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8 Ideas for CIOs in Tight Budget Environments

Community colleges in states hit hard by the recession have felt the sting of state budget cuts for several years running. Yet expectations of IT service delivery haven't abated. How do they cope?

Joe Traino, chief technology officer at rural Coconino Community College in Flagstaff, AZ, has seen tremendous funding cuts over the last five years. "We are beyond bare bones. It has impacted our ability to provide services to our students," he said. "And this is true at a lot of smaller colleges." Over the last several years, both at Coconino and elsewhere, Traino has developed a handful of ideas about how be more creative about stretching his IT budget to provide services. At the Campus Technology 2012 conference in Boston this summer, Traino offered up eight ways to use creativity and collaboration to reduce the cost of services without impacting quality.

1) Virtualize
The first thing to do, if you haven't already done so, is virtualize as much of your environment as possible, Traino said. Server virtualization can significantly reduce costs in the data center for cooling, electricity, and footprint. It also helps avoid the cost of bringing up new servers. "When I haven't had funding for new servers, I have been able to reduce the need through virtualization," he noted.

2) Extend Hardware Lifecycle Refresh
Another area for immediate hardware savings: your desktop hardware lifecycle refresh plan, Traino said. If you are in a three-year plan, for example, he suggested extending that cycle to four or five years. "Our college had a three-year plan when I arrived, and we moved that to a four- to five-year plan. Spreading out the cost resulted in a 33 percent yearly savings." Leasing equipment is another possibility to consider, he said. In addition, Coconino has seen hardware energy cost savings of between $5,000 and $10,000 annually from automatically shutting down PCs at 10:30 p.m.

3) Join inCommon
The annual cost of SSL certificates can range from $200 to $500 per certificate, Traino noted, and a college the size of Coconino can have 20 or more certificates. He recommended that CIOs look at InCommon's subscription service, which offers unlimited certificates for a fixed annual fee and takes the guesswork out of budgeting. "We recently signed up with InCommon," he said. "For a school our size it costs $2,000. Prior to that we were paying $4,000 for certificates, so that immediately saved us $2,000 per year," he explained.

4) Audit Contracts and Support Agreements
According to Traino, it also might be worthwhile to take a magnifying glass to your software contracts. You may find that you are paying for services you aren't using, he said, particularly in large contracts with companies such as Oracle, Microsoft, and your student information system.

"You should review those contracts on a yearly basis," he instructed. Also look at reducing unnecessary support in the network area. "We are a small Cisco shop, but we had a four-hour service level agreement on all network equipment, which can be quite costly," he recalled. "We were spending roughly $30,000 to $40,000 per year on it. We kept that four-hour service level agreement on core switches, which are the main switches for the environment, but have used spares for edge switches and reduced the support levels where we really don't need that four-hour turnaround."

Traino also recommended consolidating and rebidding support contracts. Signing longer three- to five-year service contracts for services you know you will be keeping can lead to significant savings--perhaps 10 to 15 percent per year, he noted. Another easy way to avoid cost overruns is to hire a consultant to do contingency-based telecommunications audits. For instance, the auditor may find circuits you are being charged for but not using. Auditors get paid only a percentage of whatever savings they find. At Traino's previous employer, the yearly telecom bill was approximately $250,000, he said. The auditor was able to find $25,000 in annual savings and a one-time refund of $40,000.

5) Charge for Student Printing
Until last year, Coconino was not charging for student printing, and Traino found students were printing approximately 85,000 pages per month in the college labs. "My guess is that the majority of those pages were personal," he said. "We made a change to give students 150 pages of printing free at the start of each semester and anything above that costs 5 cents per page. To monitor printer usage, Coconino uses a software product called PaperCut. In the first three months, the page total fell to 25,000 pages per month--a significant savings, Traino said.

6) Apply for Grants
In 2011, Coconino wanted to extend higher education access opportunities to students in remote locations in the county. But to do so would require replacing outdated equipment with high-definition videoconferencing equipment, and Traino knew he couldn't afford that. "We applied to the US Department of Agriculture for a $300,000 Distance Learning and Telemedicine Grant," he said. The grant application's goal fit nicely with the USDA program's mission to provide opportunities to people who otherwise would not be able to access important technological or educational tools. The grant funding Coconino won will allow rural students to complete Arizona General Education Curriculum prerequisites in both the arts and lab sciences without having to relocate. (For grant-writing tips, see "How to Write a Better IT Grant in 8 Steps.")

7) Enter Into Partnerships to Share Resources
Traino pointed out that consortia are very valuable in tough financial times. The CIOs of Arizona's community colleges are starting to collaborate on statewide initiatives. For instance, a new state law requires all state colleges and universities to have a common numbering system for courses, to help ease the transition from two-year to four-year schools. The community colleges plan to share code and resources on this project to meet the law's requirements. Coconino has also developed a close relationship with Northern Arizona University, which is only a few miles away. When Coconino has surplus equipment, Traino sends it to NAU, which sells it at a storefront and gives Coconino a percentage. In addition, Coconino students use NAU's library and the two schools' IT groups have used Shibboleth for credentials integration.

8) Consider Outsourced, Hosted, and Cloud Services
When Coconino had turnover in IT, it recently chose to outsource a part-time database administrator position to a contracting firm rather than hire another full-time staffer, at a significant savings, Traino said. And after hosting Blackboard internally for several years, Coconino has just finished a request for proposal to switch to Instructure's Canvas, an externally hosted LMS that Traino expects will be more cost-efficient. The college also moved student e-mail to the cloud and is considering Google Apps.

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