Services Chris Arcarese.

Smart Solutions Help Small IT Teams Do More with Less

Automation, virtualization and other tools save time and elevate campus services.

It’s been more than 10 years since the 2008 recession, but IT leaders say their departments are still reeling from the financial impact, according to the 2018 Campus Computing Survey.

“Although a great proportion of CIO ­budgets haven’t recovered, there hasn’t been a letup in the demand for resources or serv­ices,” says Kenneth C. Green, director of The Campus Computing Project. “This has affected small colleges more than others.”

As Roy Mathew, a principal consultant with Deloitte’s higher education technology practice, says, “Even though many universities are facing cost pressures, no university administrator has ever cut their way to glory. At some point you have to be competitive and attract a good student and faculty base.” To do so, lean teams get strategic to make the most of their IT resources.

MORE FROM EDTECH: Check out how higher education CIOs are joining the campus C-Suite.

Increase Network Visibility for Faster Response Times

At the Community College of Denver, Director of IT Services Chris Arcarese was tasked with updating the infrastructure when he joined the team in 2013. “We didn’t have good monitoring tools,” says Arcarese. “Since we’re set across three campuses, it’s difficult to get to places quickly. And the system management was disconnected. It was difficult to find issues on the network.”

With help from state funding, Arcarese’s team upgraded much of the aging network equipment and fiber cabling. It also improved wireless connectivity across campus by deploying 120 Meraki MR access points and 115 network switches.

“We picked out the Cisco Meraki solution because it’s all cloud-managed,” says Arcarese. “When people report an issue, all we need is their computer name and we can see everything on one dashboard, even if it’s from another campus.” The solution also provides daily monitoring with general statistics, letting Arcarese and his small network team troubleshoot proactively.

“Every day I get a snapshot email with general system statistics, and usually I see that things are moving normally,” he says. “It’s also pretty easy to see issues, like if there’s a dip in web traffic, which means people haven’t been able to connect. Then there’s something going wrong, and we can take care of it.” 

Embrace Virtualization to Maximize IT Staff's Reach

The IT team at Lake Land College in Mattoon, Ill., began moving to an all-virtual environment more than 12 years ago.

“It’s the only way to do it with the staff size we have,” says Lee Spaniol, director of information systems and services. The department provides service to more than 4,500 students at the main campus in Mattoon and four other locations. 

The college’s hardware includes about 2,300 all-virtual desktops, four physical servers that run the server farm of approximately 180 virtual servers and 20 additional servers allocated to different pools of ­virtual desktops. This is all built on top of VMware as the underlying tool.

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You get back four hours a day, every day. That gives you a lot more time to focus on other things.”

William Warfel Systems Programmer and Network Administrator, Lake Land College

“Some of our locations are up to a one-hour drive in any direction. It’s the virtualization that gives us the avenue to support all this with a small team,” says Spaniol. “As we’ve gone to thin clients, our hardware support has gone down to just about nothing. There’s no maintenance. Just plug it in and fire it up.”

The time savings for staff pays dividends. William Warfel, systems programmer and network administrator, remembers when staff had to physically move equipment from building to building and from classroom to classroom to accommodate instructors’ needs.

“All of that’s gone now,” he says. “Instructors can teach any course in any lab. There’s no specialized hardware required. If we have to close a building or classroom for some reason, it’s easy to move the class to another location.”

MORE FROM EDTECH: See why universities are switching to cloud monitoring.

IT Directors Seek Out Automation to Boost Efficiency

Warfel is an advocate of solutions that ­automate routine tasks. “You look at what someone is doing for four hours a day — it’s insane not to automate it,” he says. “You get back four hours a day, every day. That gives you a lot more time to focus on other things.”

Lake Land’s team has used automation as a critical tool for more than 15 years, even before they moved to virtualization. With each technology upgrade, they continued to find additional tasks to make more efficient.

For example, Lake Land has built a fully automated provisioning system. When a student registers, preprogrammed scripts kick into gear, automatically creating the student’s user ID, email address and virtual machine and sending the student instructions to log in from any machine.

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A virtual environment makes it ­easier for Lee Spaniol (left) and William Warfel to manage IT across Lake Land College’s five campuses. Photography by: Jay Fram.

The solution also ensures access control: Each student can connect only to certain servers, software and information, which can change depending on the student’s status or classes. All this occurs without human interaction, saving hours for IT and administrative staff. Similar processes are in place for campus employees. 

