- Higher education slowly embraces shared network services - Higher education slowly embraces shared network services

By John Cox -

Colleges and universities can no longer afford go it alone in meeting campus demand for network and IT services.

That warning came from the president of EDUCAUSE, a nonprofit group that focuses on IT issues in higher education. But at least some of his listeners are heeding the warning.

Later this year, for example, health studies undergraduates at Simmons College, in Boston, can log into a learning management application, the Vista edition software from WebCT, to review new course content from the professor. The students can call or e-mail a help desk if there's a problem.

But neither the application, nor the tech support, nor the gigabit fiber network over which a student's session is running is owned by Simmons College. Instead, the 3-year-old fiber net was created by the Colleges of the Fenway, a group of five private schools, including Simmons, and one public institution, all located near each other. The group formed in 1995 to explore ways of sharing and funding common services. The learning management application and tech support is being provided by University of Massachusetts' UMassOnline division, which functions as an application service provider to Colleges of the Fenway and other schools in the state.

In a speech at this month's annual Northeast Regional Computing Program (NERCOMP) conference, EDUCAUSE President Brian Hawkins urged IT professionals to change the long-standing mindset of independent institutions that are completely self-contained. "You will lack the needed [IT] resources if you see your campuses as self-contained," he said.

Shared purchasing and software licensing plans have been a feature of NERCOMP for some time, he noted. But other opportunities are outsourcing - especially certain functions and services - to other institutions.

In a later interview, Hawkins said that IT collaboratives offer schools an alternative to the difficult choice of doing an IT project on their own or hiring a vendor to do it. And digital networks mean that provisioning, running and supporting IT services no longer is limited by time or distance. "Indiana University is one of the best in the nation for [IT] security," Hawkins said, offering an example. "They could monitor the network for Wheaton College here in Massachusetts."

Simmons had begun upgrading from its campus edition of the application to the Vista edition, and had a very clear idea of the costs in terms of additional hardware, a new database administrator, training and other deployment expenses, says Robert Kuhn, Simmons' executive director of technology. Simmons, in effect, would host the application for the other members of its consortium.

But UMassOnline was already deploying Vista and was willing to make the service available for a fee. It had resources that Simmons couldn't match, Kuhn says, such as additional servers for load balancing and redundancy, and around the clock tech support. The Fenway schools contracted with WebCT for the software licenses, and with UMassOnline for the hosted service. "It comes out to be about one-quarter of the cost with UMass hosting as doing it ourselves," Kuhn says.

But he warns IT execs not to assume that because a project is a collaboration, it will automatically save money. There are hidden costs and issues to shared services.

The security model for a shared service is very different from the security model that's typically added to a stand-alone application, Kuhn says. The shared system has to isolate and protect data from different institutions, for example. Some applications aren't designed to do so.

Technical support models, especially if they're organized around one-on-one, in-person interactions, don't scale well in the larger systems that are typical of shared services, Kuhn says. "You have to be sure that bigger really is more efficient," he says.

Even software site licensing, shared among institutions, doesn't necessarily yield savings because there is a cost incurred in deploying and maintaining the software and the attendant license administration.

One of the biggest issues is the differing business processes, such as for registering students or paying a loan or dropping a course, among the sharing institutions. Changes toward common processes require a critical intangible, Kuhn says: Trust.

"Building trust is the most important thing," he says. "So don't aim first at the big win, or the huge complex project where everyone has to be pointed in the same direction. Work with smaller projects with relatively rapid and clear benefits. You get to know one another and trust one another."

Date: 3/23/06