Rearchitecting IT: Simplify. Simplify

Six vital steps to standardizing your IT infrastructure— reducing complexity and increasing IT performance overall.

Rearchiteching ITWhen university CIOs look back on 2006, they will likely deem this “The Year of Simplified IT Infrastructure.” From Alaska to New York, universities are overhauling their IT infrastructures to include fewer standards, fewer vendors, and fewer potential integration issues. The goals are clear: Even as IT departments strive to improve student, faculty, and benefactor services, they must also squeeze hidden costs out of their infrastructures.

By leveraging fewer vendors and standardizing on a core set of products, universities can gain economies of scale in terms of IT acquisition and support costs. “It’s simple math,” says Cheryl Currid, a former CIO who now runs Currid & Company, an IT consulting firm in Houston, TX. “When you deal with fewer vendors, you can negotiate better licensing terms and reduce your organizational training costs. The trick is making sure you standardize on an infrastructure that truly meets your current and future needs.”

Consider, for instance, the University of Alaska, which has been working overtime to consolidate operations and IT standards across 16 campuses. “The goal is to improve efficiency, reduce unnecessary redundancy, diminish fragmentation of services, and contain future costs,” says Steve Smith, the university’s CIO.

On the opposite side of the country, the situation is similar at New York College of Osteopathic Medicine of New York Institute of Technology, the nation’s second largest medical school. According to Chellappa Kumar, CIO of NYCOM, all technology purchases are now carefully scrutinized to ensure new projects adhere to the school’s existing infrastructure standards.

Gone are the days when university networks were built on a hodgepodge of server operating systems, databases, network switch platforms, and telecom systems (see “A Painful History Lesson,” for a look back at past problems).

Six Secrets to Success

Admittedly, simplifying and securing an IT infrastructure isn’t easy. It often requires rethinking years of hardware and software investments, and a gradual migration to modern systems. Even so, universities can take six practical steps to success (see the accompanying summary, “6 Secrets to Success.”).

Step 1: Audit Your Software Infrastructure

The first step may sound elementary, but it’s surprising how many institutions let this step slip by them: It requires reviewing and auditing software licenses across a university. In some cases, schools will find that their current license agreements don’t match actual software deployment figures, and that can be a mighty expensive mistake. Institutions with too few licenses risk lofty fines (some can exceed $100,000!) from the Business Software Alliance, a watchdog group that fights software piracy. On the flipside, universities with too many licenses are paying for unneeded software.

That’s troubling news, considering that 91 percent of IT managers say their primary systems management challenge is reducing the cost of software licensing, according to Decision Analyst, a market research firm in Arlington, TX.

The fastest way for universities to slash software costs is to determine which programs are installed on the network, and cancel licenses for unused software. Instead of physically visiting each PC, IT administrators can leverage administration software from companies like LANDesk Software to perform global network audits that identify areas where licenses can be reduced.

Baylor University (TX), for instance, uses the LANDesk Management Suite to take inventory of all PC and Macintosh systems, according to Charlotte Lenox, IT business manager at the school. LANDesk allows the university to produce detailed software inventory reports for improved budgeting, and also cuts software installation costs because applications and utilities can be deployed automatically over the network.

Yet, some universities have found innovative ways to further reduce licensing costs. The University of Alaska, for instance, leverages software asset management (SAM) solutions from Sassafras Software. Sassafras’s flagship product, known as KeyServer, enforces software licenses and allows users to share licenses across approved university systems. The net result, in many cases, is lower per-user licensing costs, notes University of Alaska CIO Smith.

6 Secrets to Success

  1. Audit your software infrastructure and eliminate unneeded licenses, to reduce overall costs.
  2. Evaluate your current server applications and consolidate onto three or fewer major suppliers, in order to negotiate volume license discounts.
  3. Centralize and automate help desk functions, such as password resets, in order to reduce personnel support costs.
  4. Address convergence and storage challenges by planning adequately for voice over IP, video on demand, and other bulky applications.
  5. Embrace virtualization software to improve server utilization, consolidate applications onto fewer servers, and free up room in your data center.
  6. Adopt holistic security, making secure application design and deployment a top priority—rather than an afterthought— on every IT project.

Step 2: Evaluate Your Current Applications

As the software market continues to consolidate, so too should a university’s application platforms. In particular, keep close tabs on Oracle, which has acquired PeopleSoft and Siebel Systems in a bid to beat back foreign competition from Germany’s SAP AG.

