Outsourcing or Out of Business?

By John Webster
PeopleSoft Programs Director
Center for Remote Enterprise System Hosting (CRESH)
Dakota State University

The timestamp says Wednesday 8/24/2005 11:46 AM. The subject line reads “UCIS 182-81 PeopleSoft Tools.” It is the final e-mail I will receive from Tulane [University (LA)]. Forty-eight hours later I receive a phone call, informing me of the evacuation of the school. The soft southern voice still ech'es in my ear, as if to say, “This is just a minor inconvenience, I’ll talk to you next week.”

According to the Association of American Universities (www.aau.edu), more than 30 colleges and universities along the Gulf Coast were severely damaged by hurricane Katrina. Tulane (www.tulane.edu) was among the hardest hit. Its 13,000 students will not return this semester, awaiting the school’s projected January reopening.

For me, Katrina changed the way I will address Disaster Recovery (DR) planning. Much like post 9/11, this is a good time for schools to revisit disaster planning—or the lack of it—in preparation for the next campus-killing event we all know is out there.

No longer can a DR plan mean sticking a duplicate financial disk in your pocket on the way home. Schools cannot put off DR planning until the next semester in favor of other pressing projects. This is the time to approach disaster planning with the same vigor as our business counterparts—as an imperative for survival. Katrina happened and so will another…somewhere. Maybe to a lesser extent in terms of sheer land mass, but it will be no less horrific to the devastated institution(s).

Schools across the country have opened their campuses to students uprooted by the storm, offering them reduced or waived tuition for the semester. Educational organizations such as the Sloan Consortium (www.sloan-c.org) are working to provide creative and meaningful educational experiences for the 150,000 ‘school-less’ learners—through offerings such the Sloan Semester (www.sloansemester.org), an educational venture with the Southern Regional Education Board’s Electronic Campus and nearly two hundred schools providing hundreds of ‘no cost’ online courses for displaced learners. In short, everyone is doing everything they can to help in this disaster, but what about the next one? Starting today, how is your institution going to prepare?

In the 2005 Educause Current Issues Survey (educause.edu) DR did not make the top 10 list for Human or Financial Expenditures or as a Time-Consuming issue. Paradoxically, Disaster Recovery was listed as number 8 on the Potential to Become More Significant. I am sure it will be considerably higher on the next survey.

This is not to say that plans are not in place for disasters. Quite the contrary. North Carolina State and schools in Arkansas have done a remarkable job, as have the Pennsylvania colleges and universities with their Ready Campus program (www.readycampus.org). However, while these are examples of schools working on a tough issue, are they representative of what institutions are doing, in general?

Maybe it’s time to turn outside of academia to develop a plan we all can glean from as we look ahead. Should schools consider outsourcing their DR needs to a commercial enterprise as an option? We need to make sure we are prepared to light our backup systems the day after the disaster. With software hosting services, disaster recovery strategies can be part of the service contract; including backing up databases, imaging systems, and storing media in multiple safe locations.

That said, we all know the reasons many schools have opposed outsourcing: perceived loss of control, quality concerns, and cost. But to the end user, the reality is that all campus services are in effect outsourced to someone they have no control over. Following a software services model, what is the difference to your customers if you provide the service directly or it is handled by another source?

Take something like off-campus e-mail. If it g'es down Saturday morning, what are the users’ choices? Who do they call? With a contracted backup service, around-the-clock system monitoring, metrics for measuring performance, and a 24X7 phone center they can get results today and assurance of continuous service when disaster strikes. I am not advocating turning over all IT operations to an outside vendor; rather I’m suggesting that schools should begin working with professional services groups to assure that in times of need customers will have uninterrupted services.

My hope is that we all will continue to help with the monumental task in front of our sister schools, engage with industry to gain a “business-centric” approach to disaster planning, and adopt a real sense of urgency…before it is too late.

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