Doing More With Less

Long-term planning can help avoid the budget blues.

Each year, school district leaders take on an annual task: stretching their budget to fit all their schools’ needs. Technology departments are no exception to being asked to do more with less, but there are some changes you can make to reduce your department’s expenses over time. These are not instant ways to cut costs, but rather operational changes that allow your department to be more efficient.

Standardize on Hardware and Software

If you are able to standardize on a hardware manufacturer, you should be able to cut your long-term expenses. By standardizing, you have cut down your own workload when preparing machines for service. You need only one Web site to download the latest firmware and drivers. You also have only one vendor to call when warranty issues arise.

Purchase a drive imaging product

Let’s face it: Most of us spend our summers loading software onto new machines, then taking the old machines out of service or repurposing them. Both of these tasks are labor-intensive and could really benefit from a drive imaging, or cloning, utility. Some software-based imaging products will allow you to broadcast your image over the network to the machines that need to be reconfigured or that need to receive their initial configuration. Typically, you would spend quite a bit of time building your master image from a machine of similar hardware. Once that image is built, you will probably have to run some OS-specific commands to prepare it for cloning. At that point, you can capture your new master image. Hardware solutions, such as a drive duplicator, have you attach the master image to the source connector, and the other hard drives to the destination connectors. Most times, you can clone a drive in less than 30 minutes with a hard drive duplicator.

Systems Management

Systems management solutions allow you to install software (sometimes even a new operating system) on managed machines over the network. You can also inventory assets, update patches, remotely control a PC and even use Wake-On-LAN technology. This could mean no more running around the building with a CD doing installations all day long. Once your management system is up and running, it will have to discover your network and all of your computers. Often it needs to push an agent to them as well (but should do so without much administrator intervention). Systems management solutions often require a significant initial investment to get started, but can pay dividends long-term.

Terminal Server Products

Using terminal server systems can significantly reduce an IT department’s workload and budget if configured properly. Often times, existing hardware can be used for the end user, but some organizations may prefer to purchase new thin-client computers. Many thin clients sell for half the cost of a traditional computer. Management of thin-client devices is minimal once they are configured, as nothing is stored on them besides enough software to connect to the terminal server. All management is done on the server and thus is centralized.

Outsource staffing

More times than not, IT departments in schools are understaffed and overworked. However, it is difficult to hire a full-time employee because of benefits and salary. Consider working with a local IT consulting company that could send a technician to your district one or two days per week to help you out. It’s often easier to hire a consultant rather than a full-time employee because there are no long-term commitments.

Volunteers and donations

Your district may have some parents who are skilled IT workers, and may consider volunteering with you. It may require that you work some weekends to meet their schedule, but free labor is hard to pass up. Donations go right along with volunteers, and you may be surprised what local companies are willing to donate to your district. Before accepting any donations, make sure they are not going to cost more money to use than they are worth. For example, a used server that doesn’t boot may cost more to repair than buy new.

The bottom line is that time is money. Many IT personnel simply look at the sticker price of equipment and services, but don’t take into account that spending another $1,000 today may save several hundred hours down the road. When shopping for solutions, make sure they are going to be easy to implement and maintain. We have all seen some really great products out there that don’t cost much money, but require significant time investments before they work properly. Most of the topics covered will not slash your IT spending but, used together, can certainly add up to big savings.

Open-Source Grows Up

Over the past few years, open-source software has really made inroads into technology departments. In the past it has been viewed as a geek-only option, but teachers are discovering more open-source solutions for specific problems. For example, many of us have heard math teachers complain they can’t find a good graphing calculator program for their computers. GraphCalc (sourceforge.net/projects/gcalc) is a free graphing calculator that would help any high school math teacher or student.

The same goes for course management systems. Moodle (www.moodle.org) was specifically created for education institutions that can’t afford other solutions. Moodle started out with a cult following, but recently has enjoyed a larger installation base.

Nov 13 2007

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