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The Vendor Solution, Part 1

How colleges are reaching out to manufacturers to help fill IT infrastructure budgeting voids

Traditional vendor-higher education relationships were built on the premise of giving out money in exchange for goods. Today's competitive funding environment requires a more creative approach and finds more colleges turning to IT manufacturers for funding, support, and resources. In this series we'll look at how three different schools have successfully funded IT infrastructure changes with the help of their vendors, explain how the process worked, and show the benefits they've reaped as a result.

Birth of an ERP 'Mega-Host'
California State University, Chico has been honing its corporate funding approach since 1995, the year that the institution decided to install an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system. The ERP's purpose was twofold: run the campus' operations and serve as a training platform for the school's business students.

"We were moving past the teaching of 'static material' and wanted to put a live, working system in place," said Ron Pike, a College of Business faculty member and executive director of the SAP University Competence Center, "so that students could see firsthand how an ERP links human resources, accounting, and other departments together on a single system."

Budgetary issues stood in the way of that goal. "We asked the university administration for $300,000 a year. That's what we thought it would take to acquire and run the system," recalled Pike. "The response we got was, 'not a chance.'" Not ready to give up, Pike and his team put together a formal business plan for the ERP implementation and sent it to SAP (for the ERP software) and Hewlett-Packard (for the machines and equipment).

Pike said the two key selling points in the business plan were CSU Chico's goal of training students--the future workforce--on the SAP system and the core philanthropic aspect of donating equipment and support to a college in need. The agreement wasn't one-sided. In exchange for the use of SAP's software, CSU Chico would assist other schools in setting up their own ERP systems.

"For the first six or seven years we ran the SAP system and supported local schools that were having trouble doing it on their own," said Pike. "We were the first school in the U.S. to reach this type of agreement with SAP."

In 2002 the vendor formalized that arrangement and began paying CSU Chico to serve as a "mega-hosting" center for schools worldwide. Today, the university hosts 150 schools that serve 60,000 students. "We basically run SAP systems for the schools," said Pike. "If someone is teaching human resources or project management they can utilize the corresponding software application that's hosted right here on our campus."

Datacenter Overhaul
In 2009 the university found itself in need of an infrastructure upgrade. CSU Chico again reached out to vendors for help. "We had no more room for servers in our data center," Pike said. "Air handling, air cooling, and power consumption were all at or beyond capacity." The goal was to shrink the infrastructure's existing footprint, reduce air-cooling demands, and accommodate the school's expanding computer functions.

Pike said the university looked at data center systems from IBM, Dell, Hewlett-Packard and others. Also considered were NetApp's integrated storage, delivery, and data/content management system. This last moved to the top of the list when Pike learned about the vendor's education donation program. Much like it did in the 1990s with its ERP implementation, CSU Chico approached NetApp (for storage) and Cisco (for servers) for equipment donations and support.

The repeat performance went over well. Developed with equipment and software donations from NetApp and Cisco, CSU Chico's new datacenter was up and running in June 2011. The school has reduced its footprint from five server cabinets to just one and can now fulfill its SAP hosting role without worrying about the need for more space, capacity, or cooling.

Regina Kunkle, vice president, state and local/higher education sales for NetApp, said the vendor looks at two key criteria when deciding the fate of such requests: economic hardship in the form of faculty layoffs and budget cuts and how those limitations impact the school's effectiveness and competitiveness. "If you have to put a big IT deployment on hold because of funding issues," said Kunkle, "then we get very interested."

Budget-strapped universities in need of new or upgraded infrastructure components in 2012 shouldn't overlook their vendors in the process, particularly those that they already have solid relationships with. In fact, Kunkle said, forming partnerships with schools--and not just doling out equipment and software to them--is a major part of NetApp's donation program.

"As a tech vendor, we want to work with schools on different levels and over the long term," said Kunkle. "We pick our go-to schools and then try to touch them in a lot of different ways--from equipment donations to grants to support."

About the Author

Bridget McCrea is a business and technology writer in Clearwater, FL. She can be reached at [email protected].

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