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Technology on campus falls short

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Technology at CSU-Pueblo needs an overhaul. Photo by Dustin Cox
Technology at CSU-Pueblo needs an overhaul.
Photo by Dustin Cox

Technology at Colorado State University-Pueblo is almost a decade behind that of similar institutions. While the university has seen growth in both the freshmen class and international students, there is concern that without the proper upgrades and repairs, the technology deficit might have a negative impact on enrollment and retention.

“Unfortunately, we have lost the competitive edge,” said Jim Wiley, information technology director for CSU-Pueblo’s Associated Students’ Government.

“In order to do my job and my homework, I’ve had to rely on non-campus resources for my internet access. I’ve decided to pay $20 extra per month on my cell phone plan so I can have the mobile hotspot services attached to that,” he said. “It is more expensive for me, and I feel like I’m already paying funds for the technology here at the school, and expect that it (the school) would be able to provide that required resource to me.”

Wiley, who lives on campus and works as a resident assistant, sits on the Technology Fee Committee as part of his IT director duties.  He is making it his priority to identify the technology issues that plague CSU-Pueblo and explore every option available to bring the campus in-line with current standards.

According to Wiley, the residence halls are especially unpredictable when it comes to Internet access.  He has found that the current levels do not allow students to use Netflix or any formats that require Internet streaming or downloads.  That leaves cable TV as the only source of entertainment for students living on campus, which he feels is unacceptable.

When he first started investigating complaints about internet access, Wiley found that campus technology was far behind that required of a contemporary university.

Earlier this year, Global Technology Resources, Inc. performed an audit of the technology systems at CSU-Pueblo.

“They came in and took a look at all the routers, all the wireless access points, all the servers, all the mainframes, everything computer related in the entire campus,” Wiley said, “They gave us a breakdown of what things are at a critical stage and what things need to change immediately.”

Of the many problems found during the audit, several issues are of particular concern and need to be addressed as soon as possible.

Of the major switches in each building that send out cables to all the classrooms and the wireless routers, only 10 percent use a modern IT standard.  That means 90 percent of the switches are running with a much slower internet capability, and only 13 percent of the switches are covered by some sort of repair warranty.

“One of the reasons we have so much down time is these switches. When they aren’t able to handle the load they fail, and they aren’t supported, so there’s no immediate solution we can use.  We have to bring in other hardware or try to offload the capacity,” Wiley said. “These aren’t solutions; they are temporary band-aids, temporary fixes.”

“One point that the network assessment gave us was that only 16 percent of the switches and networking gear in the buildings is gigabit Ethernet capable, which is 1000 megabits per second,” he said.

The gigabit is an industry standard that was adopted eight years ago and installed to replace megabit Ethernet, which is between ten and 100 megabits per second.  According to the assessment, 84 percent of the switches on campus are operating at these significantly slow speeds, and this affects the usability of every computer on campus.

“The gigabit technology that is expected, and that we don’t have, is something that’s now available in wireless, yet we don’t even have gigabit wired technology,” Wiley said.

This deficiency is only one of the areas of concern.  Another substantial issue is the inefficient cooling systems for the data centers in the library and administration building.

These mainframes run all of the campus websites, contain all long-term data storage, and run all the profiles that are synced, and they generate a lot of heat.

According to Wiley, the temperatures in the data centers are consistently around 80 degrees or higher, which can be damaging to the hardware.  He equated the situation to driving a car with an overheated engine, but never pulling over to check it.

Since replacing the cooling systems will be expensive, the short-term solution has been to extend the warranties on the equipment and call for repairs when something goes wrong.  Unfortunately, this is another temporary band-aid, prolonging the problem.

The network assessment team made several recommendations after examining all the areas of technology at the university.

One is to replace the old Hewlett Packard equipment with extreme network equipment.  This would give users on campus up to ten times the connection speed which, according to Wiley, would be up to par for a university like CSU-Pueblo.

“That is made possible by putting in single fiber cables instead of the coaxial cables that are used for standard network transmissions,” he said. “They would run between buildings and carry up to 20 gigabits per second.”

Another recommendation would improve the wireless on campus.  This is one area where many students have experienced problems.  Because so many people use multiple devices simultaneously, such as cell phones, tablets and laptop computers, the connectivity requires three times the resources.

Without the correct capabilities, students get “kicked off” the network, or speeds are extremely slow.

According to the assessment, part of the issue is the number of wireless routers on campus.

“Right now we’re at 230 for the entire campus.  What would be standard for a campus of this size, with this many people, is 800. So we are 570 wireless routers short,” he said. “It was recommended that we have closer to 1600 to 1900 to actually have coverage outside, on the practice fields, by the football stadium and these outdoor areas, to provide that additional level to everybody who comes to experience the campus, not just students in the buildings.”

“Wireless routers are like sprinkler heads.  If you were to compare our sprinkler technology to our wireless technology, we would have dead grass across 90 percent of campus.”

To complete all the upgrades and repairs recommended by the assessment would cost the university approximately $2.3 million.  Although a $3 million need for technology upgrades was mentioned during the Board of Governors meeting this past spring, it was not set in stone.

“It caused so much excitement across campus that it was a bit overblown,” Wiley explained. “There was no commitment.  But there is still quite a bit of interest in the state of IT, and I feel like it’s still a topic of discussion, and there are still efforts to direct funds toward IT, but nothing is active.”

At the recent Board of Governors meeting, the topic was reintroduced, and CSU-Pueblo’s need for technology funding was reiterated by ASG President Timothy Zercher and others in attendance. Wiley will be working on a proposal addressing those needs, and university leadership can present it at the next meeting in December, along with the request for funding.

In the meantime, Wiley wants to safeguard any channels of funding to make sure that the money doesn’t get redirected, and that it’s able to accumulate so that the needed changes can be made as quickly as possible.

He estimates that it will take $600 thousand each semester over the course of three years to roll out the proposed upgrades one by one, starting with the cooling system and then revamping all the wireless networks across campus.

At this point, funding is the major roadblock that is forcing CSU-Pueblo to remain technologically deficient.  Wiley said there are a couple of options that can help bridge the gap until funding is approved.  One is encouraging departments to submit proposals to upgrade their own wireless.

“I applaud (the Hasan School of Business) for taking the initiative and resolving their issue.  They are paying a portion of the cost of all those upgrades and they submitted a specific grant proposal to the student tech fee committee, which all departments are welcome to do.  They did it for their wireless network,” Wiley said. “They saw what was critical for the success of their students, and they pursued the money for that purpose.”

Another option is redirecting all the funds from the student technology fee toward the wireless infrastructure.  This would mean that all departments would have to forfeit their requests for new equipment.  Wiley said this is not “in the spirit of the tech fee,” which has always been for small upgrades within specific departments.

To find other options, Wiley has put together an IT fundraising committee that will look into creative ways to find or save money, and make technology cheaper on campus.  An idea that has been discussed is giving students access to electronic textbooks through inexpensive, open-source libraries.  It is just one cost saving proposal that the committee is working on.

Wiley is confident that CSU-Pueblo will eventually have the technology to compete, but it will take time.

“While we have a competitive edge in athletics and in other areas like business, we don’t have the competitive edge as far as technology goes,” he said. “While our enrollment is improving significantly, part of the recruiting process isn’t signing on students to the network and seeing how they like our internet access. As soon as students come here and experience that, I hope that they don’t have second thoughts about why they chose to come here.”