IT Trends | Feature

IT Beyond the Campus

Drexel University positions itself as an outsourced IT department for smaller colleges.

As cloud computing comes into its own in the higher education space, at least one university has been quietly pioneering an innovative way to deliver technology services on demand, via the Internet, to other institutions. Since the late-1990s, Drexel University in Philadelphia has been serving as an outsourced IT department for a group of colleges that lack the infrastructure necessary to run their own enterprise-wide systems.

Calling the strategy "uncommon, but probably not unique in the higher education space," Ken Blackney, associate vice president for technology, said the university focuses mainly on student admissions, financial services, back office systems and other options that fall under the SunGard Higher Education umbrella.

"We basically provide Banner and a suite of associated products to schools that lack data centers, servers, and other infrastructure required to run these systems," said Blackney. "With our setup, the schools access the services over the public Internet or via private links, all of which are run through Drexel's IT [infrastructure]."

Blackney said the strategy dates back to 1998, when a large health foundation in Philadelphia went bankrupt, leaving a notable medical school on the verge of closing. "The judge in the bankruptcy case didn't want to let this school and its 4,000 jobs go away," recalled Blackney. "Drexel didn't have a medical school at the time, and agreed to manage it for two years."

It didn't take long for Drexel to figure out that its new "acquisition" lacked a robust IT infrastructure composed of a mainframe that was being rented for a fee of $1 million a month. With the university in the middle of a new financial and human resources software implementation, it made sense to upgrade the medical school's backend systems at the same time.

"Within a 12-month period, both the hardware and software were converted over," said Blackney, "and at that point Drexel became an application service provider."

That position was cemented further when Cabrini College of Radnor, PA called on Drexel for IT help. "They wanted a technical school to come in and make recommendations, which we did," recalled Blackney. "However, those changes were going to be too expensive for the small school. We then suggested they do the same thing that the medical school was doing: buy all of their services from us on a subscription model."

The answer was a resounding yes, said Blackney, whose department continues to service that particular school, both with IT support and onsite staffing. Other institutions followed in that community college's footsteps, he said, although no others receive the onsite staffing. "We learned that the leverage and benefit we can get out of providing IT services remotely just doesn't translate into [human resources]," he explained.

Fast forward to 2010 and Drexel continues to provide IT services remotely to a host of institutions, including Medaille College in Buffalo, NY, in addition to Cabrini. About six other schools access and use the university's LMS services (based on Blackboard) online, according to Blackney, who said most of those users learned about Drexel's status as an ASP via word of mouth referrals.

"I've done some presentations at Educause conferences and through other groups," said Blackney, who in August attended an educational conference in Chile, where he discussed Drexel's experiences in cloud computing using a PowerPoint presentation entitled Strategic Collaboration: New Models for Delivering IT Service.

Drexel has gained advantages from its double identity as an ASP. Along with the subscription fees that the university receives for its services, Blackney said, other benefits include the buying power it attains by purchasing for a group of colleges--and not just for itself. This benefit has proved useful for the school's computer replacement program, which finds staff members getting new equipment every three years. "When we talk to server or laptop vendors about buying new equipment," he said, "we get volume discounts now because we're acting on behalf of several schools."

One of the most challenging aspects of acting as an ASP for multiple schools, according to Blackney, is coordinating the users for activities like software upgrades. "We used to be able to knock out those upgrades during spring break without affecting anyone," said Blackney, whose team has to break up the project into chunks over time. "There's always someone using the system, which means there's no 'good' time to shut it down for a few days for an upgrade."

As Drexel's IT team finds creative ways to work through that challenge and other issues, Blackney said, the group's members are always on the lookout for new partners to collaborate with. "We're not actively selling or calling on anyone," said Blackney, "but we are interested in [growing] this sideline business because of the value it brings to the university."

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