Computing & Technology Services at SUNY Potsdam, like virtually any IT support shop anywhere, fills a number of roles and provides a wide variety of functions. From direct user support, to administrative programming, physical infrastructure, telecommunications, and hosted network services, not to mention strategic planning for the college across all these areas and beyond. It is my pleasure to work in the Host & Network Services group of CTS. And yet, we face an uncertain future.

The HNS team is responsible for virtually all hosted services at SUNY Potsdam, the datacenters in which they reside, as well as the network (wired and wireless) on which it all runs. Much of what we do is infrastructure, the critical and invisible: the local area network, wireless, Internet 1/2 connectivity, DNS, LDAP directory services, all aspects of the web, email scanning/delivery/storage, datacenter power and cooling, remote and off-site backups, virtualization, network access control, storage engineering, filesystem management and provisioning, various forms of clustering beneath Banner/BearPAWS, email, LDAP, etc. We also provide and manage many of the local network applications for the the campus: printing, file-serving, calendaring, LMS Blackboard/Moodle, Webwork, PACES services, library applications such as Illiad and Webproxy, the RT tracking system, antivirus, VPN, etc, and dozens of other highly specific campus/office-use applications too numerous to name. And of course, an untold number of behind-the-scenes monitoring and management systems developed to administer the environment.

For over ten years, HNS has prided itself on a commitment to open-source and locally-developed software. This focus has fostered innovation and local expertise in numerous disciplines across the enterprise, and provided huge year-over-year cost-savings. We pay almost nothing for operating-system licensing, basing our entire operation on the open-source operating system Linux. We pay nothing for our virtualization infrastructure, making use of open-source tools, and locally developed methods. Our storage paradigm is based on a novel, cost-effective technology that scales infinitely. Time and again we have chosen to innovate to exceed expectation rather than purchase to meet expectation: developing the knowledge necessary to handle and keep pace with the complexities of a system rather than buying expensive black boxes to put on the network, developing code locally for automation and integration with other systems as opposed to approaches that would have cost tens-of-thousands of dollars, building our own solutions and taking advantage of novel concepts for a fraction of the cost of contemporary solutions, and in general, putting a premium on understanding, knowledge, automation, and innovation.

Aside from the raw cost savings from many of the directions we have chosen, this knowledge commitment has allowed us to keep pace with increasing demands using finite resources. Ten years ago: dozens of servers, hundreds of services… 4 staff. Now: hundreds of servers, thousands of services, plus wireless, and voip, vending, HVAC and all manner of things running on the network… 4 staff. Flat budget. Despite this, we have continually coded, innovated, and built our way forward to higher levels of efficiency and achievement, staying ahead of the curve, aiding our staff retention and recruitment efforts, and providing exceptional levels of service to the campus.

Despite being in a successful, stable, position, able to look ahead at new directions and continually improve existing ones, it seems like a watershed moment for HNS. Did we achieve this just in time for obsolescence?

The industry has changed remarkably over the last ten years. Where once the local hosting professionals of the IT support organization were the only option in town, the always-decreasing costs of processing and bandwidth have made remote hosting (or grid, or cloud, or whichever marketing term du jour) an increasingly serious option. The pros and cons of cloud computing have been covered ad nauseum everywhere: widened services, reduced staffing pressure and hardware costs, in trade for loss of control, potential loss of privacy, and new security concerns. In CTS, we have generally not felt a great need to look at outsourcing to the cloud given that we stand to gain relatively little over our current (mostly free) service offerings, and to lose relatively much in privacy, control, certainty.

In addition, over the last year the SUNY Shared Services and Systemness initiatives have come into being. The first, to target some specific campuses for administrative collaboration and re-alignment, in our case merging services with our neighbor SUNY Canton. The second, a SUNY-wide re-evaluation of processes and methods for greater system-wide efficiency and cohesion in all things, not just IT. Though they began somewhat ignominiously about a year ago, the goals are noble and have generally been embraced by the SUNY community. Specific to technology, there is some real direction taking shape on some core ideas around common student information systems, centralized hosting of services, and dis-incentives for not using common applications.

But a system-wide re-visioning to common standards, platforms, and practices will inevitably have a flattening effect: in some aspects, a given campus might gain, and in others it might lose. For instance, a campus struggling to host a service would gain immensely if SUNY decided to offer that service centrally in a standard fashion. But if that campus handled that service with aplomb, highly-customized and tailored to their business practices (as we achieve), it may lose functionality in a central model. In other cases, it may come down to cost. It will be a tough sell if a given directive adheres to centralizing concepts, but is both less functional and more expensive than current campus practices.

For the local hosting team, so far this means looking at dismantling services and possibly lowering the bar to fit it into standard SUNY practice and off-site hosting. There are definitely advantages to be gained for this trade-off, but there has not been much discussion about the effects of this transition on the teams across SUNY that have been providing these services since their inception. In our case, we already see core services (Banner, email, Illiad) targeted for changes that practically remove us from the equation, and could be much more expensive than the local offerings we have honed and perfected over the years, for little or no functional gain. Across SUNY, generalists on the hosting teams often provide behind-the-scenes leadership in technology, and if their function recedes, campuses may find themselves needing to find this leadership elsewhere.

Losing core services from the local datacenter does not bode well for the future of a group like Host & Network Services, where a culture of innovation has led to a great deal of pride and success over the last ten years. In fact, it has been a morale hit to a group that has provided services at a high level for a very long time. It is the nature of this business that when you are doing your job, no one knows you exist. Unfortunately that means we are susceptible to not being noticed when we need to be. We think we have something special to offer to this process, and are trying to work with SUNY to be involved in shaping these central offerings (currently with email). That is something at least, though it may not be enough.