Doing More for Less: The Benefits and Practicalities of Collaboration

Key Takeaways

  • At its core, collaboration of any kind relies on timing, trust, and opportunity to succeed, as Emmanuel College and the Massachusetts College of Art and Design demonstrated when colocating their data centers off campus.
  • This trust, built over time between members of the Colleges of the Fenway consortium, also manifests itself in the shared management and governance of the off-site data center facility.
  • The Colleges of the Fenway consortium was critical to the data center colocation effort in other ways as well, as a central administrative resource that coordinated project management, purchasing, and ongoing billing across the two institutions.
  • Whether part of a consortium or not, every other institution of higher education can look for similar opportunities: talk to each other, find the right time, and build trust.

Matthew Burfeind is interim chief information officer, Massachusetts College of Art and Design; and Debbie Pepper is director of operations and collaborative services, Colleges of the Fenway.

Collaboration is a word we hear often, and one that means many things to many people. It can be bumpy or smooth, challenging or painless, complex or simple. Collaboration can take many forms and can happen in many ways, either through formal and established relationships like the ones identified in this article, as part of an initiative that is specifically developed and targeted to gain funding, or as the result of two parties informally recognizing a shared problem. At its core, it relies on timing, trust, and opportunity to be successful.

In reality, collaboration is not always easy, but when done right it can be enormously rewarding, forge important professional relationships, enhance services, and save money. This article illustrates how two colleges in Boston collaborated in a long-term effort to share an offsite data center. It will demonstrate how the relationship was built, how the collaborative project came to fruition, and how other schools might learn from that experience.

Combining Resources

Both institutions, Emmanuel College and the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, are members of the Colleges of the Fenway (COF) consortium. This organization was established 18 years ago by six colleges in the Fenway/Longwood area of Boston in order to maximize their resources and provide better, more innovative services to their combined 16,000 students, while reducing costs for each institution whenever possible. Consortium services include educational opportunities, performing arts, intramurals, cross-registration, global education opportunities, contracts and purchasing, and a shared wide-area network, among other things. In addition to Emmanuel and MassArt, the remaining colleges in the COF include Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences University, Simmons College, Wentworth Institute of Technology, and Wheelock College.

As with most successful collaborations, the basis for this specific project was a common and simultaneous interest among some of the COF schools to move their core server operations off campus. This was prompted in large part by one of the colleges learning that they would be required, due to an impending construction project, to relocate their data center. Their best option was to do so off campus. That project was completed in a very short time, and the vendor who managed the project was then hired by the COF to perform a feasibility study funded by four of the other colleges. The study explored colocation options for their server infrastructures and included an initial assessment of locations and costs, as well as various scenarios under which the colleges could collaborate.

Colocating the Data Centers Off-Campus

After the feasibility study was complete, Emmanuel and MassArt found that their priorities were aligned and agreed to move forward together, with the other schools deciding not to participate at that time. The decisions were made for a variety of reasons. The high cost of real estate in the Fenway area is a concern for all of the colleges, but both Emmanuel and MassArt were facing specific pressure from construction projects that threatened to impact their on-campus data centers. Similarly, the two colleges agreed on the logistical model for a colocation facility: convenience was of greater importance than geographic disparity, often a requirement for disaster recovery solutions. Both were looking for a location within the Boston metro area, convenient to campus but not part of the campus footprint. The chosen provider is located in a Boston suburb, about 15 miles from the campuses.

All of the traditional advantages of a colocation facility were considerations as well. Emmanuel and MassArt both wanted to increase the quality of their core services by colocating in a facility with cleaner, more reliable power; better climate control; and safeguards against natural disasters. Of particular importance was that the chosen facility offers a number of options for managed and cloud-based services (which, in the long term, would obviate the need for geographic disparity).

The colleges looked at various ways to configure the location, including separate cages. Ultimately, they decided to go all in, sharing a single cage and building a network that would connect both schools to the site, provide redundancy and failover, and maintain appropriate separation of data. This was done by creating a triangular network architecture that included point-to-point circuits from each college to the colocation facility, with an additional circuit connecting the two colleges directly. Traffic from each college is load balanced to travel over either route, and in case of a network failure, to fail over to the other college's path. Shared equipment in the cage then routes traffic to each college's network, managed independently within the same cage.

Trust Built through Experience

One reason the traffic routing was possible was because of another collaborative effort the COF had undertaken in 2006, establishing a wide-area network called COFAN that connects all six colleges. In addition to using COFAN for Internet access, as all six colleges do, Emmanuel and MassArt completed the triangle by taking advantage of unused fiber that already connected the colleges. This was done with the permission of the other four colleges, and at no extra cost.

The years of experience that the colleges had working with each other in COF gave them the trust that was needed to make this successful. This trust engendered confidence that deadlines would be met, technical challenges overcome, and that the long-term viability of the relationship would be stable. This trust manifests itself going forward in the shared management and governance of the facility. The COF consortium was critical to this effort in other ways as well, as a central administrative resource that coordinated project management, purchasing, and ongoing billing across the two institutions. The COF involvement is a great example of how collaboration begets collaboration, how a successful effort paves the way for future opportunities, whatever they may be.

The model that COF used to manage this project is something the colleges have agreed to use going forward, given the successful outcomes and benefits. When a potential need is discovered, and at least a couple of schools in the consortium express interest, a high-level, inexpensive analysis will be conducted, funded by the schools with potential interest. When the analysis is complete, the greater depth of understanding will allow the schools to make educated decisions on whether to move forward. Even those that don't participate will benefit from the process, as they will be better prepared should they need to implement something similar in the future.

An African proverb that is the unofficial motto of the Colleges of the Fenway says, "If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together." As you do more together, you are able to travel both farther and faster, as borne out by the experiences of Emmanuel and MassArt in collaborating on a data center.

Going into this project, each college could have moved ahead independently, on their own schedules and without the constraints of working with another institution. But given the timing, as well as the strong levels of trust each organization already had in the other, the opportunity was too good to pass up. In the end, the two colleges were more effective as a team, sharing responsibility and knowledge and pushing each other to succeed. They accomplished more together than they could have on their own.

Whether part of a consortium or not, every other institution of higher education can look for similar opportunities. You just need to talk to each other, find the right time, and build some trust. The opportunities are out there, waiting to be found.