Resources

5 Top IT Challenges in High Education

White Paper

And How Digital Infrastructure Management Can Help

Today’s higher education institutions are reinventing themselves. They have to in order to compete in today’s fast-paced economy.

In the 1980s, university computer science and engineering departments began using the Internet, but widespread adoption didn’t occur until the mid-90s. And, it wasn’t until the early 2000s that students had unlimited access to Internet services on campuses across the United States.

However, higher education is about much more than just Internet accessibility. Today’s students expect “always-on” connectivity on their laptops, iPads and smart phones. They thirst for nontraditional learning environments, open access to content, electronic-driven repositories, IoT devices, enhanced security and much more.

To accommodate these needs, colleges and universities have had to undergo a transformation – one that redefines the digital services they offer to students.

But with change comes challenges. And IT teams are now facing an unprecedented array of them. For starters, they need to juggle major changes in technology, shifting user requirements/preferences, and evolving learning models. They must also contend with the ever-growing reliance on network connectivity and the expectation of anytime, anywhere access.

As if these challenges aren’t enough, there are also budget constraints to consider. Several recent studies, including one from The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, show that in nearly every state, funding for higher education remains lower than it was prior to the start of the recession in 2008.

With cost control a priority, IT teams have struggled to make the significant changes needed to deliver better IT services more consistently. Instead, they scramble daily to fight technology brush fires like sluggish performance, spotty outages, access point failures and security problems.

On a more strategic level, poor IT performance can create a reputation for having subpar technology resources, which can seriously undercut an institution’s ability to recruit the best and brightest.

Here are five challenges that higher education IT teams face when tasked with delivering better IT services more consistently, along with solutions facilitated by a digital infrastructure management solution. This type of solution collects, analyzes and reports on the health your infrastructure, giving you complete visibility at all times.

Challenge 1: Meeting Wireless Connectivity Expectations

College and university IT departments are expected to provide reliable, high-speed wireless connectivity 24/7. For students, faculty and staff, this is an absolute necessity.

Meeting this expectation has become more and more challenging, especially since many campuses have wireless infrastructures that weren’t built to handle today’s requirements. Most of these networks were designed for lighter duty and are missing the mark on saturation coverage, high throughput and “always on” availability. With limited access points, aging gear and outdated protocols, many of these networks simply can not get the job done.

Given how much of the higher education experience is now managed and delivered digitally, wireless network downtime, or even just sluggish performance, can cause major problems, including:

  • Disruption of educational processes: When access problems keep students from obtaining necessary materials, derail in-class activities, or force professors to reschedule lectures or exams, it causes disruptions that ripple throughout a campus.
  • Lost staff productivity: The business side of higher education grinds to a halt when administrators and other staff can’t access the financial and operational systems and applications they use to keep things running smoothly.
  • High recovery costs: When there are wireless outages or performance drop-offs – and expert teams are called in on a rush basis to fix them – recovery costs can mount quickly.
  • Reputational damage: Frequent wireless outages or consistently poor connectivity rightly causes complaints from faculty, students and staff. If left unaddressed, this can undermine an institution’s image.

Solution 1: Implement a digital infrastructure management solution that provides real-time and historical views of wireless network performance.

IT teams in higher education need better ways to assess their wireless networking infrastructures, and how they’re performing the job at hand. They need a clear view of the densification of coverage, including the number of access points (APs) and their locations, throughput capacities and usage histories. IT teams also need to know what’s behind their access points, including how on-campus network traffic gets routed and to which destinations, their IP address pools, DNS resources, etc.

For example, in one 300-seat auditorium, a single AP is sufficient because, due to the nature of courses taught in that room, there are never 300 concurrent users accessing the wireless network. In an identical room, the IT team may need to provision three or four APs because classes taught in that room feature spot quizzes that require every student to access the system simultaneously.

Some systems use polling intervals that are too long, or only provide data on average wireless connections. Averages aren’t very useful for IT teams who need access to the raw, granular connection data to make accurate assessments and sound decisions. For example, the 100,000 connections made at a football stadium during a game shouldn’t be averaged across the full day. They should be shown as a spike from 1 to 4 p.m. That way, IT teams know what they need to provision in the afternoon. In the same way, it’s important for IT teams to see traffic spikes at night when nobody is at the stadium, for security reasons.

Historical data establishes baselines for normal, expected wireless traffic. Those baselines, along with real-time visibility into actual connections, give IT teams complete end-to-end visibility of the network.

