We sat down with Matt Lawson, Principal Architect at NetApp to talk about how he thinks 2016 will shape up for campus CIOs.  With twenty years’ experience in enterprise-level IT in higher education, Matt brings a thoughtful perspective to the conversation.  Keep reading below to see what Matt sees as being the key drivers for IT investment.

GovDataDownload (GDD): What were some of the big trends in IT for universities and colleges in 2015?

Matt Lawson (ML): From my perspective there were three significant issues that campus CIOs were focused on in 2015 – information security, funding, and capitalizing on the data that’s generated by myriad systems on campus.  Underpinning them all is how to leverage the data in order to provide students with a better educational experience, improve compute capacity for researchers, and enable administrators to make more informed decisions in areas as diverse as admissions and capital investments.

One of the key things to remember with higher education is that while the IT leaders I talked to were all coalescing around these themes, each university, or college’s ability to execute on their IT vision varies widely based on individual budgets. It’s much easier to make headway in these areas for institutions that are well funded with big budgets, but for the majority of campus CIOs, it’s always an issue of compromise and strategically applying limited resources to maximize return on investment.

GDD: What do you see as being the biggest innovations for 2016 that Campus CIOs will want to embrace?

ML: The most significant innovations for campus IT will take place on the backend.  Infrastructure convergence – that is bringing together networks, storage, and compute capabilities into a cohesive environment – is an IT revolution that I’d encourage campus IT leaders to embrace.  Converged systems enable the integration of infrastructure stacks and data silos into a single environment, which brings with it many benefits.  Not only does having a converged infrastructure reduce operational costs, but it also reduces overall total cost of ownership because it requires less data center space, but enables faster and more efficient operations.

Along with converged infrastructure, big data analytics will continue to be a big conversation in the coming year.  Big data analytics fall into three buckets for campus IT teams and their constituents.  First, IT teams will want to explore solutions that provide real time insight into how network and storage infrastructure is being used.  These tools help to pinpoint areas – from storage to enterprise licenses — to ensure that they’re operating at optimal capacity and not being underutilized, or swamped to the point of system failure.  In this way, IT administrators get more accurate information, can move loads, and add or reduce licenses as needed.  This analytics-driven insight ensures that budget is not being squandered on items that are not required and redirected to areas where they can be better used, or even invested in major infrastructure projects.

Secondly, administrators can use big data analytics initiatives to improve student outcomes and learning.  For example, learning management systems can look at data on student engagement based on their interaction during online classes to show areas where students are tuning out.  This information when placed in the hands of teaching staff can help them re-engage students, target information to support them in areas where they are struggling, and improve course results.  All of this information and increased engagement ultimately leads to improved graduation rates.

Finally, these analytics solutions are of great benefit to campus security.  With student safety being such a big issue in 2015, campus security leaders should be, if they’re not already, looking for solutions that allow them to analyze and apply the many data sources that provide information about threats to safety.  The problem that many teams face is that they have lots of data sources – everything from video feeds, to emergency call boxes, to social media feeds – but they can’t join the dots between these disparate sources of information to create an accurate picture of threats to campus and student safety.  The types of analytics tools that are now available can analyze video data, social media, and other information-rich data and combine them into a cohesive picture quickly, if not in real-time.

The goal of all of these analytics initiatives is to ensure that campus IT departments are working smarter and more efficiently to maximize resource usage for the benefit of the entire campus community.

GDD: What investments would you encourage IT teams at institutions of higher education to make in the coming year?

ML: Given that most universities and colleges are operating with tight resources to fund IT projects, I would counsel CIOs to focus on information security investments in 2016.  University and college systems are immense repositories of highly sensitive data – from research data to federally protected student records, personally identifiable information and protected health information – creating a target rich environment for malicious actors.

Campus information systems are always under attack, but I foresee the number and sophistication of attacks against higher educational institutions trending upwards.  Not only are the types of data stored in college systems lucrative for short term gains, but they are integral to the profile building activities that many malicious actors are engaging in these days.  One of the most sophisticated attacks I’ve learned about is the siphoning of data and academic records in order to build phony profiles for student loan applications and financial aid requests.  If they can execute this attack, the malicious actor creates a virtual ATM, and the affected students are left with a nightmare scenario in order to reclaim their identity and financial reputation.

While traditional data security solutions can alert to malicious activities, I would encourage CIOs to look at upending their traditional ideas of how to build their data storage infrastructure.  In order to provide the next generation of protection, CIOs need to stop building and nurturing data silos and instead reduce the number of attack surfaces by creating shared and converged infrastructure with role-based access.  With fewer points of vulnerability and surfaces to attack, not only will IT teams be able to identify malicious activity more quickly and terminate an attacker’s access, but it will take less time to restore data integrity and return systems to normal operations.

Interested in learning more about how investment in data infrastructure – from network to storage and compute power – can revolutionize campus life?  You can find solutions here.