A real green field

Imagine a green field just waiting to grow an IT operation capable of supporting 1,000 college students, staff and faculty. You and your team need to set standards and design the systems necessary to make the new school a model research university.

But the pastoral must give way to the practical. We are talking about a real field of 105 acres of grasslands where construction started last November. So, you don’t have many buildings yet. And this is California, land of budget constraints. Oh, and by the way, it all needs to happen before the start of the fall 2005 semester, when those 1,000 students descend upon the campus. Your IT choices now must support projected growth of 900 students per year for the next 30 years.

Any CIO might imagine it, but Rich Kogut is living it.

Kogut is the CIO at the currently under-construction University of California, Merced campus in Merced, Calif. Kogut, whose background includes IT leadership stints at both Georgetown and Brown universities, says the Merced job “is the chance of a lifetime to build a research university.” Still, Kogut says he went into the project with his eyes open, knowing that there would be spending limits. (Merced’s US$20 million from the state budget for the 2004-2005 year includes a one-time US$10 million startup investment. The David and Lucile Packard Foundation donated approximately US$11 million to help establish the university.)

Besides sticking to a budget, and the need to link to University of California systems and to follow public bidding rules, he has few limits on his specific IT choices. Yet there’s a lot riding on each one. As Kogut says: “The good news is we have no legacy, and the bad news is we have no legacy. We have no safety net.”

If a system goes down — say, for voice over IP — there would be no falling back to plain old telephone service, as none would exist (a fact that forces Kogut to be very careful about the technologies he chooses). To that end, he’s constantly looking for partnerships with vendors — such as Sun Microsystems, which won an RFP to provide directory and messaging services for the school — all while still staying within the required competitive bidding framework. Cost-conscious and flexible open-source projects also figure prominently in his thinking.

There are other hurdles too. For instance, “We have the only truly wireless campus, and I say that because we have no wires,” he says, only half jokingly. But the wires are going in as the buildings go higher. And a slow-open schedule that starts with a single biology course taught locally on a leased campus this summer will help Kogut and his group test systems before the first full-time students arrive.

For now, Kogut says, “We’re playing with deadlines, very small resources and just trying to get in the pieces of technology we need. We can’t afford to do a lot, but we want to do it cleanly so we can build on it.”

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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