2017 Impact Awards

Getting Beyond the Vicious Cycle of Outdated IT

An information technology overhaul at Johnson County Community College has resulted in true culture shift, coupled with better-fortified infrastructure and deeper partnerships with vendors.

Campus Technology Impact Awards

Category: IT Infrastructure & Systems

Institution: Johnson County Community College  

Project: Migrating to a Sustainable Technology Infrastructure

Project leads: Matthew Holmes, director, network and data center operations, and Del Lovitt, director, enterprise system support

Tech lineup: Amazon, Ellucian, Microsoft

Johnson County Community College's project team (left to right): Sandra Warner, Del Lovitt and Matthew Holmes

Before 2009, the IT leadership team at Johnson County Community College in Overland Park, KS, was stuck in a vicious cycle of falling behind on technology infrastructure replacements, squeaking by with patches and maintenance on older systems. Without a dedicated funding stream, IT floundered — and faculty, staff and students had low expectations of what technology could bring to the campus. Something as simple as video streaming in the classroom was difficult because of poor network infrastructure.

Flash forward to 2017: An ongoing and sustainable infrastructure rebuild, including working with cloud and hosted vendors, is reshaping the culture within the IT group and the perception of IT on campus. How has the department made this transition and had such a great impact?

Sandra Warner, deputy CIO and director of administrative computing services, credits JCCC's executive leadership and the board of trustees for creating a dedicated funding stream for technology infrastructure.

"We were in a pattern of going through a request for proposal process every time we needed a piece of technology, and it was hampering our ability to build an infrastructure that was interoperable," she said. "Basically whatever the vendors had on fire sale at the time was the piece we would get." But once JCCC had a dedicated technology funding stream, IT officials started to get continuity in the replacement cycle, fortified their campus network and built deeper partnerships with vendors.

In 2013 the college created a technology roadmap outlining four core strategies involving cloud, network design, mobility and disaster recovery. The campus migrated to Office 365 in October 2015; the college website moved to Amazon Web Services in July 2016; and the migration to Ellucian Hosted Services was completed November 2016. JCCC's IT leadership team stressed that having a clear plan and a shared vision before launching the changes was one key to success. Because IT is so centralized in a community college setting, it allowed the team to act more swiftly than might have been possible in a university setting.

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The transition to Office 365 was an early win that helped build confidence and support for later changes and is emblematic of how transitioning to cloud services can improve morale on campus and within IT. Freeing up staff members allows the IT department to more closely align its work with the mission of the college. For example, rather than having multiple staff members consumed with administering, backing up and cross-training to support employee e-mail, they can now focus on helping leverage functionality JCCC could only dream of supporting in the past.

"Exchange had such a large footprint that for us to scale a backup solution to handle our employee e-mail system was getting outside the scope of why we are here," Warner said. "It was pulling resources farther away from our mission."

Backup operations were resource-intensive, agreed Matthew Holmes, director of network and data center operations, and were mission-critical because of litigation holds and e-discovery requirements. "There was a lot of risk and stress on people to manage and maintain that. With Office 365, not having to manage all that back-end infrastructure is a huge relief."

The college identified $947,000 in cost savings from the migration to Office 365 over a four-year period. It applied some of those savings to beefing up its own network. "We did quite a bit of work to improve infrastructure on campus — the access layer, the distribution layer and the core of our network," Holmes said.

With new knowledge about cloud services and momentum from the successful Office 365 move, JCCC moved its website to AWS. "We get the win of disaster recovery and redundancy and we are getting our feet wet in some other features and functionality that AWS is able to provide," said Del Lovitt, director of enterprise system support.

And with the move to Ellucian Hosted Services, JCCC is also transitioning to BannerXE. Its "extensible architecture" provides greater agility so that upgrading an application or feature no longer requires taking the entire Banner system down or causing institution-wide disruptions.

Preparing to negotiate with cloud vendors required the IT department to do lots of research to improve its expertise internally. "That allowed us to have great conversations with the vendors," Lovitt said. "We asked a lot of questions. We wanted to be part of the whole process." Of the 93 vendor-delivered administrative systems used by the college, 54 are now located in a hosted or cloud environment, which has meant developing new skills and support processes. "Working with things like Microsoft Azure or Office 365 presents new challenges and requires a new mindset," Holmes said. "Employees are excited about doing something new."

JCCC's IT transformation is far from done: Next up is identity and access management. Another focus is the ability to integrate with third-party vendors. "A lot of our system-of-record data sits elsewhere now, so the way we manage that set of integrations with other systems is evolving," Warner said. Another project on the horizon is an improved disaster recovery plan. "Previously, the staff was just trying to maintain the environment," she said. "That never allowed us time to work ahead and be proactive. That is the next part of our strategy that emerged out of these original ones."

Looking back, Warner can recall the "bad old days" when JCCC could never seem to get to the forefront of technology. "We could never stay current," she said. The college would be implementing Exchange 2010 in 2012. "For an application that everyone on campus uses, it was a beacon of malaise," she said with a laugh. "We went from that to a situation where the campus has the latest and greatest and is expecting a mobile-first experience. That was a big turning point."

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