Daniel Sultana, Asia Pacific Regional Director at Paessler, says New Zealand must continue to adapt, invest in robust technology and be willing to be both innovative and measured in these uncertain times.

As New Zealand continues to slowly return to some sort of normalcy, it was welcoming to hear the recent news that a small number of international PhD students will be returning to resume studies at local universities.

Despite disruptions to revenue streams and traditional class formats, local universities have done well to adapt to the COVID-19 circumstances. The recent case of the University of Auckland having to shift exams online quickly when a new community case of COVID-19 was confirmed in Auckland, demonstrates how far the sector has come.

Technology and IT systems have helped greatly in making the transition to online communications easier however, just like the Director-General of Health advises us to take health precautions to protect ourselves during the pandemic, our universities need to ensure their IT networks are constantly monitored to ensure IT infrastructures remain available. It is not just classic IT management their IT departments need to be across these days either, as digital transformation has increased the extent of their responsibilities.

Even before the pandemic, universities were moving towards a virtual learning environment, where course materials and books were being made available on the internet and lectures and workshops were offered through web portals. And now that non-IT systems such as building control or laboratory management are beginning to fall under the IT department’s control, their remit is not only expanding but all of these disparate systems are becoming more challenging to manage efficiently.

Since IT has become so critical to today’s educational institutions, any failures or outages may result in serious consequences for students, researchers as well as teaching and administration staff. IT outages can prevent students from accessing course materials, endanger essential research projects and paralyse the work of the administration and enrolment functions.

To be able to effectively manage such complex and disparate infrastructures, and to prevent any potential IT issues the simple solution is network monitoring. This will provide university IT teams with a comprehensive overview of their entire infrastructure to ensure performance and availability. But, due to the structures and the history of our higher education sector, IT managers face a very specific set of challenges.

Typical challenges

IT environments at educational and research institutions are often distributed across multiple locations. This may have structural or historical reasons, but in any event, it is a major challenge for IT. With so many students accessing a university’s network at any time and from anywhere, bandwidth usage can easily be exceeded and cause slowdowns or outages if it’s not being monitored.

These virtual learning environments at New Zealand universities require full availability of online services around the clock. Therefore university IT departments are required to work in shifts or designate someone as a standby, which is an extra burden on IT support staff.

Budget hurdles

In educational institutions, homegrown open-source solutions have commonly been developed to save money. These are often built by students, who bring the appropriate insider knowledge and are considerably less expensive than a software license. This becomes problematic when these students leave the university and take their expertise with them.

Over time, homegrown software can become a barely manageable juggernaut that requires immense effort to operate and evolve. Also, there are often a variety of systems like this, which were set up by different departments for various purposes. Generating a central overview of the entire IT infrastructure from all these systems is ridiculously challenging for the IT department without centralised IT monitoring in place.

It’s not just software that’s the issue at universities either, as often older hardware is used for budget reasons, while new, powerful devices are used elsewhere. These need to run seamlessly side by side, but this can cause IT headaches.

A suitable monitoring solution not only ensures 24/7 uptime but it also continuously collects data on the state of the IT infrastructure. Bottlenecks can be identified and removed and capacity and bandwidth can be purchased and implemented as soon as they are needed, which helps to minimise unnecessary IT spending.

Taking pressure off IT staff

Ensuring availability and performance around the clock requires being constantly up-to-date about the status of IT systems and to be alerted immediately in case of any issues. If a monitoring solution can provide flexible and location-independent access and alarm features, it can put IT staff at ease. They no longer need to be on-call 24/7 but can shift work outside normal office hours and even monitor what is going on from their homes.

IT departments at universities know how important a secure, uninterrupted IT infrastructure is for quality education provision, the success of world-leading research projects and the smooth running of the administration functions. It goes without saying that New Zealand universities will survive, as long as they continue to adapt, invest in robust technology and are willing to be both innovative and measured in these uncertain times.

 

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