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Collaboration is the key to IT

A change in the way the Information Technology function delivers services will benefit the U systemwide

By Adam Overland

New directions in information technology service at the U will better support the academic and research mission of the University

June 22, 2010

Riddle me this
It sounds like a riddle: How do you take the University's information technology function and simultaneously improve efficiency, increase administrative and academic effectiveness, and reduce costs? Usually, says professor Massoud Amin, such a solution is plagued by what he calls "the tyranny of the 'or'"—the best you can hope to do is succeed at one or two of these intertwined goals. But a more complete answer could be worth millions of dollars—$20 to $40 million per year, in fact. Amin, a member of a task force charged by the president in early 2010 to come up with a solution to the problem, says the group refused to settle for the little conjunction; they would take nothing less than "and."

Conjunction junction

"And" might be the perfect metaphor to describe the model of collaboration that the Office of Information Technology (OIT) is working to implement at the U. Right now, information technology (IT) supports every University activity, and support of these activities will only continue to increase. IT expenses at the U in 2009 were $200 million and counting (6.4 percent of the budget).

While OIT decides where some of that money is spent, about two-thirds of information technology expenses occur in colleges and departments, with approximately 70 percent of its resources dedicated to "no choice/must do" activities such as keeping major systems and services (like PeopleSoft and other infrastructure, for example) running smoothly. Part of this is caused by the U's decentralized nature and part of it is simply the result of tech evolution.

Bernard Gulachek, senior director of IT strategy (and also a member of the task force) says that because of the way technology has evolved, core technology services have become varied across different University units, creating cottage industries of sorts. In the past, for example, most units once managed their own email servers. Gulachek says that as email evolved and became not only a commodity, but a mission-critical service that requires high availability, individual units decided that the resources that were needed to manage the service at this level were better spent focused on more strategic activities. The institution’s coordinate campus, collegiate, and administrative unit IT leaders understand and support this changed dynamic. As a result, almost all of the University’s email is managed by OIT.

"It's a group designed to keep core systems running continuously," says Gulachek. "It has disaster recovery and business continuity planning behind it, and systems reside in professionally managed data centers that have environmental controls and security requirements that meet today's industry standards. In the old days, these systems were run by a variety of skill sets (in many cases, anyone who had an interest) and resided in areas that were not suited for the importance of these systems."

Actually, as part of their work the task force learned the number of servers on campus based on a recent inventory; that number totaled nearly 4,000. It's the result of a distributed support model that has faculty or student assistants creating their own support programs, sometimes even running their own servers right under their desks. Gulachek says there is now a server consolidation and virtualization effort underway that could save between $3 and $11 million a year—"if the institution has the desire to realize those savings."

Google logo 165 Using a standardized IT model will increase service quality while creating a number of savings opportunities, including at the level of system support. The U's ongoing move to Google is perhaps the most visible demonstration of the model. "Using U of M Google Apps will dramatically increase service quality (in comparison to similar services managed by the University) and enable us to simplify the support model for these core services. The University will save equipment (application and data storage servers), license fees, annual software maintenance costs, and support costs," says Gulachek (The Google Apps initiative will save the U an estimated $2 to $3 million per year).

And that frees up time for IT staff to do more work that directly supports the academic and research mission of the University—a move that will open up room for innovation. "We're worrying about keeping servers running when that can be done elsewhere. We need to be more conscious of the trade-offs that those decisions create, and recognize that they come at the expense of more strategic academic and research technology focused effort," says Gulachek.

In support of teaching, learning, and research

Indeed, faculty have asked for exactly that—help in creating or discovering technology that will assist them in research and teaching, but they've voiced concern that the capacity of the University's IT function to help just hasn't been there. As a result, faculty have often turned to contracting outside service providers for storage capacity or software development. Gulachek and the task force recognized that needed to change. "Information technology brings the greatest value in support of teaching, learning, and research. It doesn't bring the greatest value when infrastructure is being managed in a number of different places. Every building in this institution does not have its own heating plant—it's a central plant. That's the way we need to think about infrastructure technologies," says Gulachek.

With that in mind, the task force has recommended clear incentives within the budget model to reward collaboration, efficiency, effectiveness, and alignment with best IT practices. And the governance model is changing, too, to a well-defined, two-tiered process. The first tier will include key stakeholders and technology savvy participants—represented by the IT directors from each college and unit. They'll work across the University to define and develop the best technology, with the ultimate decisions as to whether it will be adopted left to the deans, chancellors, and vice presidents who represent their units.

Amin says it helps to think of the process as an arrow and arrowhead. "The arrowhead is alignment with academic excellence within the University and advancing academic priorities. The wood is information technology. Right now, the wood is good but it has many different splinters that are not necessarily working together. In a sense, we need to put the arrow behind the arrowhead."

For more information, read about a 2009 External IT Review that began this change process.