This article concerns the outsourcing of school information technology (IT) services.
Use of the term “schools” includes all K-20 institutions, from kindergarten to colleges and universities.
Many schools currently run most IT services in-house at high cost. Common services include the website, email, routing, backup, registration and bursar functions.
Outsourcing (aka virtualizing) these functions greatly reduces or eliminates hardware maintenance, electrical, air-conditioning, and staffing expenses. Virtualization can be accomplished via external dedicated hosting, shared hosting and/or software as service (aka SAS). It is estimated that an 8 to 10% savings is realized instantly with the elimination of full-time in-house IT staff, with ancillary support via contractors.
While the economies of virtualization are established on the academic side of higher education, there is a growing awareness of the efficiencies of virtualization in adminstration as well (see http://chronicle.com/article/Tech-May-Streamline-College/235698).
Here’s a strategic IT virtualization agenda that is applicable to most schools…
- Move your institution’s website to either a Windows-based or Linux hosting service. Many institutions host their website on outdated in-house Windows or Linux servers. I recently experienced an institution that is still using Microsoft Internet Information Server (IIS). IIS is obsolete and has expose said institution to security vulnerabilities and performance penalties. (Though there is dwindling interest in 16-bit among hackers—a bad sign when even the criminals have lost interest in your wares.)
Many websites incorporate custom scripts that only work on a Windows platform. It’s not atypical for such instances to incorporate responsive elements (self-customizing to cell phone/tablet/desktop form-factors) that are built with in-house (hence idiosyncratic) customizations. Future iteration of school sites should be implemented in content management systems (CMSs), such as WordPress, which incorporate modern standardized support for responsive design (using Bootstrap or Foundation). The instance should also be implemented on a Linux host, which can also be contracted at no additional cost to host email services (see 2).WordPress can be managed from anyone’s browser and is naïve end-user friendly. Joomla, the formerly dominant CMS market player, has more security holes and is on the wane. I was a big fan of Joomla, but WordPress captured the market in November 2010 with the advent of a release supporting page-oriented design. I went to a presentation on this at Yale and switched immediately afterwards. I had been experiencing performance issues and Joomla exploits which WordPress obviated entirely. Look for a hosting service that offers cPanel and Softaculous support. Softaculous is the more modern installer app with more frequent updates, and has supplanted Fantastico.Pricing and longevity of your hosting provider are major considerations. The better ones have a decade-long track record. Read reviews and talk to your Geek friends for recommendations and other considerations.
- Move Exchange POP Mail services to SendMail iMAP running on a remote Linux host.Many institutions run an obsolete version of Microsoft Exchange server in-house, which exposes us to security vulnerabilities. Exchange is easy to set-up and offered early market support for cell phones and other mobility platforms. Benchmark monitoring of the software, however, indicates that Exchange mail runs on average 3 times slower than industry standards. Exchange is also a product that requires purchase. SendMail is a free open source solution that talks to Microsoft Outlook on workstations, our in-house email client of choice. The SendMail Linux server could also be used to host the future WordPress version of the institution’s website. If your in-house website includes Microsoft proprietary APIs, transfer it seamlessly to an external Windows host, then transition it to the same Linux server as your email system. Once that’s accomplished, decommission the Windows host.Sendmail can also be managed from anyone’s browser and is naïve end-user friendly.Another possibility is transitioning to gMail branded eMail services. These could be provided for students on their first paid registration and last for life.
- Move in-house domain name services to an external DNS provider.Running authoritative and recursive DNS in-house makes little sense—especially if your school is subject to periodic outages (“bad Internet weather”) and the bandwidth of your external connection is slow. You might consider NameCheap, whom I’ve used for DNS hosting. They are on a fast Internet trunk-line and fault tolerant. Another candidate is OpenDNS. The service can also be programmed and managed from anyone’s browser and is naïve end-user friendly.
- Move your Learning Management System (or cohort spaces) to an external provider. Many institutions set up LMS cohort spaces are set up in social format. Worse yet, very often a single forum is shared by multiple cohorts spanning several years. This format is not suitable for transition/export to other LMSs.To save money, the current LMS could be ported over to a subdirectory of the SendMail server. This could be accessed off the homepage of your school’s website and manageable from any browser by anyone with administrative privileges.I would suggest transitioning to the use of the free social forum site Piazza (https://piazza.com) as an alternative to cohort spaces.
- Decommission Terminal services. If you are using Microsoft server technologies, you are probably using Windows terminal services to permit roaming profiles, file, and application sharing—including Microsoft Office and Access-based Student Information Systems (SISs).Ditch terminal services. You should switch to Office 360, which has integrated file sharing via Microsoft OneDrive. OneDrive is fault tolerant and mirrored. Student licenses run as low as $6 per month.Local workstation backup could be via Carbonite and individually licensed to each workstation on the network.Another popular alternative is to use Google analogs for office suites.Either way, roaming profiles are problematic at best, and dangerous when local routing fails. It is not needed.
- Switch to Virtual Backup. As mentioned in (5), a move to Office 360 or Google analogues enables integrated application and file sharing. Individual licenses for Carbonite or similar SASs would automate the local workstation backup function.
- Use an Open LMS Provider. Content syndication, submission aggregation, assessment data and cohort spaces are better hosted by a commercial provider.They provide fast, fault-tolerant access to courses areas and eliminate downtime due to outages.Most LMS providers help with marketing, search engine optimization (SEO), and would love to sell hosting services to your students.Extensions to hosting services can, as noted above, automate the registrar and bursar functions.Free Open Source Software (FOSS) has plenty of appeal, but someone has to tend to a box somewhere and provide the power and cooling to keep it going. That’s overhead you’ll have to pay for in- or out- of house.
- Move from Vonage to Virtual PBX. Your in-house PBX may be paid for, but for slightly more money the system can be virtualized and extended to provide every adjunct with an extension. Moreover, virtual PBX systems obviate the need for dedicated IP telephones, though existing models could be used. Your school could transition to a cell phone model that supported the same sort of in-house call redirection, voice mail, and directory services. Eliminating the in-house PBX switch, power draw, and environmental controls would offset the cost. Modern virtual PBX services are also user-friendly and do not require professional in-house IT management.
- Outsource your Student Information System (SIS). If you are using Microsoft products or DataTel xor Banner on Unix hosts for SIS services such as registrar or bursar functions, JupiterEd, PowerSchool or similar virtual SAS providers handle all the functionality of homegrown Access/MySQL systems and are extensible.There are also application programmer interfaces (APIs) and servlet frameworks that allow most external LMS providers to support registrar, grading, transcript generation, student ID generation, and branded student email generation.
- Security Camera System. These systems can now be entirely outsourced through your local cable, DSL or FIOS provider.
- Internal Router and Switch Functions.
These are the only functions left in-house. The router could be centralized and switches distributed on subnets closest to their point of use.
- Workstation Maintenance. The need for a dedicated in-house IT director would be largely reduced and could be distributed among existing employees or managed ad hoc via outsourcing.
- Move to Paperless Office. This is more of a culture shift. Students and staff need to utilize electronic document distribution whenever possible as an alternative to print.
- Sell Legacy Equipment on eBay or donate to the Developing/3rd World. When Cold Fusion fever was at its height, a classified ad read, “Used tokamak. One billion dollars or best offer.” Cold Fusion went bust, but your legacy rack has or will have virtually no resale value in 3 to 5 years. Local salvage operations are even starting to charge for disposal. Sell it cheap or give it away while you can.