With digital infrastructure management systems, IT teams can understand what’s normal in their wireless networks, and get instant alerts when anything exceeds acceptable parameters. That gives them the actionable intelligence they need to fix urgent wireless problems today. It also gives them operational intelligence about deficiencies in their wireless networks that they can use to address less urgent issues over time.

Challenge 2: Taming the Bandwidth Beast

What started as a “bring your own device” (BYOD) challenge for higher education IT teams has morphed into “bring your own everything” (BYOE).

According to an EDUCAUSE study – “The Consumerization of Technology and the Bring-Your-Own-Everything (BYOE) Era of Higher Education” – college students, on average, now own between three and four internet-enabled devices each. And that number is expected to grow over the next several years. Smartphones are ubiquitous on every campus, as are laptops. Tablets are convenient and growing in popularity. Wearable devices like Fitbits have recently popped up on campuses and are also on the rise.

But the bandwidth beast really shows itself when students get back to their dorm rooms. That’s when bandwidth consumption skyrockets with the use of Xbox and PlayStation units, smart TVs and applications like Netflix, Hulu, Skype and others. On top of all that, there’s a plethora of mobile devices and apps used by faculty, administrators and staff.

It all adds up to explosive growth in bandwidth demand and consumption on campus, with no end in sight. The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga is a good example. As reported in Campus Technology, the number of mobile devices on that campus went from 3,833 in 2011 to 18,995 in 2015 – a fivefold increase in just four years.

When bandwidth demands aren’t met and application performance degrades, repercussions always follow. When that happens, IT teams are the ones who get called on the carpet.

Solution 2: Digital infrastructure management solutions give IT teams the foresight they need to manage their bandwidth challenges properly.

A classic case of bandwidth mismanagement happened at a company in Japan. When its offices were damaged by the tsunami, employees were told to work from home. The firm shipped each of them iPads to help them do so. After things were back up and running, the employees brought all the iPads to the office, doubling the number of connected devices. Failing to anticipate the massive increase in needed connections, the IT team quickly ran out of IP addresses. Operations became a chaotic mess with major productivity losses.

The point is that IT teams need to know exactly what bandwidth resources they have available. Equally important, they must be able to anticipate what’s coming. To do that, they need a clear and detailed view of historical bandwidth usage patterns, as well as real-time views of current consumption.

A digital infrastructure management solution provides the visibility and insight needed to manage bandwidth provisioning effectively. IT teams can see who is using what resources, where and when that consumption is occurring, and how current activities compare with historical norms. Alerting on activity that exceeds thresholds helps them react quickly to avoid major problems. Digital infrastructure management solutions also provide data on usage and consumption trends over time, enabling IT teams to anticipate and prepare for new requirements.

Challenge 3: Supporting New Learning Models

As its name indicates, distance learning is the education of students who aren’t physically present at the school. Offering affordability and convenience, many students are choosing online options or hybrid programs that combine both on-campus and online components.

Distance learning is becoming increasingly popular. A recent Babson Research report, Tracking Online Education in the United States, put the number of college students now learning online at more than 7 million.

Whether it’s outbound delivery through distance learning, or pulling in online resources to connected classroom settings, supporting these programs can be a real challenge for IT teams. That’s because they rely on both the campus network and computing resources, an on public networks and other external resources, like cloud services.

There are many different network nodes, hand-offs and communication protocols in play between a class being offered in one location, and a student taking it a thousand miles away. The question is how can IT teams manage all those variables, many of which they neither own nor control?

Solution 3: Ensure that onpremise, public and other privately owned infrastructure elements used in distance learning scenarios can be monitored from a single platform – one that provides complete end-to-end visibility.

For IT teams, the starting point is the ability to see detailed information about the performance of their own infrastructure elements with metrics collected from SNMP, IP SLA and other standard protocols.

Beyond their own gear, IT teams that support distance learning also need to be able to monitor the application performance across external, heterogeneous network components using other protocols at the link, Internet, transport and application layers. In order to spot trouble early and respond quickly, all of the data must be incorporated into the same reporting consoles and workflows they use to monitor and manage their own networks, routers, switches, storage devices and servers.

Digital infrastructure management solutions do just that. They leverage APIs and other technologies to capture KPIs from all network and computing elements – from source to destination – and roll them up onto a single screen. Being able to pivot from one type of data to another or to drill down on any metric within the same interface enables teams to identify and resolve issues more quickly.

For example, SNMP and NetFlow records may show that a certain class of traffic is no longer reaching its destination, so the problem becomes clear. But only with the log data, accessible via the same interface, is the fix revealed – the need to correct a mistake made on a configuration change. This type of visibility and specificity is a large part of the value delivered by digital infrastructure management solutions.