Oracle has spent recent months evangelizing Fusion Middleware, a set of software products that improve information sharing between Oracle’s databases and myriad applications. Still, “Fusion Middleware is more than marketing hype,” says Mike Elgan, a technology consultant (and former editor of Windows magazine) who frequently moderates CIO events across the globe. “Universities should make sure their application architects are keeping close tabs on Fusion Middleware. If you understand where Oracle is heading, you’ll be ahead of the game as you strive to link your Oracle databases to online tuition payment systems, online giving, and other automated financial systems.”

Just ask administrators at California Polytechnic State University-San Luis Obispo. There, CIO Tim Kearns relies on Oracle Collaboration Suite (an e-mail, scheduling, and content management system), the Oracle database, and People- Soft applications. With a nod to a serviceoriented architecture-based strategy, Cal Poly is evaluating how to best integrate its Blackboard learning management system with Oracle’s collaboration tools. Moreover, the university is planning to use Oracle business- analysis tools to provide improved decision-support capability to end users.

Now is a prime time to weigh future application purchases. Locked in heated competition, Oracle and SAP are offering deep discounts to customers who make the leap from rival platforms to their respective offerings. In some cases, Oracle and SAP are waving up-front licensing costs, though annual maintenance costs can still run a large organization (such as a university) $100,000 or more, notes analysts at Gartner, the Stamford, CTbased market research firm.

Step 3: Centralize and Automate Your Help Desk

Another key infrastructure consideration is the university help desk. Frequently, help desk phone lines are decentralized and flooded by users who have forgotten or misplaced their passwords. Resetting those passwords manually can be an expensive process, typically costing $14 to $28 per incident, estimates Gartner.

Eager to eliminate such costs, the University of Alaska has simplified password management across its network. Specifically, the university licensed P-Synch password synchronization software from M-Tech Information Technology. The software securely manages user passwords across the organization, and drives down operational costs because users can reset their lost or forgotten passwords through a self-service application that requires no help desk assistance.

BAYLOR UNIVERSITY

AT BAYLOR UNIVERSITY, LANDesk
software is cutting software installation costs.

Step 4: Address Convergence and Storage Issues

All IT infrastructure projects require careful consideration of the future. For instance, many universities already run data, voice, and video on their IP networks. And bandwidth-intensive traffic will only increase as students embrace video-enabled instant messaging, online movie downloads, and other multimedia services that are rapidly moving into the mainstream.

As movies and other content converge onto IP networks, schools will require greater and greater amounts of storage. Gartner estimates the typical business or university will see its storage requirements double or triple every 18 months. Such is the case at NYCOM, where class lectures and other digital content are available on multiprocessor-based servers from Dell. But as each new lecture comes online, NYCOM finds itself in a never-ending race to expand its server and storage systems.

One practical solution involves deploying blade servers, which consume far less space than traditional rack servers. Not surprisingly (thanks to their thin, spacesaving design), sales of blade servers are rising swiftly: During mid-2005, yearover- year blade server sales jumped 67 percent, according to the International Data Corporation.

But deploying densely designed blade servers in a university data center can lead to significant heat issues. Indeed, organizations using dual-processor blade servers report heat output of as much as 14 kilowatts per server rack, according to The Uptime Institute, a NM-based firm that specializes in data center design. Aware of these heat issues, companies such as the American Power Conversion Corporation now offer cooling systems and consulting services for organizations seeking to standardize on blade-based systems.

Step 5: Go Virtual

In order to consolidate applications onto fewer servers, many universities (and businesses) are deploying virtualization and exploring the use of grid computing. Popularized by EMC’s VMware software family, virtualization software allows a server to easily run multiple operating systems and applications. For instance, a single server could run a Linux-based Oracle database and an unrelated Windows-based e-mail system, side-by-side. Through virtualization software, university CIOs can therefore ensure that processing power on each server d'esn’t go to waste.

Consider the situation at the University of Missouri-Rolla, which deployed VMware on Dell servers as part of a strategy to consolidate systems, according to Brian Buege, director of networks and computing systems at the school. The university replaced 65 servers— some of which had 5 percent utilization rates—with nine Dell PowerEdge servers running VMware. The project freed up one-third of the university’s server space in the data center, and the nine new servers have 40 to 50 percent utilization rates. In other words, the university leverages VMware to complete far more tasks with far less hardware.

What’s more, as an extension of virtualization, many universities are exploring service-oriented architecture (SOA), which leverage XML and other standards to simplify how applications are designed. In layman’s terms, serviceoriented software is a loosely coupled application that dynamically and “on demand” integrates people, processes, and information within and across business and application boundaries, according to Gartner.

