Deferred Maintenance—What Does It Mean for IT?

APPA, the Association of Higher Education Facilities Managers, and NACUBO, the National Association of College and University Business Officers, frequently address the issue of "deferred maintenance." To them, that phrase means the built-up and someday-to-be-incurred expenses of facilities maintenance that current budgets can't afford. It's been a huge problem in recent years and it's going to get bigger. In many ways "maintenance" is easier to "defer" for facilities than for IT—you can delay putting on a new roof for many years before you actually experience leaks in the auditorium.

There may be a parallel situation developing for campus IT; one that may not be so obvious. But the "leaky roofs" of IT are likely to appear more quickly and to have more of a direct impact on the missions of our institutions.

Maybe you are not convinced that there are parallels between campus facilities management and IT resource management. Maybe you need to be convinced more than by just hearing the old saw that "they don't call it 'information architecture' for nothing."

Take this story, then, from The Diamondback, the independent student newspaper of the University of Maryland-College Park, as an example: "Commons main key stolen: Students voice concern for their safety. A master key to the South Campus Commons was lost off-campus last week, prompting Commons management to change apartment and building entrance locks."
(www.inform.umd.edu/News/Diamondback/archives/2003/05/16/news2.html)

It's a small story, not worth a long look, but the parallels to authentication, identity, and security issues in IT are quite obvious and on the surface. But the article also speaks to other facilities maintenance issues like dirty water and water outages (network degradation and outages) as well as to basement flooding (spam). One important item noted is that even though the master key (password) which was lost by an employee is not marked as such, and there is no evidence of theft (cracking), a lot of maintenance staff (IT staff) time has been spent changing locks (reworking security).

A recent thread on the University Web Developer's discussion list (www.usask.ca/web_project/uwebd/) focused on what Web and other campus staff are seeing in terms of budgetary impact from the fiscal crisis. The litany included: hiring freezes and no promotions for staff who pick up additional tasks; management from outside IT and without IT expertise replacing IT managers who leave; restructurings that create de facto salary reductions; and constant querying of "discretionary" expenditures: "Do you really need more server space?"

But of course for IT to "hold steady" it really needs to expand, so a broad range of expected services are being cut, chargebacks increased, etc. Interestingly, one of the effects is more use of the Internet to save mailing and other communications fees, making IT maintenance more critical and the load on IT staff heavier, because many see the Web as "free."

Other examples abound: the University of Wisconsin has just decided not to renew its licenses for Microsoft products (see IT News: "U. Wisconsin to Stop Licensing of Microsoft Products"). And the Harvard Crimson reported an important network went down just before final exams (see IT News: "Network Crash Near Finals Startles Harvard Students"). What if that is your campus next fall, and it stays down, and data is lost? Who's going to care that you've been short-staffed since April?

All of these changes are forms of what could be viewed as deferred maintenance of campus IT and we believe the most forward-thinking IT departments are hard at work trying to meet short term budget constraints while not "eating [the] seed corn."

That's a line from a University Web Developer forum participant who wrote that, "In traditional agricultural societies, one failed harvest was bad. Two years in a row meant you had to sow your seed corn, and your back was against the wall. People went hungry. Three bad years meant famine. It's been two bad years in a row."

Every campus IT department should realize that not renewing a license, or not building a system that students or faculty are anticipating, or temporarily not filling a staff or managerial position are all forms of deferred maintenance. But in the IT world, it's not quite as easy to predict how long you can safely wait before the roof starts to leak.

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