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IT at Your Service

In implementing a new collaborative learning environment and educational portal, the IT department at New York University's Stern School of Business has had to make some cultural changes.

When its homegrown single sign-on (SSO) solution for software access began to show its age, the IT team at New York University's Stern School of Business started shopping around for a more modern, all-encompassing solution.

"Over time we'd added new stuff to this ad hoc solution until it got to the point where the system was huge," said Anand Padmanabhan, CIO. The school's Web portal was equally cumbersome, having been developed in house and never brought up to speed.

"We took on projects on an ad hoc basis, and then band-aided new stuff on top of the existing systems as needed," he explained. "It got to the point where, in certain places, we didn't even follow standards because the new [addition] would just interface with our own legacy system."

Integrating Collaboration and Portal Software
Ready for a change, the IT team looked around for a system that would enable roles-based access and SSO across all of its applications, including Citrix, Blackboard, and Zimbra. Also interested in outsourcing collaboration and e-mail and in building a next-generation portal, the school narrowed its choices down to OpenSSO and Ping Identity, both of which were already used by other NYU departments.

"Most of the other choices quickly fell by the wayside when we started pushing the envelope, or when we found out how complicated and complex they were," said Padmanabhan. Ping Identity won out in the end owing to short implementation time (one month, versus an expected eight months with OpenSSO), and the cost of customizations. "With the vendor we selected, we knew exactly what our total cost would be," said Padmanabhan. "There was no guesswork involved."

For the institution's portal, the IT team selected Socialtext, which included a software-as-a-service (SaaS) wiki, microblogging, and other collaboration tools. The system would connect to the business school's existing enterprise service, and was rounded out by a secure SSO access solution for student and staff applications.

A Cultural Shift in IT
Padmanabhan said project drivers went beyond a basic need to upgrade technology and were part of a larger agenda set forth by the Stern School of Business. "We really wanted to start thinking differently about how we provide services to faculty and students," he explained. "As one of the top 10 business schools in the country, we really wanted to get a few steps out in front of new technology and solutions."

Getting there would require a cultural change for the school's IT team, which traditionally worked either in line with, or just a step ahead of, technology trends and needs. So, instead of thinking about the type of technology students in an MBA course need today, the IT team is now looking two years out, to a time when those students are in the workforce.

Of course, the technology available on the market today isn't always a good indicator of what could be coming down the pipeline in 24 months, as most IT professionals already know. "We've come to realize that there might not be technology available to support everything we'd like to do," said Padmanabhan, "but we try to select technology based on its scaling capabilities and ability to handle growth from a functional or useful level."

That's where Stern Business School's new collaboration portal and roles-based application access comes in. The solution--which is hosted locally at the school's data center but managed by a third party--took about a month to implement and has already been leveraged out to other NYU departments.

Using the system, the school's IT team can initiate roles-based access to the necessary services, rather than using different tabs and multiple logins. "Based on the user's role, we can push the applications out to him or her automatically," said Padmanabhan. And because the system doesn't differentiate between the school's legacy and SaaS applications, the process is seamless.

Calling the roles-based access a "fraction of the big picture that's unfolding on campus," Padmanabhan said the institution's next-generation portal, which will roll out within a few months, is top priority right now. Once implemented, the portal will connect all of the school's applications and be able to scale up to accommodate more processes as the institution grows.

"The portal will bring everything we've implemented so far into the public domain site, and really allow us to leverage our roles-based access," said Padmanabhan, who anticipates a time when his team can integrate more Google widgets (it's already testing Google Gadgets' Windows Dock) into the portal, for example, without having to "design and build those applications from scratch."

Padmanabhan said user reaction to the new technology initiatives has been largely positive. More capabilities will be added over the next few months, he said, with the completed portal and access system coming out in fall 2011. "By the end of this year the system will already be pretty useful for our faculty and staff," said Padmanabhan, "and then we'll just keep adding more capabilities over time."

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