IT Infrastructure Streamliners: The Net Net

LOOKING FOR SIMPLICITY in action? Heed these shining examples.

University of Alaska: Leverages a centralized software licensing system to share applications between students and ultimately lower ongoing licensing costs.

Baylor University: Uses LANDesk software to take inventory of hardware and software, thereby generating more accurate IT budget forecasts.

University of Missouri-Rolla: Deployed EMC’s VMware software to greatly consolidate servers and improve server utilization rates.

New York College of Osteopathic Medicine: Standardized on centralized Dell servers to host video-based professor lectures and other digital content.

Just about every major software company— from BEA Systems and Microsoft, to Oracle—now evangelizes the value of SOA, but schools should proceed with a healthy dose of skepticism. “SOA is for real, but you’re not going to shut down your university to rewrite all of your applications overnight,” says Edward Golod, president of Revenue Accelerators, a technology consulting firm in New York. “As a first step, each time you consider licensing an application, ask the vendor about its SOA strategy, and be sure to compare answers among multiple vendors.”

Step Six: Embrace Holistic Security

How can security be at the bottom— rather than the top—of our IT simplification list? Simply put, security should be a central consideration in every IT project, rather than something that’s bolted onto an application after the fact.

The typical enterprise now spends about 6 percent of its IT budget on security- related gear, such as antivirus software and firewalls, according to Gartner. But that figure is misleading and likely conservative, since many applications and hardware platforms are designed with security functions from the get-go.

“You can’t think about security in a vacuum,” says Sanjay Anand, best-selling author of The Sarbanes-Oxley Guide for Finance and Information Technology Professionals (Wiley, 2006). “It has to be part of every IT conversation.”

Instead of buying best-of-breed security solutions from multiple vendors, many university CIOs expect the security market to rapidly consolidate around a handful of vendors, including Cisco Systems, Symantec, RSA Security, and Microsoft.

Earlier this year, Microsoft announced the US availability of Windows Live OneCare, an all-in-one, automatic, selfupdating PC maintenance, support, and security service—a move designed to safeguard Windows-based enterprises and steal market share from Symantec. With this vendor showdown in mind, Elgan expects CIOs to gain the upper hand as they negotiate security software licensing fees.

A Painful History Lesson

SOMETIMES, YOU’VE GOT TO LOOK BACK before you can move forward. That’s especially true in the world of IT, where history lessons can help CIOs avoid repeating problems from years past.

Consider the following scenarios: During the 1980s and early 1990s, many universities embraced a mix of system software from Microsoft, Apple, Novell, IBM, and now-defunct companies such as Banyan Systems and Digital Equipment. Atop these systems, many universities deployed a range of databases from Oracle, IBM, Microsoft, Sybase, and the former Informix (acquired by IBM in 2001). Universities funneled all of that data through network plumbing supplied by Cisco Systems and dozens of rivals.

The net result? Many universities’ IT infrastructures earned failing grades during the 1990s and early 2000s. Decentralized decision-making frequently led to incompatible systems, security lapses, and cost overruns for unexpected integration projects.

“It was common to hear about a medical school and a business school within the same university having completely incompatible voice or data systems,” laments Edward Golod, president of Revenue Accelerators, New York-based technology sales consultants. “Typically, by the time a university discovered the compatibility issues, the IT budget was already spent.”

The turning point came in 2002, as government regulations written for the corporate sector increasingly influenced university operations. Sarbanes-Oxley, for instance, is a government mandate that strives to ensure businesses deliver accurate and trustworthy financial results. The regulation—written to prevent repeats of the financial scandals at Enron, WorldCom, and other major organizations—includes guidance for managing and securing IT systems.

Many university trustees (including current and former business executives) quickly realized that they needed to follow corporate America’s lead. “Academia couldn’t proceed with a ‘business as usual’ attitude,” says Golod. “[Institutions] had to simplify and safeguard their IT systems in order to ensure peace of mind among trustees, and effective information flow across their campuses.”

Impressive Outcomes

University administrators and technologists who focus on simplifying IT infrastructures won’t be disappointed, for the benefits are profound: With fewer applications and network platforms to support, IT staffs can increasingly focus on innovation rather than maintenance issues. A particularly pleasant byproduct: Innovation in the classroom often leads to high praise from students and parents alike. For instance, 90 percent of Alaska parents of school-age children say they would encourage their kids to attend the University of Alaska, according to McDowell Group, an AK-based market research firm. For University of Alaska CIO Smith, a few more IT victories will surely win over the remaining 10 percent.

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