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Campus Spotlight: Rebuilding IT from the Ground Up

The first thing Bill Seretta did four years ago as American International College's CIO was rip out all of the old cat-3 and coax wires on campus and the equipment that relied on those wires. Then, he replaced the Springfield, MA-based college's entire infrastructure with state-of-the-art wireless options. After all, he said, if you don't have a secure, reliable, high-speed core infrastructure, "you can't do a thing."

"This holds true in corporate America, in education, and everywhere," said Seretta. "A lot of organizations forget this fact and wind up with poor infrastructure, ineffective networking security, and stuff crashing all around them."

Even worse, some opt to "layer" new equipment and software on top of antiquated infrastructures. "That's a joke," said Seretta. "You can't install student information systems, accounting solutions, and emergency alert systems on top of an old infrastructure. It's a huge waste of money."

Call him tough, but Seretta is just doing his job. Just over four years ago he was brought on board to assess American International College's technology infrastructure. The task wasn't easy, namely because the school's president--who had recently retired and had openly disliked the Internet--had been in his position for 35 years. A new President ushered in change.

During that span, the school's technology infrastructure hadn't exactly kept up with the times. "The technology here was limited and archaic compared to where the rest of America's colleges were at the time," recalled Seretta. "The good news was because it was so bad, there was nothing to salvage. We had to rip everything out and start over again."

Having that clean slate in front of him meant Seretta didn't have to justify trashing the school's old systems in lieu of more modern options. "A lot of schools get hung up on the fact that they put $100,000 into equipment last year, and now they have to change to something new," said Seretta. "They get trapped in these spending cycles, and feel like they have to stick with their investments for four or five years before upgrading or changing."

Without those challenges to worry about, Seretta said, he developed a comprehensive IT plan for the college, which fast-tracked the project to the point where his team had seven weeks to build a new network. That network would extend to every building on campus, said Seretta, so it only made sense that it be wireless.

"We installed 150 access points and brought our Internet access from 2 Mbps to 10 Mbps, which was a big jump for us," said Seretta. The college shelled out about $1.5 million to purchase the equipment, and then began taking other steps to bring its IT infrastructure into the new millennium.

Key changes included server virtualization--a move that allowed it to build up its core infrastructure "without having to buy a box to handle every single task, upgraded data center, laptops for all faculty, VoIP phone system, virtual campus, IP security cameras and new accounting and student information systems, said Seretta.

With American International College's IT overhaul well underway, Seretta left after one year in his position as acting CIO, assuming the next IT director would take the ball and run with it. That didn't exactly happen. "I was called back one year ago," said Seretta. "The current CIO was gone, and a lot of the work we had done four years ago basically was stopped in place."

In 2006, for example, every faculty member was given a laptop, whether he or she wanted it or not. "There was a lot of grumbling, since people were still tied to desktops back then," Seretta said. "Now they want laptops, but the replacement cycles (which were laid out in Seretta's original recommendations) weren't handled correctly, and a lot of faculty members have antiquated machines."

This time around, Seretta is determined to see his IT overhaul through to the finish line. He currently has 48 projects on his agenda, all of which are at different stages of completion. Over the last 12 months, he said much of the school's wired infrastructure was replaced with three fiber rings connecting all buildings, new switches and 10 gigabit uplinks. "We've created a robust infrastructure that's going to be in place for a while," said Seretta.

Other changes over the last year include the rebuilding of a data center that now operates on managed power with a backup generator, and a new collaboration with four other colleges that allows American International University to purchase Internet access at a bulk discount rate. The latter allows the school to offer 120 megabit connection speeds at no additional cost.

Another major change Seretta spearheaded for the school's IT department involved equipment and desktop leasing. Now, instead of shelling out over $300,000 a year for replacement equipment for $300,000 worth of equipment, the school spends less than $100,000 in lease fees for $300,000 worth of equipment. "I'm building a cycle where everything will be replaced every three years, with some going to four or five years," said Seretta. "This will help embed the three-year purchase cycle, and keep our technology current."

With more time to get American International College's IT infrastructure into shape than he had four years ago, Seretta said the department's five divisions (infrastructure/security, help desk, administration, academic and telecom) are going to play an integral role in the college's future growth. "IT touches every aspect of this campus on a 24/7 basis," said Seretta. "Without the right infrastructure, this place can't operate."

About the Author

Bridget McCrea is a business and technology writer in Clearwater, FL. She can be reached at bridgetmc@earthlink.net.

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