Colleges can get by on adequate technology. That is, until they can’t.
In late 2009, Judson University, a small Christian college in Elgin, Ill., was getting by on old servers, but newly-hired IT director Brent Richardson saw a crisis. With an eight-year-old version of a directory service sputtering and servers crashing, the college’s ability to enroll and retain students was at risk.
“A small drop in our tuition is devastating,” says Richardson. “Some schools have more of a margin, but we don’t.”
Over five years, Richardson worked to streamline a floundering IT organization by deploying virtual machines along with new backup and help desk software. And with better technology came improved IT values. It’s a lesson for IT leaders and administrators on the importance of recognizing the danger signs of aging technology and taking action.
When Richardson started at Judson, the school email system was crashing five times a week, Wi-Fi was erratic, and faculty often could not connect to the network to access course materials. The school clearly needed hardware and software upgrades. Yet Richardson felt the problems extended beyond technology. There was a lack of trust between IT and anyone not in IT, he says.
“A faculty member would ask about the status of a computer and a technician would look at a stack and say, ‘I think it’s one of those. I’ll have to fire them all up,’” says Richardson. “We weren’t helping people in ways that mattered.”
Richardson knew the IT group needed to improve its conduct. But first, he needed better tools. So he arranged for his provost to meet with the university’s CFO, and he convinced them that outdated technology was threatening the school’s viability. By early 2010, he had secured $75,000 for a virtualization project.
The IT group deployed a virtual infrastructure that successfully boiled 36 physical servers down to two large virtual machines. For backup, Judson employed a virtual machine backup system able to replicate data between two virtual machine farms. If the main virtual machine farm goes down, says Richardson, the university’s systems could still run on the failover virtual machine farm.
“This gave us a solid backup and business continuity plan, which didn’t exist when I started,” he says.
The reward for swapping out old, unreliable servers for virtual machines did not happen overnight. It took all of 2010 for Judson’s virtualization project to “stabilize a patient in critical condition.” The technology overhaul also involved hiring new email and IT infrastructure managers, and letting go of staffers who couldn’t adjust to a virtualized environment.
“That’s part of change,” says Richardson.
But soon enough, the IT revamp started to bear fruit. Log-in difficulties ceased because if the directory service’s server bogged down, the IT group could just dial up more RAM or CPU. The school’s printers, once a source of frequent failures, worked consistently due to better server connectivity through virtualization. Better server connectivity also improved the school’s once-spotty Wi-Fi network. Students were encouraged to print from their mobile devices.
Classroom outages and disruptions caused by a deficient network dropped from 600 incidents in 2010-2011 to only three incidents during the 2011-2012 school year, says Richardson. “Virtualization definitely reduced how often a professor had to change class plans because of old technology.”
By mid-2013, the back-end network problems were all under control, says Richardson, but the communication and workflow processes between IT and everyone else were not yet up to his satisfaction.
“We still had people coming in and asking, ‘Hey, where’s my computer?’” he says.
For help desk tickets, the IT group was using SpiceWorks, a free open-source service that—with its community-based support and lack of change management features—was not advanced enough for Judson’s needs, says Richardson.
Last year, Richardson was able to budget for help desk software that opened up the lines of communication between IT, faculty, administrators, and students. Because it integrates with social media, help desk tickets can be made via Judson IT’s Twitter handle or Facebook page, and auto-assigned to the most appropriate support person. And, that’s just the beginning.
Richardson credits the help desk software for liberating IT staffers struggling with communication to be more efficient and helpful. Once again, modern technology inspires better IT values. For Brent Richardson, the two go hand in hand.
Shane O'Neill is a freelance writer based in Boston, MA. Most recently, Shane was Managing Editor for InformationWeek where he covered mobile, big data, and digital innovation as a writer and editor. Prior to that, he was Assistant Managing Editor and Senior Writer at CIO.com. Shane's writing garnered an ASBPE Bronze Award in 2011 for his blog, "Eye on Microsoft." He can be reached at [email protected]
The IT Innovators series of articles is underwritten by Microsoft, and is editorially independent.