Thomas Hoover, Associate Vice Chancellor and CIO, University of Tennessee
Working within an environment that embraces both digital content, multiple devices and increased numbers of faculty and student body is both dynamic and exciting. This however, can create a significant strain on the backbone of any university; the infrastructure. It is important to encourage this change and innovation while still focusing on the necessary structure to support it.
"Your institution’s technology is only as good as your technology infrastructure"
Your institution’s technology is only as good as your technology infrastructure. Yes, the latest and greatest gizmos (iThis and iThat), wireless access points are an important part of technology on any higher education’s campus. Students, faculty and staff all like to have the newest devices. Everyone wants to incorporate this advanced new technology into classes, presentations and personal use. The available network will only support as well as it has been implemented. Infrastructure only works as well as the priority that it is on campus and the resources that are allocated to it. Without a solid strategy and investments, it will not be able to support current or future demand.
Take a step back and evaluate:
Where did your infrastructure come from and how did your institution get to the place it currently is?
What kind of devices where around when your network switches where manufactured?
When will you reach capacity?
How will you implement the changes that need to occur before you can have the structure you need?
An Implementation Highlight
At the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga a switch failed at the beginning of November. It was manufactured in 2002. We replaced it with a switch that works, but was manufactured in 2004. What types of device were around in 2004? What was that switch designed to support? They probably had some innovative design for a potential future, but there was no way it has the capability to support the current demand. The current devices that we use such as tablets, smart phones and research computing clusters were not even around when we installed the backbone we currently have. The load is too heavy and it causes a tremendous amount of strain on the environment.
How do you build a budget plan that is sustainable and forecasts for future growth and demand? How do you incorporate replacing that old infrastructure with new devices that are relevant and can support what the current demand is? The cost on the overall university budget would be staggering if we replaced everything at once. It is essential to create an infrastructure plan that is looked at as an annual investment. For example, the university needs facilities and a physical plant to maintain the campus. This is a budgeted annual expense. As environmental and government regulations change the annual expenses are adjusted to accommodate the needs. Technology infrastructure must be planned, budgeted and adjusted in the same way.
Making a smart technology investment is key. One time funds can be helpful, but don’t created a long term, sustainable model. There are several different budget models. One is port charge-backs for funding. Another is a network usage fee per user. Does this create some of the revenue needed to maintain? Develop a breakdown of a true cost of the network. Take an assessment of all access points, routers, switches, and everything that it takes to make the backbone able to support the campus. This should include a full inventory of all equipment tracking age, manufacture date, end of life, end of maintenance, end of support, etc. In order to truly understand the “true” costs of the network, it is critical to have everything included.
Crafting a Visionary Path
It is a new day for higher education in many ways now. Gone are the days of little competition for students and "ownership" of students regionally. Each school has to distinguish itself from others whether they are across the street or across the country. Universities (at least in Tennessee and several other states) don’t just get paid for having students enroll and attend classes anymore. We are now at a time when universities have to graduate their students. Expectations of today's student are completely different from students five years ago. Wireless and internet connectivity are no longer a perk but an expectation.
In a dream world, your infrastructure's cost is annually apportioned and investments as made to insure that the infrastructure is continually changed and older aging equipment is replaced with new equipment. At the same time there is reality in today's higher education environment. The whole point that infrastructure needs to be part of the strategic investment that universities make. It can't be an afterthought and something not taken seriously. It literally is the back bone of everything that is done. Be holistic and realistic.
Make a realistic assessment.
Evaluate critical needs and prioritize.
Plan ahead for future growth and unknown needs.
Partner with university leadership to build this into annual costs.
Evaluate what faculty, staff and students need to create an ideal environment.
Put your plan into action.