It’s not a unique solution, but many universities aren’t there yet. A survey by Okta found one college where at least 25 people were involved in managing changes for student accounts.

“Some top 10 universities in the U.S. still run on legacy systems, where students have to stand in line to register for classes,” says Deloitte’s Mathew. “Elsewhere, if you sign up for English 102 but you’re on the waiting list, and you get a text that a spot has opened up, that’s now a competitive advantage. Students are talking to peers, looking at the experience and asking themselves, ‘Do I want to stand in line for three hours, or do I want a text?’”

University IT Teams Let Standardization Do Its Work

Standardization goes hand in hand with virtualization and automation to enable a lean team to run systems successfully. Arcarese made standardizing equipment and processes one of his major goals at CCD.

“A technology environment is hard to manage when you have five or 10 people managing things in different ways,” he says. “Standardization helps everyone follow the same procedures and makes systems more predictable.”

69%

The percentage of campus tech pros whose IT funding has not recovered from budget cuts in recent years

Source: The Campus Computing Project, “2018 Campus Computing,” October 2018

He simplified and streamlined end-user computer workstations so that all had the same software and installation procedures.

“An end user can turn on the computer and know what it does and how it works,” he says. “If there’s something they can’t do, we know every computer is set up in the same way, and it’s easy for us to figure out what’s going wrong.”

MORE FROM EDTECH: See what the education department recommends for universities to improve their identity management.

Leverage Buying Power for Optimal Return on Tech Investments

Another tactic to make tech work harder is to develop strategic relationships with vendors.

“We’re definitely a lean shop,” says Donald Tharp, chief IT officer of Ashland University in Ashland, Ohio. “Over the past few years, we’ve gotten a lot done by going to vendors to discuss partnerships and align best capability and pricing.”

For a major infrastructure overhaul, Tharp was able to negotiate more affordable contracts by including manufacturers, vendors and service providers in marketing campaigns and long-term plans.

“I said, ‘We don’t want you just to sell us stuff, we want partnerships, and we’ll help you by marketing the work you’ve done at the university,’” he says. “Those partners know we’re going to come back for equipment, software solutions and other needs.”

At Lake Land, the college has committed to a technology refresh every four years.

“Every year we have better success negotiating because it’s a large volume,” says Spaniol. “I’m not buying 20 this year and 20 next year. I’m buying 2,000 this fall. Our partners have been great working with us along those lines and bringing forth resources to help us design, architect and engineer the kinds of solutions we need.”

Collaborate with Campus Peers and Other Colleges

IT leaders also emphasize the importance of collaborating with peers. Spaniol is past president of the Illinois Council of Community College Administrators technology commission and remains active in the group. Illinois colleges routinely contact him and Warfel for recommendations.

“The message is slowly getting out there,” says Spaniol. “We’ve helped five or six other community colleges go down the same path we did: build a proof of ­concept and implement a virtual desktop environment.”

Tharp frequently consults the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Ohio. “It’s where we get ideas and introductions,” he says, and it’s led to powerful partnerships. 

At CCD, Arcarese works closely with the Colorado Community College System. It handles systemwide security, while each individual college manages tools such as firewalls, desktop security and identity management solutions

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Desktop Virtualization Is the Future for Lean Teams

The payoff for these strategies is evident. At CCD, the average help desk response time has improved by more than 40 percent

At Lake Land, IT staff no longer spend hours hauling equipment around. If so much campus tech can now run by itself, does that give staff a lot of free time? Warfel and Spaniol both laugh.

“We spend a lot of time keeping up with updates, planning and project management,” says Spaniol. 

The team also supports instructional planning. “We ask faculty to send us technology requests before the end of the spring semester, so when they get back in the fall, it’s ready to go,” says Warfel.

Standardizing, automating, collaborating and negotiating go a long way toward transforming colleges that struggle with tech into competitive institutions. Once the basics are addressed, “you can work your way up the process chain,” says Mathew. 

That includes using technologies such as the Internet of Things and artificial intelligence to improve the student and faculty experience. For now, Mathew says he’s looking forward to what’s next.

“When you think about every other industry in the world, like banking and retail, all of them have evolved. But if you step into the average classroom, not much has changed,” he says. “With recent advancements in technology, it’s the right time for higher education to be disrupted.”

Steve Maylone
Apr 25 2019

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