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IT Leadership Roundtable

Steady As She Goes

How do you lead IT through the turbulentwaters of economic crisis? Take your cues from five stalwart CIOs.

Steady As She GoesWITH COLLEGES AND UNIVERSITIES struggling to minimize the effects of thetroubled economy, it certainly isn't an easy time to be a CIO. Recently, CT sat down with a panel of highereducation IT leaders to pick their brains about best practices for steering IT through economic crisis.Panelists included Jan Biros, associate VP for instructional technology support and campus outreach at Drexel University (PA); Wayne Brown, VP for information technology at Excelsior College (NY); KamranKhan, vice provost for IT at Rice University (TX); Rick Peterson, chief technology officer at Washingtonand Lee University (VA); and Adrian Sannier, VP and university technology officer at Arizona StateUniversity. Here's an edited transcript of the conversation.

CT: How, specifically, have your IT budgets been affected by the recent economic downturn?

Jan Biros: The instructions at our university are that all budgets will be at current service levels, so we don't expect any increases at all in anything, and that goes for IT as well.

Wayne Brown: We've frozen all hiring, and when anybody leaves, that position has to be evaluated by the cabinet to decide whether to replace that person or not. All other spending receives a high level of scrutiny; in some cases, we've even given money back.

Kamran Khan: So far this year, on non-salaried portions of the budget we gave back 1 percent. And [as of] July 1, I [had to] cut my budget by 5 percent. We also depend on our endowment here at Rice, so that has an impact, too.

Rick Peterson: At Washington and Lee, the way our budget works is that we are allocated a capital-side budget and an operating-side budget. On the capital-side budget we've taken a large hit in replacing desktop computers and printers, and we're cutting our usual expenditures in classroom technology upgrades. On the operating side, it hasn't been so bad: We had to cut 12 percent in travel and a little bit in postage. We don't have any imprimaturs from the administration, just to watch closely and don't spend anything stupidly.

Adrian Sannier: At Arizona State we're feeling things a little more keenly than some of the others. In addition to freezes, we have a university-wide furlough that applies to IT. On top of that we've cut at least $2 million off our $67 million budget and may have to give another $1 million back. And as we look toward next year, the scenario could be even bleaker.

CT: When it's time to make cuts, how do you decide what goes first?

Brown: It's all about prioritizing. Those things that aren't attached to a project are the first to go. Professional development, conferences-- those come off the list pretty quickly.

Peterson: We developed a five-year strategic IT plan and have an associated five-year budget. So the first thing we do is look toward items in the strategic plan that match up with funding that may be available. We've had some deferred maintenance, too.

CT: To what extent have these cuts made your job more difficult?

Sannier: Certainly they put a much greater strain on the management of the staff as a whole. The planning effort also becomes much more intense. On top of that, at least at ASU, a comprehensive furlough has put an additional load on us.

"We've been able to renegotiate several of our strategicpartner relationships to increase service anddecrease cost. And we've called on our strategic partnersto do more for the same money." -- Adrian Sannier, Arizona State

Peterson: We definitely have to devote more time to making sure we're making strong and strategic decisions about where we're investing our limited time and resources. If we look at virtual desktop infrastructure, something like that opens up the conversation a little bit more because people know we're trying to find ways to work smarter.

Khan: You just have to shift all of the planning you have in place. For example, we've been planning for replacement plans for a while. Now, we really have to look at those and maybe rethink them to some extent.

CT: In which areas would you say it's hardest to provide technology with some of these fewer resources?

Biros: When you look at providing the kinds of infrastructure that universities have gotten used to, things like storage and file servers become increasingly difficult. Security also is an issue. There's more fragility in the system as applications are layered on one another. The level of expertise that you need within staff becomes greater and more diverse. And it's expensive. That's where the real challenge is.

Brown: Those projects that are going to require new software, new hardware; you've just got to make smart decisions about what you're going to buy.

Khan: We're looking at user support areas across campus and reorganizing some of that. We're also looking to make the help desk more automated. The toughest piece is going to be making sure that the service level overall for our faculty, students, and staff is not impacted too widely.

Peterson: Last year we opened a shared services desk in the library, so we were able to try to help with some of the support areas by merging what used to be three or four separate physical areas of support into one common area. And so we have tried to be innovative, because we are finding it hard to continue to meet support demands in the old structure.

CT: Describe the current hiring situation. How has the economic crisis impacted staffing?

Khan: We had a hiring freeze for about a month and a half. That's been lifted, and now we have two or three positions open. To be honest, we're really not getting a lot of applications. I don't know if that's good or bad.

Biros:We haven't been prohibited from hiring at all, but all positions have to be approved, so they're being scrutinized carefully. We actually have a couple of positions that were added to support videoconferencing efforts, so those will be filled.

CT: What are the best ways to stretch dollars further in this economy?

Sannier: Several years ago, we began a process of trying to move as many things to strategic partners as we could-- things like the help desk and hosting tasks. In this time period, we've been able to renegotiate several of those relationships in ways that have been very advantageous to the university, in terms of increasing service and decreasing cost. For example, we've been able to get 30 percent reduction in our hosting costs going forward, without a reduction in service. The other thing that we've been able to do is call on our strategic partners to do more for the same money.

Peterson: We're looking at trying to push as much service as we can away from our central IT group out into a vendor or cloud space. Specifically, we moved away from a course management system hosted on campus to an off-campus, hosted, open source course management system. That's worked out great. We're migrating all of the students away from a locally hosted e-mail platform to a vendor-hosted solution out in the cloud. And we've also been looking at partnering with other schools through initiatives. Project Bamboo is one of them. It's an initiative to provide digital technology support in service of arts and human scholarship.

