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4 Cost-Cutting Cloud Strategies for Campus IT

Hands tied by budget cuts, Westmont College's first CIO has introduced the institution to cloud computing in an effort to enhance IT services without additional financial resources. Here Westmont CIO Reed A. Sheard shares details on four cloud-based projects he implemented to do just that.

When Reed A. Sheard joined Westmont College as the institution's first chief information officer, he was immediately tasked with turning around an IT department that--while talented and well intentioned--just wasn't "getting the job done" when it came to advancing technology on campus. That was in 2008, the same year that phrases like "economic recession" and "budget cutbacks" were starting to become more common on college campuses.

"When the economic implosion occurred, nearly all schools went through budget adjustments," recalled Sheard, who is also vice president for college advancement for the Santa Barbara, CA, private college. He quickly found himself caught in the crossfire and attempting to improve Westmont College's technology infrastructure on a lighter budget.

"I knew we needed to work in a different way," said Sheard, who began investigating cloud computing options as an alternative to purchase-and-install software packages. "My interest in cloud was definitely one of pragmatism and stemmed from the knowledge that we needed to do more with less ... and with the same staff size."

Project 1: E-Mail
Westmont College's e-mail system was Sheard's first target. Faculty and administration had been grappling with e-mail outages lasting anywhere from five minutes to five days. At the heart of the problem were a series of systems that hadn't been upgraded in years and that were "starting to fail," according to Sheard. Compounding the issue were a calendaring system that had been discontinued years earlier and a contact management system that was not standardized across campus.

"We really needed to get all three of these systems fixed without having to put too much time or money into the fixes," said Sheard, who identified Google's e-mail, contact and calendar apps as possible replacements for the current setups. He introduced the Google Apps across campus, for faculty, staff, administration and students, who began using them immediately.

"The success on that single project gave me the confidence to test out other cloud options," said Sheard.

Cloud Project 2: Wireless Management
He then set his attention on the controller that managed campus wireless access points.

Located in the server room, the controller was moved onto the Web, with the money saved on server space allocated to the purchase of new wireless access points. That move--which involved Meraki's cloud-controlled network--allowed Westmont College to achieve 100 percent WiFi coverage across campus (compared to a previous 30 percent).

Cloud Project 3: CRM
Next on the agenda was the college's fundraising system, which was focused on building relationships with philanthropic individuals in the community and seeking a larger number of donors who could offset the negative impacts of the economic crisis.

Because Westmont College's enterprise resource planning (ERP) system lacked a customer relationship management (CRM), there was no mechanism in place to manage that prospective donor information.

"We looked at a few options that we would have had to install on site, but they would have exacerbated our resource challenges," Sheard said. "They required more servers, more 24/7 support, and more updates. With our staffing levels, we didn't have the capacity to implement any of those options."

Sheard found a more viable option in the cloud, where Salesforce CRM--typically used by corporations--was adapted to support the campaign strategies of the private institution. Because the solution resides in the cloud, there were no servers to buy and no software to install. "Essentially, it required signing up, arranging some support training for one of my staff members," said Sheard, "and training everyone who would be using the application remotely."

Cloud Project 4: Integration
Westmont College's IT team also had to figure out a way to feed the CRM's data into the school's existing, internal Datatel system.

For that, Sheard tapped another cloud computing option:  an integration solution from Cast Iron Systems (later acquired by IBM). The latter sits between the two data sources and acts almost like a "data cop," said Sheard, allowing data to move bi-directionally and securely between the two applications.

"I can be at a meeting in another city and type up notes into the CRM using my iPad," said Sheard. "Within minutes this information is written into the school's Datatel ERP system."

Using a cloud-based strategy, Sheard said, his team designed an integrated fundraising relationship management system, built a prototype and rolled out the solution in just under five months. "And we did this successfully, sitting with the same staffing levels," he added.

In total, Westmont College completed six major cloud-based application deployments in 12 months, all with no additional staff or budget. The school was also able to eliminate the licensing for some of the internal applications in use and reallocate those funds to other projects.

Along the way, Sheard said he's learned that both staff and students are more interested in using their own computer tablets and handheld mobile devices over the more traditional notebooks and desktops. Going forward, Sheard said, Westmont College's future cloud integrations will be centered around this fact, with an eye on moving "aggressively into supporting handheld and tablet computing."

As the college's use of cloud computing expands, Sheard said he's going to focus only on those tools that make the most sense. He plans to roll out a Web-based alumni application that will be enabled by Amazon's cloud.

"In some ways, what we've done so far represents the first phase of our cloud initiative," said Sheard. "Now we want to take it to the next level by building on what we've already created, with a focus on mobile computing."

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