Technology Takeover: ITS Keeps Oxy Wired

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At an unmarked, secure room on campus, Informational Technology Services (ITS) staff maintains the college’s critical data center. The center holds 100 college servers and 68.8 Terrabytes of data storage—equivalent to the storage space available on 17,612 Macbook Pros combined — that handle the business of the institution, from registration to fundraising to human resources files. The secure facility features numerous air
conditioning units to regulate the tightly controlled environment, a waterless fire suppression system and extended backup power capabilities through a massive battery unit and a dedicated diesel-generator link.

Keeping the data center functioning at all times is the number one priority of Associate Vice President of ITS James Uhrich and his team of over 20 ITS staff members. The department is responsible, as Uhrich explains it, for just about every piece of college equipment that plugs in, except lighting. Included with the large amount of servers and storage are 50 databases that handle college business, 1500 computers, 64 classrooms with technology and hundreds of telephones.

“We have a fairly large infrastructure we need to support,” Uhrich said. “There’s no lack of challenges when it comes to managing the finances of keeping our systems running.”

Students, staff and faculty have complained about technology at Occidental, from the Internet connection to the old computers and software in the library. Last spring, dozens of faculty signed on to a letter formally complaining about classroom technology not working and not being fixed promptly.

Uhrich understands the high expectations students, staff, faculty and administrators have for the utilization of technology on campus.

“It is a challenge to meet ever-increasing and frequently-changing demands, but we are absolutely committed to meeting them as best as we can,” Uhrich said.

Associate Vice President of Scholarship Technology Marsha Schnirring observed that students often come to the college with the expectation that technology will function as smoothly on campus as in their individual homes.

“Think about multiplying that by 2,000 students who live here and all the staff, faculty and administrators,” Schnirring said.

Uhrich notes that Occidental currently spends a smaller percentage of its budget on technology than do peer institutions, but it is attempting to change that. A $5 million endowed gift from alumnus and trustee Dave Berkus ’62 earmarked for technology will certainly help. However, Berkus’ gift was blended, meaning that some of it will be paid in the short-term while the rest will be deferred until later, according to Vice President of Institutional Advancement Shelby Radcliffe.

Uhrich says that his department has yet to see an increase in funding from Berkus’s gift, but that will not stop his department from moving forward on numerous projects this summer. ITS will upgrade its data storage along with completing numerous other projects, but internet connectivity continues to be a high priority.

“I am very mindful of the need for more wireless connectivity,” Uhrich said, cautioning that increasing wireless coverage is not as easy as paying a little bit more money to the Internet provider.

In the past, ITS had been so pressured to get the entire campus covered by wireless that they did not prioritize the capacity of the system to handle multiple users at the same time. Wireless access points and associated wireless switches could not handle the traffic, especially when confronted with the exponential growth of the popularity of wireless-connected devices on campus and student usage of high-bandwidth websites.

Recently, ITS has switched to a capacity strategy that can deal with all of the demands in a given area of campus. Recently, ITS upgraded Occidental’s main internet switch leading off campus, raising its capacity from 1Ggb to 10Ggbs. That is one of the fastest connections among peer schools. Meanwhile, ITS added 145 wireless access points in the summer of 2013, mostly in residence halls – a 40 percent increase in wireless access points on campus. Each wireless access point increases capacity and connects to switches which handle multiple access points, funneling the connection towards the main switch.

This summer, the department plans to add more access points, as well as upgrade switches. Dozens of wireless access points connect to these older switches, which may be slowing down internet performance. ITS also plans to add a secondary Internet source to campus, allowing a quick backup should the primary source fail.

Printing presents another frequent issue for ITS. According to Uhrich, the switch to Ricoh from Cannon for printing services, coupled with the swipe-to-print program instituted two years ago, has saved the college a great deal of money. On average, 18 percent of print jobs never get picked up with a conventional system.

However, given the still high amount of printing on campus, ITS officials still say there is more work to do. In 2013, 230 campus network printers handled 6.1 million clicks. One double-sided page equals two clicks. It is common for students to print 2,000 pages per semester and, according to Uhrich, one student even printed 10,000 pages in a semester. He stressed that ITS removes names and information about what is bring printed before examining the statistics.

Uhrich points out that almost all of Occidental’s peer institutions have some type of regulation on printing, be it a quota or a a per-page charge.

“I have said this before, I think we need to have a quota on printing. You have to create a disincentive,” Uhrich said, although he noted that it is not ultimately his decision to make.

Uhrich cautioned that any decision on a student printing quota would involve a comprehensive campus-wide discussion that accounts for student, staff and faculty concerns. The quota would also initially be set high enough so as to only affect the small percentage of students who print the most.

Occidental’s enterprise-wide database system, Banner, is less familiar to students but plays a critical role in student and administrative tasks. Students encounter Banner through MyOxy when they register for classes, fill out timesheets and more. The system handles everything from fundraising to accounting.

The college first adopted Banner in the mid-1990s. It is designed specifically for institutions of higher education. The program has been updated regularly since, but it does not fit every single use optimally.

“By their very nature, products that try to do everything do very little perfectly,” Radcliffe said, explaining that she is always considering and tracking potential new products to handle fundraising work.

However, she put any immediate plans to use a fundraising-specific system on hold when she found significant inefficiencies in how Banner was being used.

“It’s been very easy to do better with what we have,” Radcliffe said.

Radcliffe noted that many of the top-end, ideal systems for fundraising are meticulously developed for massive fundraising operations and, as a result, fall outside of Occidental’s budget. Radcliffe also noted that alumni relations is aggressively pursuing new programs that will help it better connect with alumni, especially recent graduates.

In recent years, Occidental has stepped up its efforts to improve its technology, and the intersection between technology and scholarship, according to Uhrich. Since the Vice President of Information Resources left, President Jonathan Veitch has decided not to fill that position but rather meet with department heads, Vice President of Finance and Planning Amos Himmelstein and Vice President of Academic Affairs and Dean of the College Jorge Gonzalez, together. The college also maintains an information resource leadership group, which includes ITS, Library Services and Scholarship Technology.

ITS is split into five groups: media development, networking and operations, institutional information systems, support services and budget and project management. Networking and operations is largely responsible for Internet connectivity, while institutional information systems handles database analysis and support for the college’s financial business. Support services together with the Technology Help Desk provides assistance to community members in accessing technology. They handled a large portion of the 5,371 requests for service that ITS responded to in 2013.

Bob Kieft, the college’s librarian, is responsible for procuring databases, articles, books and other information resources and making them available to students. According to Schnirring, Scholarship Technology is broken up into two groups. One group directly supports faculty too leverage the college’s technological resources for effective teaching and research. The other group, the Center for Digital Learning and Research (CDLR), constantly tracks, experiments with and helps to develop new technologies and apply them to scholarly projects. It is best known for maintaining the Global Forum media wall in Johnson Hall and hosting the 3-D printer, or Digital Production Studio, on the ground floor of the Academic Commons.

Scholarship Technology recently acquired several grants to supplement its budget. Multiple grants from the Mellon Foundation have been used for hiring post-doctoral fellows and funding digital liberal arts technologies.

Meanwhile, the department continues to work with students to develop content for the Johnson Global Forum media wall. Much of the work on the wall can actually be found behind it, wherecustomized computer racks were built into the tight space and white backing was installed to help light from the wall reflect outwards. For Scholarship Technology, ITS and other high-level college officials, the centerpiece of the new McKinnon Center represents Occidental’s commitment to technology and innovation.