Sep 19 2023

Why Higher Education Needs to Be Proactive with Device Purchasing

Equipment needs and availability can change. Having insight into resources on hand can simplify new hardware and software investments.

Offering courses on subjects ranging from chemistry to linguistics, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign’s College of Liberal Arts & Sciences encompasses 37 academic departments. And budgets can vary among those departments, says Dan Wood, associate director for user services in the college’s Applied Technologies for Learning in the Arts & Sciences (ATLAS) support unit.

As a result, for several years, some LAS departments tried to make their faculty and staff computers last for nearly a decade because they lacked the funds to replace them, Wood says.

“We discovered that our support time and costs were going up because we were having to keep these departments limping along with old equipment,” he says. “We decided to provide a program where, every five years, we would purchase computers for those departments. That way, there would be an automatic rotation of that hardware. That took the financial burden off them.”

Launched seven years ago, the ATLAS Care program refreshes departmental devices using a bulk pricing model the university established with vendors such as Lenovo and Dell.

Since the program’s introduction, the number of help requests for equipment near the end of its life has drastically declined. The college has also been able to secure five-year warranties for the devices it purchases, an upgrade from the three-year agreements computers previously came with.

“That way, if something fails in year four or five, there’s no additional cost because it’s under warranty,” Wood says. “That program has been a huge success because the departments don’t have to budget for their hardware anymore, and they know they have computers that are under five years old.”

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Acting in Advance to Address Unexpected Tech Shortages

Even with available funds, like many organizations, LAS faced difficulties securing equipment after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As the university transitioned to relying on videoconference-based services such as Microsoft Teams for meetings and remote instruction, faculty and staff laptop needs “just exploded,” Wood says.

LAS was able to meet some of them because it had acquired roughly 100 devices months beforehand for future use in the ATLAS Share program, which lends computers to undergraduate students in need.

“That was just luck,” Wood says. “Because shortly after the pandemic hit, there was no availability of laptops. We had a big pool of them that we had purchased for our loaner program available to distribute to faculty and staff to take home.”

LEARN MORE: How mobile threat detection can better protect your university network.

However, the college still struggled to secure certain in-demand devices and turned to vendor partners including CDW for assistance. CDW was able to draw on its relationships with manufacturers to find compatible alternatives.

For instance, for faculty and staff members who were working remotely, the school normally would have ordered Lenovo mini docks, which can be used to connect laptops to external monitors. When those became difficult to source, CDW suggested that LAS purchase another model.

“Our vendor partners, CDW included, were affected, as everyone was, by supply chain problems,” Wood says. “But they were good at helping us identify other brands that would work.”

Wood and a fellow member of the purchasing committee had previously negotiated campuswide prices for common pieces of equipment, which the university’s individual colleges can access via vendor-specific web pages. Before the pandemic, they began meeting regularly with the school’s CDW representative, and they continued to confer every other week during the pandemic. The rep provided a breakdown of what items were in stock and time frames on products that weren’t so the college could adjust its plans accordingly.

Device Management TOC


“Of course, this was especially helpful during COVID, when we knew the USB-C mini dock, for example, was 220 days out before it would be available,” Wood says. “Meanwhile, we could see that they had 60 of the Kensington units in stock.”

Although he says that pandemic-era supply chain shortages have greatly improved, Wood still meets regularly with a CDW representative to obtain updates on various items’ availability.

“We get that information, and I can just pass that along to my team,” Wood says. “They can let the faculty and staff know how long the delays might be or what other options, in terms of products, they could go with that are in stock. That continues to be a valuable service.”

EXPLORE: How to strengthen supply chain resilience with risk management strategies.

Tech Vendors Are Supplying Merchandise and Valuable Information

Technology product supply chain disruptions can occur outside of a global pandemic. That’s one reason that device procurement is a year-round consideration for some universities.

In an EDUCAUSE survey conducted in late 2022, 96 percent of IT leaders said recent product or equipment purchases had been delayed, and 65 percent were experiencing hardware lifecycle replacement issues.

Working with vendors to facilitate a pre-emptive procurement program can help relieve a number of equipment-related challenges universities may encounter, including the need to strengthen device visibility within the university’s network as well as overall cybersecurity.

A centralized procurement approach could also assist IT teams with streamlining key tasks, such as ongoing device management, or to quickly scale up tech resources when necessary.

Today, LAS’ efforts to align its budgetary plans with manufacturers’ release cycles are supported by roadmaps for upcoming product developments that vendor representatives periodically provide, Wood says.

“They come to campus and demonstrate hardware that’s current and then give us a forecast of product lines coming down the pike,” he says. “They tell us the availability of current stock and how far out it might be for stuff that’s not out yet or is out of stock. Those are helpful meetings to have.”

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