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The CIO’s Perfect Storm

Disaster recovery and business continuity can easily preoccupy today’s CIOs, but this Louisianan is making sure the whirlwind of survival issues d'esn’t overshadow other key IT needs in higher ed.

Brian Voss

Brian Voss, after his first year as LSU’s
CIO: “If the CIO’s focus moves almost
exclusively into one area—the “perfect
storm” issues— you will start to see
diminishing focus in other critical areas.”

Brian Voss became CIO at Louisiana State University in April 2005. Four months later, in the grip of Hurricane Katrina, he and his Gulf Coast colleagues experienced one of the greatest disasters in history. In the wake of the storm, Voss has been active on the national scene discussing—in terms of disaster recovery and business continuity planning for IT—the lessons of Katrina for CIOs. But he’s now seeing a different “storm” approaching higher education IT leaders; one that threatens to alter their roles and the value IT delivers to their institutions.

In your first year as a CIO, with the additional burdens brought to you by Katrina, you’ve had to face some harsh realities about priorities. What are some of the issues now competing for your attention, and how do you determine your focus? At this moment in time, CIOs are facing critical housekeeping and survival issues—disaster recovery and business continuity planning, IT security and data integrity, and ERP systems—all very hot topics that we’ve got to deal with; they’re right in front of us and converged into an almost “perfect storm” that could easily command all of our attention for the next several years. But a big concern I have as a CIO, as my energy g'es into these very survivalist kinds of things, is that this will draw our focus away from all of the other issues that we need to face in terms of higher ed IT.

We’re just completing our strategic information technology plan—our Flagship IT Strategy—and only two of its 10 recommendations address these survivalist issues. There are eight other recommendations! They include building a solid foundation of IT infrastructure, making significant strides in increasing the accessibility of the campus community to that infrastructure, developing a robust and multi-tiered support enterprise, paying attention to our fiscal planning, developing plentiful resources for research, providing abundant resources to enable faculty teaching and student learning, supporting the use of IT in the student living environment, and developing our own advisory and communication structures to keep everything moving forward in a sound and collaborative way. All these things are going to be fighting with the first two for resources. So I’m very concerned that we are headed into an age in which CIOs deal only with survival and are not able to focus on the other broad elements inherent in our portfolios.

What could promote a CIO’s ability to focus more broadly? It would be helpful if our administrations—our presidents, chancellors, and provosts—continued to grow their grasp of the role of IT in the strategic advance of the institution in the 21st century. Having a continuing, heightening relationship between them and the campus IT leaders will help CIOs to address the challenges coming down the road and not consume quite as much focus to do that.

Let me give you an example: the whole database breach issue. It’s complicated by the fact that at many institutions the CIO is the lonely voice in the wilderness crying out to address this threat, and that senior administration will not fully grasp, until they actually have incidents, what the impact is. And that’s not to indict all senior administration; there are many presidents and chancellors and provosts who certainly are very much in tune—especially once they have experienced this. CIOs who have presidents who grasp this issue can encourage those presidents to talk to their colleagues and get this discussion going beyond the CIO community. This then allows CIOs to spend more time working with administration to resolve the problems, and less time just trying to raise awareness and manage the politics of the problem within their institutions. In turn, it allows time and energy for broader focus on other IT topics.

I’m very concerned that we are headed into an age where CIOs deal only with survival and are not able to focus on the other broad elements inherent in our portfolios.

Given this whole picture, and what you’ve seen in your new position in the last year, do you see that the role of the CIO is changing, or has to change? I actually fear that the role of the CIO is going to change from one of being a holistic information technology advocate and a provider of broad, full-range information technology services, to one very, very focused on these key and potentially deadly survival issues. I’m concerned that with this—and the natural course of events over time, which leads CIOs to pay attention mostly to what may be considered by faculty, researchers, and students as administrative computing issues—you’ll start to see a fracturing of IT on campus.

There’s been a lot of effort in the last couple decades to build a holistic IT environment. Twenty years ago, you had separate organizations for administrative computing, academic computing, and telecommunications. Those areas have now merged into the CIO’s portfolio. It is successful where that merger yields efficiencies that improve the effectiveness of all three. But my concern is, now that they’re all together, if the CIO’s focus moves almost exclusively into one area—the “perfect storm” issues—you will start to see diminishing focus in other critical areas.

If that happens, campuses and institutions may react in an almost free-market manner. For example, the research organizations, dissatisfied that their central IT organizations are overly focused on administrative issues and not paying attention to IT enablement of research, may set up their own separate research IT area focused purely on their needs. And that fracturing will cause more resources to be spent overall. Then, if one particular part of the community makes the case for managing its own IT, the institution will put resources there—because it will fear that putting additional resources into the central IT organization will result in those resources getting sucked up into perfect storm issues and the research need will not be met.

Would I be right to guess that part of the risk, with this potential fracturing, is losing opportunities for collaboration and resource sharing? Yes—for collaboration and leveraging, too: Many of the vendors that sell research computation gear also sell desktop equipment and administrative platforms. You don’t want to lose the ability to take advantage of synergies. For instance, we are growing our storage at LSU, primarily related to our planned expansion of highperformance computing cycles. But at the same time, we need more storage for our university information systems. So, we were able to put these things together and make decisions that would allow us to take care of both needs with a more efficient investment of money than if we did them separately. I fear that with fracturing in this environment, that synergy will be lost.

What are some examples of other areas, specifically at LSU, where you’d like to focus your efforts as a CIO? One of the things we’re very focused on, because of the presence of Ed Seidel and the Center for Computation and Technology at LSU, is high-performance and grid computing to enable the advancement of science. And the LONI project—the Louisiana Optical Networking Initiative—g'es beyond what we’re doing on our own campus. In addition to buying the fiber pathways, optical gear, and network switches to bring up LONI as a regional network, we’ve also purchased highperformance computing resources to distribute to state institutions so that we can use LONI to form a computational grid.

LSU is also a member of SURA, the Southeastern Universities Research Association. SURA has a project called the SURAgrid that allows member institutions to put computational assets or resources into a broader grid across the SURA community.

Both LONI and the SURAgrid are initiatives that help advance the collaborative nature of 21st-century science, and show how building IT infrastructure can really enable scientific advances that go beyond the borders of an individual lab or campus. And that fits well with our role in the national infrastructure, in terms of our involvement with national high-performance networks such as National LambdaRail.

These types of initiatives, where you are making real strides, are what you live for, right? Right. This is why I wanted to be a CIO. I wanted to be a CIO because I want to work with all of these things, not just some. I truly believe that IT can advance an institution to national prominence. I believe that when you look at the usual measures of an institution—the quality of the teaching, research, learning environment, and the student experience—you see that IT really enables all these things. So our goal is not necessarily to become the best in IT; it’s to be the best in IT enablement, because that will help us to be the best and achieve national prominence in those areas that are associated with the broad role of our university.

After all, universities do two things: they create new knowledge, and they share information. And in the 21st century, IT is critical to both of those things. And that’s why I get so anxious about this current turn of events, because I have a feeling that if we don’t address this challenge to our focus, we’re going to lose our capability to do these other interesting and critical things. And not only will a given, particular institution suffer, but the nation will suffer as well. Moreover, higher ed will suffer. If you don’t have advanced research, advanced computation, and advanced learning environments that are developed locally, regionally, nationally, and globally to take advantage of the fact that this is a very interconnected world, and if instead what you’re doing is only managing your institution as a business, and protecting yourself from that globally connected world, I fear it’s going to slow the advance of the US in the world’s future.

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