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How college CIOs brace for back-to-school

Cindy Waxer | Aug. 18, 2015
Enterprise IT stands to learn a lot from higher-ed CIOs, who are on the front lines in tackling demands for connectivity, service, security and innovation.

To some, the job of a higher-education CIO might seem downright cushy. After all, unlike their corporate counterparts, these IT leaders don't have to answer to shareholders, cater to business-line leaders or survive acrimonious mergers.

But the reality is, come the end of summer, these unsung heroes of academia face an onslaught of network traffic; malware-ridden personal devices; compute-intensive systems that require 100 percent uptime; demanding faculty, administrators and researchers; and some of the world's most tech-savvy -- and bandwidth-hogging -- students.

Far from taking it easy while students are out on break, higher-ed CIOs work tirelessly all summer to prepare for every imaginable back-to-school nightmare, from a security breach to a network outage to a Twitterstorm of negative publicity.

Even so, CIOs say, no amount of work can fully safeguard against every hiccup -- or disaster. "There's nothing like having 3,000 students and a couple of hundred faculty jump on [the network] on Day One," says Chuck LoCurto, vice president and CIO at Bryant University in Smithfield, R.I. "All the stress testing in the world sometimes doesn't compare to getting all those fingers tapping the keyboards in different ways."

In that way and many others, education IT is on the front lines in developing strategic responses to the same challenges that bedevil enterprise IT. Read on for tales from the trenches from six university CIOs as they grapple with the demands of connectivity, service, security and innovation.

A demanding customer base

The explosion in the number and variety of personal devices, combined with highly competitive student recruitment practices, has created an environment where students have come to expect unprecedented levels of IT service and performance. Network glitches, first-generation mobile apps, spotty Wi-Fi coverage, slow connectivity, a closed help desk -- they're no longer acceptable snafus in an environment where more and more universities view their students as valuable consumers, not faceless numbers.

"For us, the focus is on the student experience from the first moment they step onto our campus," says Brian Haugabrook, CIO at Valdosta State University (VSU) in Valdosta, Ga. "It's all about how to ensure that they have a great technology experience and access to services. We really pay attention to what we see in other industries, whether it's the hotel industry or hospitality, and how these businesses take that experience very seriously." 

That's why, despite limited financial and IT resources, this summer VSU is overseeing deployment of a Cisco-based wireless network that will provide three million square feet of wireless coverage blanketing every inch of indoor space and many outdoor areas at the university.

VSU has recently completed the first phase of the project, which includes replacing the wireless infrastructure for residence halls. In the past, VSU's wireless coverage could not support 50+ students connecting all at once in a classroom. The new wireless infrastructure will increase the number of access points by 300 percent. Haugabrook says the university will also offer Internet Protocol television (IPTV), as well as digital video recorder (DVR) services to its fall arrivals.


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