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Tech Refresh in a Down Economy

Campus CIOs are finding all sorts of clever ways to stretch those tech refresh dollars. Find your recession-mode best practices here.

Tech RefreshSETON HALL UNIVERSITY (NJ) has a reputation for being ahead of the technology adoption curve. Among other moves, the South Orange campus rolled out wireless early in this decade. It moved to Live@edu from Microsoft in January 2009, to supply its 4,400 students with e-mail and hosted online storage. It used VMware early on (in spring 207) to virtualize its data center. The school has had a virtual presence in Second Life since 206. And it is piloting a program with Nokia to outfit 350 students with smart phones, for use in academic activities. So how does a tech-focused university like Seton Hall keep technology "refreshed" during economically tough times, when tech budget dollars are shrinking and campus techrefresh programs everywhere are falling under the knife?

"We're planning for the budgetary double whammy of a slightly reduced number of students and a slightly increased financial aid budget," confides Seton Hall CIO Stephen Landry. He estimates that he'll have to cut between five and 10 percent of his overall budget. "That means all the operational areas have to give something," he says.

Seton Hall's tech refresh program is one of several that were profiled by Campus Technology in 206 ("Technology Replacement Planning: How Refreshing!"). IT leaders at three of those campuses are making use of careful planning and even ingenuity to guide those earlier refresh plans through the budget crunch. The bottom line: Plans have been modified, but in subtle ways. Here's what these IT pros are doing.

Seton Hall: Optimizing Value

Three years ago, each Seton Hall undergraduate was required to pay $650 a semester to lease a laptop and all related software and services. Every two years, that laptop could be replaced with a new machine, and when a student graduated, she could keep the notebook. Full-time faculty enjoyed a similar perk with a two-year refresh; computer lab equipment also was swapped out for new gear every two years. The older machines were handed off to adjunct faculty members, graduate assistants, and the like.

Now, in 2009, the fee remains the same; it's still $650 a semester, and the equipment has been tweaked from a Lenovo ThinkPad T60 laptop or tablet with 2GB of RAM and a 120GB hard drive, to a ThinkPad T61 laptop or X61 Tablet with 4GB of RAM and a 160GB of storage.

But since the fee paid by students is sitting "off budget," says Landry, it's not subject to the same kinds of reductions the overall operational IT budget is undergoing. And since a three-year refresh on student machines doesn't save the school any money (students still refresh their equipment just one time before they graduate), it's sticking with the two-year refresh on the student side. Where Landry is finding ways to reduce costs, however, is on the refresh cycle for everybody else. Full-time tenure-track faculty still get new equipment, but now that happens every three years, as does the refresh process in the computer labs.

The CIO is quick to point out that he doesn't believe the extension will reduce the quality of the user experience or increase support demand for IT. "Up until the last couple of generations, laptops didn't have longevity," he says. "They were fragile even six or seven years ago. Operating systems would go 'poof' quite a bit; they were high maintenance items. But the last two generations-- Windows XP and Windows Vista-- are extremely stable. It'll be very easy to get a third year out of those machines."

Coppin State: Follow the Warranty

When the new $52 million Health and Human Services Building opened in the fall of 2008 at Coppin State University (MD) in Baltimore, the sum total of technology on campus doubled overnight. The new structure includes dozens of smart classrooms set up to handle lecture capture, a virtual clinic for the nursing program, and two lecture halls with massive video walls. But because of a hiring freeze on campus, the size of the IT staff hasn't grown at all. Even so, IT has kept up with technology needs, says Ahmed El- Haggan, the university's VP of IT and CIO, thanks to a combination of new tools and new work processes designed to make it more efficient and reduce expenses. That includes, for example, issuing campus IP phones to IT staff, which enables them to communicate wherever they are.

"They don't have to come back to the office to get instructions, which makes them more efficient," explains El-Haggan.

Currently, El-Haggan's staff is busy deploying 1,500 new HP computers running Vista Enterprise and Microsoft Office 2007 to faculty, staff, and computer labs-- a total refresh across the campus. By going with equipment that's more energy-efficient, the institution expects to save $45 a year per machine, or about $67,500. The number of machines included in this refresh also has grown since the previous tech refresh, in order to accommodate the needs of the new building. But the budget will remain about the same, says the CIO. To provide line-item predictability, El-Haggan has structured the purchase transaction as though it were a lease. He borrows the full amount to pay the vendor, and then spreads the payment over the life of the PCs' warranty: three years.

"When it's tied to a warranty program," he explains, "there's a savings in person hours. When PCs get older, they're slower and they break more frequently. Four years is too long; two years is more of a strap on the financial situation. I believe three years is a reasonable length of time."

Creighton CIO Brian Young believes that shaking up the status quo can uncover 'free-range' computer operations that could benefit from coming under IT management-- so IT can finally secure them economically.

Creighton: New Perspective on Ops

In Omaha, NE, 4,100-student Creighton University is sticking with the same student purchase program it had in place in 2006, in which undergraduates are encouraged to buy a laptop through the university. Creighton flexes its purchasing power to get Lenovo ThinkPad notebooks and Apple MacBooks at a discount. About 65 to 70 percent of students take advantage of the program, which includes software and services as well as four years of accidental damage protection.

"It's a service contract where even if a student spills liquid into the equipment or drops it down a flight of stairs, the company replaces it. I think the worry-free issue is important," says Brian Young, Creighton's vice president for IT and CIO.

Budget-driven change has, however, had an impact on the way other computing equipment is managed at Creighton, and that includes faculty and staff machines as well as equipment in the computer labs. For the former, Young says, the IT team is evaluating whether a four-year refresh rate could be lengthened to a fifth year. For the latter, the university is debating a switch to thin client computing for the financial advantages it would bring.

In fact, Young adds, the IT team has taken a proactive stance on scrutinizing the replacement of any kind of tech product, from access points to projectors, provided that "there's no impact to an academic program or to student learning, and provided that the equipment is still functioning." He insists that he appreciates the opportunity provided by economic challenges because it forces people to reconsider their original assumptions about their technology.

In addition, he points out, shaking up the status quo can uncover "free-range" computer operations that could benefit from coming under IT management. "Every group has this; departments with a server here, a server there. As they look to replace those, they're asking, 'I wonder if there's a smarter way to do this? Do we have to pay $3,000 or $4,000, or can I call IT and see what they can provide?' That gets us excited," Young explains. "Now we don't have rogue servers sitting around. We help to secure things a bit more. And we don't have to utilize expenditure of university dollars on hardware that might not be needed."

Young provides three solid tips for other IT leaders struggling to sort out their own budgetary challenges in replacing equipment. First, he says, it's wise to question standing expenditures. "Eight years ago, servers were replaced on a three-year cycle. Will certain equipment last longer now? I think the answer is yes." Second, don't extend the technology contract longer than it has to be; preferably, to no longer than one year (it can be extended if the pricing and service remain competitive). That ensures you'll have continued flexibility in vendor negotiations and not be stuck with dated technology or services. And third, don't wait for the vendor to write the contract; be ready to supply your own contract language. Today, says Young, "I'm proactively saying: 'This is what it takes to do business with Creighton.' Of course, they can turn me down, but it's amazing how many say, 'No one's ever really done that.' Bottom line? I'm in it to protect Creighton and our students." [For basic tips on tech refresh strategies and tactics, go here.]

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