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The Vendor Solution | Feature

Augmenting the Campus IT Budget

Greenville Technical College had traditionally funded its central IT infrastructure projects through the school's internal budget. Databases, servers, firewalls, and wireless technologies were all taken care of out of pocket. "We did apply for a few grants," said Tim Tennis, infrastructure support services manager, "but in many instances those funds couldn't be used for infrastructure projects. In most cases we just paid for everything out of our annual budget."

The Vendor Solution Series

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, tell how the processes worked, and the benefits they've reaped as a result.

This article is the third in a three-part monthly series, "The Vendor Solution."

That changed in 2010 when the need arose for a more robust wireless setup to replace an existing WiFi hotspot system that was reserved only for common areas. "We didn't have full coverage across campus," Tennis said, "so faculty, staff, and students weren't able to roam through buildings and maintain a wireless connection."

With more students and staff bringing wireless devices on campus, Tennis and his team researched the school's options and decided that a pricey WiFi expansion was in order. Unfortunately, the school lacked the necessary funding to bring that project to fruition. Not ready to give up on the campus-wide WiFi initiative the school began talking openly with one of its existing, locally based IT vendors about its needs and its current budgetary woes.

"We sat down with ScanSource Inc. and put our project on the table to see if they could help us out," said Tennis. The talks centered on the college's needs and the role that the vendor could play--by donating equipment, funds, or other resources--in meeting those requirements. Several meetings later Tennis said ScanSource's CEO, Mike Baur, came up with a plan to leverage several of its own business partners for contributions.

"He basically put the whole package together for us," said Tennis, "knowing that his plan would be more beneficial that just handing us cash and letting us cobble together our own wireless setup." Before reaching out to vendors like Motorola Solutions, and Axis Communications, Bauer conferred with Tennis about Greenville Tech's existing solutions, most critical needs, and expectations of the new wireless network.

"We came back with a wish list," said Tennis, "and then worked with the vendor to come up with our best wireless network options." He remarked that using one vendor as the "go between" worked well for Greenville Tech, which lacked direct connections with the large IT manufacturers that it wanted to work with. "ScanSource already had the partnerships in place," said Tennis, "and we were able to leverage those relationships to our advantage."

5 Tips for Working with Corporate Donors

Greenville Technical College's Tim Tennis offers this handful of suggestions for soliciting equipment and services from vendors.

1. Don't overlook the existing vendors you're working with, even if they aren't the direct sources of the equipment.

2. Come up with a clearly defined RFP that spells out your school's needs.

3. Don't take an equipment donation for donation's sake. Figure out what your school needs are, and mold the relationship around those requirements.

4. Work closely with vendors throughout the entire process.

5. Brace yourself to do some advertising, media events, or other steps in exchange for the donations.

That leveraging paid off for the two-year institution. In 2011 it received about $250,000 in donated technologies from ScanSource, Motorola Solutions, and Axis Communications to implement its new wireless network. The donated equipment included 85 Motorola 650 wireless access points (WAPs); two RFS 7010 wireless controllers; two 7181 outdoor access points; and the Motorola LAN planner software application.

A fourth vendor, Excalibur Integrated Systems, handled the surveying, planning, and integration of the school's new wireless network. From Axis, Greenville Tech also received a video surveillance system that has enhanced the institution's physical security coverage and increased student safety and overall campus management.

The two new systems rolled out across the school's main campus in August 2011 and have been well received by users on campus.

"The fact that we're not hearing any more complaints about spotty coverage tells us that the new system is working as expected," said Tennis. "At this point we have full WiFi coverage in all buildings plus some outdoor coverage as well."

In return for the corporate donations of equipment and time, Greenville Tech agreed to be featured in several vendor advertisements and also held a media event with the school's president and various C-level executives from the manufacturing firms. "It was pretty painless on our part," said Tennis.

To other college IT departments that are looking for corporations to fund infrastructure projects in 2012, Tennis said his best advice is to develop an RFP first, just like you would with any other big initiative. "You may not be putting upfront capital into the project but that doesn't mean you can ignore the basic rules of successful IT initiatives," said Tennis. "Even if the equipment is a gift, make sure it's the right donation for your campus."

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