Khan: We're renegotiating. We've done it with our ISPs and saved dollars there. We also have some initiatives for getting people to do double-sided printing and document imaging. The energy piece is a big part of the initiative here on our campus. We're turning off a lot of our old servers-- we just turned off a 288- node cluster a couple of weeks ago. And we are moving all of the servers off our campus into our data center.

Brown: I've only been here [a short time], but one of the first things I did was invite the top 10 vendors in to meet with me and [we] reviewed all contracts with our foundation vice president. We sat down with these vendors, explained our mission to them, and asked them to come up with ways they can help contribute to the mission. We've actually had pretty good luck doing that.

Biros: We've tried to get involved with consortia for software licensing and purchasing. We've tried to outsource services. We've also gotten out of the business of providing dorm telephone services, as a lot of schools have. Another thing we've done that has brought us economies of scale: We've entered into relationships with five smaller colleges to provide some level of IT support on a contractual basis. In one case we provide all of their ERP and learning management systems-- their whole staff is Drexel staff. This relationship is more economical for them and has given us a revenue stream. It's also given us some negotiating leverage with vendors, because we are their feet on the streets to extend their products in ways that they couldn't. This was done as a strategic partnership, but it's really turned out to be quite a good economic situation for all of us.

CT: Realistically, to what extent can cloud computing and open source help save money?

Peterson: For us, moving from a vendor-provided solution on campus to an open source solution off campus saved us about 30 percent in the first year. Based upon the analysis we did, we expect to save upwards of 100 percent in years two and three. We're also looking into videoconferencing services that are provided in the cloud, and trying to see if faculty and others can make use of them easily. For us, it's a big part of the strategy to move services into the cloud.

Sannier: Us, too. Google allowed us to turn off our student e-mail server. That was a $500,000 annual savings right off the bat. We also are beginning to see a lot of uptake of the Google Docs environment-- not only by students but by faculty and staff, too. The latest stuff that's come out has given us point-to-point video inside our domain, as well.

Brown: Our instructional designers are using an outsourced version of Moodle, and we've also issued a learning management system RFP to look at Blackboard. The place I came from, Johnson County Community College [KS], had very good experience with virtualization: We were able to provide energy-savings numbers that were just fantastic. So that makes a lot of sense for everyone, too.

Biros: We have Gmail for students, but it's an extra account as we still provide Drexel mail. We have a learning management system that we're hosting ourselves, but when the license is up we're going to be looking at some open source. We have Moodle and Sakai in an off-campus hosted environment that we call the "faculty sandbox," so people can start playing around with it and seeing it in a non-production situation.

CT: Speaking of sandboxes, how do you innovate in the current climate?

Biros: Necessity sometimes is the originator of invention and innovation. And because we have to be economical, we all come up with more creative ways of offering a service. The relationship I described with our partner schools is very innovative and has a lot of potential. Just looking at leveraging the skills, talent, and technology you have spawns innovation.

Brown: Because I just got to Excelsior, there hasn't been a lot of innovation yet. But for the next fiscal year we have planned to set up an avenue for people to apply for grants. We have to do it even with the current climate; we just can't be stagnant.

Khan: We are starting to do more eProcurement because we hadn't done it in the past. The bottom line for us is to get a lot of important feedback from our community, see what they're thinking, and determine how that will impact us.

Peterson:We've made it a point to go out and talk with representatives from every department at Washington and Lee about their needs. We certainly don't want to develop a slick, innovative solution if no one will use it. So we're letting the needs of the community drive our exploration. A good example is how we moved everybody off of GroupWise from Novell and onto Outlook and Exchange. We'll move all of the students to Live@EDU this summer. I think from everything we've experienced so far, students, faculty, and staff are happier with that solution.

"The place I came from, Johnson County CommunityCollege [KS], had very good experience with virtualization:We were able to provide energy-savings numbersthat were just fantastic. I think that makes a lot ofsense for everyone." -- Wayne Brown, Excelsior College

Sannier: I believe that this economy is going to be an accelerator for one-to-one computing. For a long time universities have provided common computers in labs and various other places. And I think a lot of different times we've expected that students would switch over to their own devices, and for a variety of different reasons that hasn't happened. There's kind of a perfect storm happening right now in that students are still bringing computers to school, and the computers they're bringing are newer than the [computer lab machines] we're not replacing. Coupled with services we provide out of the cloud, we should have all of the elements necessary to make that transition [to one-to-onecomputing].

Biros: At Drexel, we took a few steps in that direction a couple of years ago when we decided not to replace the computers in the public-access area of our computing center. We went to something called a "Bring Your Own Laptop" lab. We had five machines in there for people who didn't have machines, we provided connectivity and power, and that was it. So far, that model has worked very well.

CT: To what extent are IT budgets likely to be cut further, and what are you doing to prepare for these cuts?

Biros: I'm not sure to what extent we'll see cuts in the budget, but I don't think we're going to see growth by any means. To prepare for this, we're trying to consolidate some computing through a research co-location site. I think that's going to be a big savings and free up space.

Brown: From an IT perspective, [we're] trying to have a plan that is defendable, has gone through the IT governance structure, and is supported by more than just the IT guy. We also have to understand that we may have to do things next year like cut travel or cut training.

Khan: We actually are moving some of our money into a fund for next year. We also created an endowment for IT funding. If cost-cutting is one of those things that saves us money, then we want to be smart about the money we save. The bottom line is that none of us knows how long this recession will last.

Sannier: Locking in funding is just not a possibility for anybody in a state system. Clearly, we have to be prepared for whatever economic eventuality comes. That being said, I think there's plenty of room for optimism in IT: The cost of basic services continues to decline and the capability of those basic services continues to explode. So, for us, it's absolutely a core-versus-context tradeoff. Now it's just a question of finding out how to make it work best.

Head to our website to download apodcast of the roundtable discussionor the original transcript.

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