RealTime IT News

Colleges Help IT Firms Pass Recession Test

Until recently, Brian Young, CIO of Hobart and William Smith Colleges (HWS), felt like MacGyver, the title character in the '80s TV series who averted disaster using only his wits and a roll of duct tape.

Young and his staff (all 12 of them) constantly jury-rigged a patchwork network that crashed with such regularity, faculty, staff and students at the Geneva, N.Y., sister schools tired of reporting outages.

"After a while, it was just accepted that the system was down," Young remembers. "We didn't get many calls."

But even when working, bandwidth limitations were galling; 1,800 students shared a data pipe only slightly wider than a broadband-connected home, Young said. Internet access was first-come, first-serve, frustrating students on deadline and dissuading professors from moving coursework online.

Enter Enterasys . The Portsmouth, N.H., telecom equipment maker recently linked 90 HWS buildings on 180 acres into a gigabit Ethernet backbone and provided back-up, security and network management software. The switchover took about six months.

"Now we can support high-speed video conferences between students and alumni overseas, and we have the capability to add wireless access," Young said. "It's a 24-7 learning network."

As wary corporate customer continue to delay large purchases, IT companies are targeting an oft-overlooked, but still growing market -- higher education. Competing for students, U.S. colleges and universities are spending billions of dollars to wire dorms (admission recruiters tout "plug-per-pillow" capabilities), install 802.11 hubs and enable distance learning programs.

Could going back to school could help vendors pass the recession test? Sean Gallagher, an analyst with Eduventures, a Boston research firm thinks so.

"Tech companies are looking to (higher education) as an area of growth when everything has gone south," Gallagher said. "There is still a push for hardware, software and infrastructure in that market. Colleges took a wait-and-see approach with new technologies and are buying now."

A key demand for area of growth for many vendors is building a wireless campus that allows authorized users to tap into school computer systems through laptops and handheld devices. Drexel University in Philadelphia was among the forerunners to cut the cords, installing a wireless system in 2000. Locally, Bentley College, a Waltham, Mass., business college was an early adopter of technology.

Prospective students like the idea of checking e-mail, review study materials posted on class Web sites, and completing assignments untethered, Gallagher said. And with average tuition costs rising ($17,123 for a four-year private school, $3,754 for a four-year public school, according to the College Board) parents expect more for their money.

Additionally, schools are upgrading back-end systems like enerprise resource planning software and databases to improve the administration's efficiency. Security measures including virtual private networks (VPNs) and intrusion protection software are also paramount for schools which now keep confidential academic and billing information in their systems.

Among those doing brisk business are Redmond, Wash., software giant Microsoft and Redwood City, Calif., database firm Oracle .

In addition, Peoplesoft is doing making more sales in the market. For example, the Pleasanton, Calif., maker of human resource and supply chain management software recently helped James Madison University replace its balky 1977-era batch COBOL system.

In all, Eduventures predicts the overall U.S. college and university spending a will hit $5 billion this year, up from $4.7 billion last year.

And others want in. Last week, NaviSite tapped college and university IT managers to learn how to better serve the market. The Andover, Mass., company wants to run library management systems, e-mail, portals, and enterprise resource planning for schools.

"The feedback . . . will be crucial for developing managed hosting services tailored to the industry," said Steve Kirchoff, NaviSite's executive vice president of sales and marketing.

University technology officials are only too happy to sit on these panels, knowing that in the long run, new technology will make their jobs easier, and eliminate the need to cobble together solutions using duct tape and other materials on hand.

"The learning network has allowed our department to get information we need when we need it," Young said.