Taming the Web Infrastructure Beast
Web infrastructure has become a many-tentacled monster on campus, and the feed and upkeep of this once-quaint pet has taken over budgets, departments, and agendas across the university. But there's no checking the growth of this amazing animal because what was a sideshow 10 years ago is now an integral part of the main attraction.
These days the best web strategies in higher education all involve taming the beast.
"The biggest issue is staying in line with industry standards and not letting yourself fall behind as IT standards are developed," says Vincent Conti, senior vice president and chief operating officer of University of Maryland University College, which last year had 127,000 online enrollments and 139,000 in-person enrollments worldwide.
"What's different at UMUC is we very much see the web infrastructure as integral to our business," Conti says. "It gets a business focus. The CIO reports to me as the chief business officer, not the provost. And that's not necessarily how it's done at other schools."
There are four main areas that IHEs are focusing their efforts on now, all with the goal of taming the complexity of web infrastructure.
"In general what we're seeing in the marketplace is a very strong desire to ratchet up the quality of service delivered over the Net, to students, prospects, donors, across the board," says Peter Dupree, chief technology strategist at Edgewater Technology, a Boston-based consulting and systems integration firm.
This "ratcheting up" often means bringing together all aspects of an IHE website or back-office system that a user might need and making them accessible after signing on in just one place. And while talk about portals is old news, implementation is still fairly new. Only about 37 percent of schools in the U.S. told the Campus Computing Project that they have a working portal with a single sign-on in 2004. Fifty percent of public and private universities reported they have a working campus portal; the numbers were just under 40 percent for public four-year colleges, just above 30 percent for private four-year colleges, and just 30 percent for community colleges.
Part of the delay in adoption is financial, which relates closely to the technical challenge of making all of an IHE's systems accessible via the web. Portals must be user-centric, and therefore a student portal requires the integration of things like a course management system, library services, and student e-mail into a single sign-on site.
Managing web infrastructure these days means reigning in all the departments and subgroups that have organically grown their sites and attached them to the IHE's main page. New Jersey Institute of Technology decided to tackle content management when it first decided that its external website needed a redesign.
"What precipitated this was the realization that we had to do some significant redesign on our campus website," says David Ullman, associate provost and CIO. "It needed a little bit more spit and polish."
At the same time it was building a portal for its internal community; the vendor involved in that project was implementing SunGard SCT's Luminis platform, powered by Documentum for content management. NJIT's staff realized they could use this document management approach to implement templates for each page, impose a workflow and approval process on content changes, and create a repository for content to be reused. They could exert this new control, while making it possible for employees with little or no knowledge of HTML or coding to make the changes. A content management system also allows the school to ensure design consistency and information accuracy throughout the site.
"With the old website there was no consistency of design or navigation as you went from one unit to the next, or even one page to the next," Ullman says. "We also wanted to remove this webmaster bottleneck."
The resulting content management system from SunGard is being slowly rolled out across NJIT. But getting each department to rebuild their sections under the new system has been "a much slower process than we anticipated," Ullman says, in part because some are uncomfortable with the new structure and approval process that are part of content management.
"It's got to be a partnership, and there has to be recognition that there are going to be a series of tradeoffs," he says. "You're giving up a certain degree of independence for getting the flexibility to update things much more quickly and do it themselves."
Leverage is the name of the game when it comes to cost management in information technology. This strategy takes many forms, beginning on campus within the IT department and extending all the way to cross-country IT collaborations.
At the University of Pennsylvania, leverage has become the mantra of the ISC department, says Robin Beck, vice president for Information Systems and Computing. Often this means using web technology to prevent its aging IT investments from becoming obsolete, such as building a web front-end for older back-office applications.
Another take on leverage is seen in Penn's Framework for Administrative Systems Technologies (FAST), a software repository that breaks components into generic, and therefore reusable, pieces. Beck's team recently migrated to the web employees' annual tradition of filling out cards to donate a portion of salary to the United Way. This saved not only administrative time formerly spent processing all the index cards employees filled out, but also dramatically reduced the number of donation errors needing correction. This structure was built, tested and went live in less than six weeks, thanks to components in the FAST library.
"Using component parts is really part of the key to controlling costs," Beck says. "It reduced the time to build something, and also reduces the time it takes to test."
The idea that IHEs can leverage peer buying power to bring down ordinary procurement costs is an old one; making it work in the arena of information technology is one that is starting to hold water in higher education.
"We're seeing sort of the rise of consortial development at all levels of higher education. Historically, if you wanted to do software development you had to look at research universities. But thanks to the nature of web programming, we're seeing it at all levels," says Martin Ringle, the chief technology officer at Reed College in Portland, Oregon.
In fact, Reed College was recently part of a four-year, $1.2 million Andrew W. Mellon Foundation-funded consortium that created web modules to complete a wide range of IHE tasks. The collaboration between Reed, Vassar (N.Y.), Swarthmore (Pa.), and Occidental (Calif.) colleges produced more than 60 modules of software, including an online student registration system and an admissions dashboard that senior staff can use to view recruitment results in real time.
More traditional consortial purchases are being made outside software development to bring down the cost of commercial software, like WebCT and Blackboard. NJIT, as part of the NJEdge.net consortium, is looking at purchasing a statewide license for WebCT.
The last, and perhaps most promising, leverage tool for IHEs when it comes to web infrastructure is likely to be open-source software. Gartner Group, in a November research note, predicts that by 2007 10 percent of IHE enterprise e-learning systems will be open-source based.
"The reason for open source quickly evolving, universities tell me, is that private sector applications are getting too expensive," says Tracey Wilen-Daugenti, senior manager for the Internet Business Solutions Global Education Practice at Cisco Systems. "Universities are ready to start to look at this open source to save costs."
Rebecca Sausner is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, N.Y.