Whither the IT Staff: Providing a Network without Engineers

min read

[cue Twilight Zone theme music]

Imagine, if you will, a campus, one that has more than 50 buildings across 1,400 acres, with a wired and wireless network that supports voice, video, data, alarms, and other services. Now imagine that the network team disappears—vanished into retirement or to jobs elsewhere—and efforts to rehire those positions fail. What do you do? How do you operate a network without any network engineers?

Such was a question recently posed on the EDUCAUSE CIO discussion list, which took up the charge and provided provocative ideas, leery admonitions, and the Twilight Zone reference. A quick consensus emerged that the situation described would put any CIO into an unenviable position, one fraught with risks because, as one participant noted, “Your network is the foundation for every other piece of technology at your business or institution.” At the same time, a robust, secure network rarely wins accolades—the network tends to be invisible until something goes wrong.

A flurry of suggestions followed, mostly surrounding outsourcing the network, using vendors and consultants in a “managed services” arrangement. Some posts suggested using more student workers for network support. A couple of participants pointed out that their institutions already outsource—or are in the process of outsourcing—services seen as “commodity,” including residence halls, backups, and, yes, the network. Shared services was mentioned as an alternative, one that—because services could be provided by another college or university—might appeal to institutions that have a cultural aversion to cloud computing. Talk of managed or shared services surfaced a list of factors to keep in mind, including redundancy, network segmentation, SLAs, documentation, and 24-hour support.

Then one participant dropped a small bombshell by wondering whether institutions should continue to provide network access. What if students, faculty, and staff had to supply their own network service (as, indeed, many already do for personal devices)?

The conversation turned to what a bring-your-own-network arrangement might look like, particularly in the area of security, and to the changing role of IT. As one person put it,  “[This] can be an opportunity/driver to take a deep breath and ask, how should I reorganize for the future?” The structure of and skills needed in higher education IT departments have been evolving for some time, typically with more questions than answers about attracting and retaining staff, retraining and reorganizing existing groups, and outsourcing functions thought to be generic and non-differentiating. The trend toward focusing in-house resources on value-add functions is clear. What isn’t clear is whether there are limits to what can be transferred to the cloud or another managed-service provider while sustaining needed services and preserving trust in and the credibility of the IT department.

An expanding constellation of services and functions can be migrated off campus in one fashion or another. The decision to outsource any service—or to simply stop providing it, assuming that individual users will bring their own—depends on a long list of considerations, including cost, user needs, staff skills, security requirements, governance, future growth, and risk tolerance. Critical decision making for outsourcing involves assessment of direct impact on constituents, service improvement, and job-function shift. And the factor that influences most of these considerations is culture. As one CIO said to another, “We must have two very different jobs.” There is not a single path for all institutions to follow, but patterns do emerge, providing models for different kinds of institutions to follow and adapt.