University targets IT budget for cost savings

By Jennifer Calfas, Daily Staff Reporter
Published January 9, 2013

The University’s Information Technology Council — a group of professors, administrators and staff members that develop IT policy for the University — is striving to enhance its reputation through a two-year-old initiative called NextGen Michigan, which plans to reduce the costs of IT services for the University while simultaneously improving its overall service.

ITC is working to consolidate many services, such as servers, data, e-mailing and storage, to cut costs, avoid redundancy and provide a better service for everyone, according to Laura Patterson, the University’s Chief Information Officer.

“We’re building a shared service where many people can come together and provide a service to everyone on campus,” Patterson said. “In doing that, you are able to both drive down the cost efficiently and improve the service overall that’s being provided to everyone.”

This year, NextGen started a shared service in the University administration; next year the initiative will work with the different schools and colleges to develop specific IT infrastructures.

“The IT work that stays in the schools and colleges is directly focused on supporting the faculty and supporting teaching and learning,” Patterson said. “Those schools and colleges will be running that special software, but everyone will be using the shared infrastructure to drive down costs.”

University Provost Philip Hanlon, who helped approve the NextGen program, said in an interview that he hopes pieces of the University’s $300 million IT budget will be used more efficiently as a result of the program.

He added that even if the new services cause the department to be under budget, the department will not see cuts in the amount of spending it is allowed.

Instead, money will be invested in new projects, such as research computing and learning technologies, Hanlon said. “The actual spending will go up, but it will be less than it would be otherwise.”

Hanlon cited an integrated server system for the entire campus as one of the chief ways that the University intends to reduce costs in the future. Previously, units and entities within the University ran their own server systems, each equipped to meet peak demand. However, since peak demand for each system doesn't come at the same time, Hanlon said it’s more economical to create one large server system for all units and entities.

"It sounds like it’s a major capital expense that you wouldn’t otherwise have, but remember that all across the University people are replacing their servers all the time," Hanlon said.

He added that the University contracted with Accenture, a large technology consulting firm, to determine where best to target cost savings and improve efficiency.

According to both Patterson and Hanlon, there will also be staffing changes in the IT department to enhance savings and adjust to new changes.

“It would be a wonderful thing if we were able to achieve these savings and have no firings at all,” Patterson said.

Hanlon noted that the University will try to achieve staff reductions through attrition rather than layoffs.

Patterson added that there will be an impact on the workforce in order to change some jobs to focus on new technologies.

“We don’t want to be running as much of the commodities,” Patterson said. “ … We want to invest more in those technologies that make Michigan a great university so that students and faculties come here knowing that there is top-notch technology available for them.”

Previously, the NextGen initiative focused on changing the University’s e-mail, which included a group of 47 different e-mail services. For this project, NextGen collaborated with Google for a 10-year contract that started in October 2011.

According to Patterson, 160,000 accounts now exist under the University’s Google space. Students and faculty are able to use Google products like Calendar, Hangout and Drive for classes, student organizations and other necessities.

Patterson added Google's mobile capabilities made it increasingly attractive for students used to checking other services and email on-the-go.

However, the transition to Google-based products has not been seamless. ITC is working with Google to improve the accessibility of screen readers — a software application that identifies what is displayed on the screen — since current versions do not work well with Google services right now. Last October, Patterson addressed leaders of the Central Student Government and Rackham Student Government, notifying them that Google was not meeting the University’s accessibility standards.

Patterson said Google will be developing its own screen readers to solve the problem.

NextGen also coordinated M+Box — a partnership with online storage company Box allows for safe and easy file sharing. Along with the University of California, Berkeley; Indiana University; Cornell University; University Notre Dame; University of Illinois and Carnegie Melon University, the University started using Box to allow students and faculty to share files with each other while still given protection by authorizing files.

As the ITC continues to make more changes, Patterson said ultimately they hope to move to next generation technologies to accommodate student and faculty use of mobile devices.

Daily News Editor Peter Shahin contributed to this report

Correction appended: A previous version of this article misstated the University's IT budget.