Challenge 4: Rising to the Cybersecuirty Challenge

Higher education institutions are particularly vulnerable to cyber-attacks. One reason is that – unlike other frequently targeted organizations like banks – college and university networks have traditionally been more open. It’s part of the facilitating of a free exchange of ideas.

Another reason higher education is targeted is because there’s lots of material worth stealing within these networks. There’s research and other intellectual property; personal information about students, faculty and staff; financial information about students and their parents; and much more.

In fact, according to a report published in the Journal of College and University Law, there were more than 700 publicly acknowledged data breaches at higher education institutions between 2005 and 2014. These attacks continued at a brisk pace in 2015. Here are just a few high-profile examples:

  • March 2015: The University of Connecticut disclosed an 18-month long cyber-attack of its network in which students’ personal information, including social security numbers and credit card data, was compromised.
  • July 2015: Pennsylvania State University disclosed that networks at two of its colleges had been breached by four separate, sophisticated cyber-attacks.
  • August 2015: The University of Virginia announced that attackers illegally accessed its IT systems and networks, although no personal information appeared to have been compromised.
  • August 2015: Washington State University confirmed that it was the target of a sophisticated cyber-attack in which student and staff email accounts were compromised.

These episodes, and others like them, helped higher education rank as the third-most-popular target of cyber-attackers in Symantec’s 2015 Internet Security Threat Report.

Given the frequency and severity of these attacks, it’s clear that protecting colleges and universities from these damaging attacks will remain a high priority for IT teams for the foreseeable future.

Solution 4: Digital infrastructure management solutions provide real time alerts on anomalous network activities.

Digital infrastructure management solutions aren’t top-tier weapons in the fight against cyber-attacks in higher education. Like other large organizations, colleges and universities protect their networks and information resources with defense-in-depth strategies that include a range of tools, including advanced threat (malware) protection systems, firewalls, intrusion detection/ prevention systems, and end-point security solutions like anti-virus, encryption and authentication technologies.

That said, digital infrastructure management systems can provide valuable security capabilities and insights. Most of these benefits come from the ability to understand, in detail, what types and volumes of network traffic are normal, and what is not. With their broad coverage and granular visibility, digital infrastructure management solutions can quickly spot anomalous network activities and alert IT teams about it – including source and distinguishing characteristics.

For example, these systems can spot the beginnings of a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack, and alert a team about it before it reaches the full-blown stage. They can also quickly identify zero-day attacks from the anomalous activities they initiate.

By developing detailed baselines, and providing granular visibility into network activity and quick alerts about anomalies, digital infrastructure management solutions can strengthen security on campus.

Challenge 5: Leveraging Analytics to Improve Performance

Digitization has come to virtually every function on campus and leaders of these institutions are rightly demanding more visibility into and analysis of this data in order to help improve performance and educational outcomes.

To transform disparate operational data into actionable intelligence, IT teams need dashboard views that show how well they are supporting the institution’s educational operations campus-wide.

To transform disparate operational data into actionable intelligence, IT teams need dashboard views that show how well they are supporting the institution’s educational operations campus-wide.

Simply put, IT teams need better tools to make their case.

Solution 5: Colleges and universities need tools for monitoring their infrastructures that are as dynamic as their networks. IT teams need fast and accurate ways of identifying what has changed, or what needs to change, and why.

Digital infrastructure management solutions make it easier for IT teams to arrive at conclusions about what changes need to be made to their networks and why – and to communicate that information convincingly to their institution’s leadership teams.

With their automated analysis, digital infrastructure management solutions help IT teams:

  • Transition from endless, reactive troubleshooting to proactive problem detection and prevention.
  • Show correlations by pivoting from traditional performance metrics, such SNMP or IP SLA, to insightful flow or log data.
  • Support more effective capacity planning by accurately forecasting when specific resources will reach their capacities, enabling well thought-out decisions about investments in upgrades and replacements.

Conclusion

Institutions of higher learning are now more dependent on their networks and information infrastructures than ever before. As this dependence grows, so does the strategic importance of their IT teams. Colleges and universities now rely on technical staff members to make delivery of a quality educational experience possible.

At the same time, the job of supporting the burgeoning IT needs of a modern college campus becomes more complex and difficult with each passing day.

Digital infrastructure management solutions help address this challenge, by equipping teams to address and overcome the challenges they face on a daily basis. No matter what’s on the technology horizon, how student behaviors and preferences morph, or how teaching models will be reinvented, these systems will help IT teams deliver the technical support and insight required to take college and university campuses through the digital transformation successfully.

To learn more about SevOne’s digital infrastructure management solutions, click here.