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College IT department transforms itself with network management tools

The IT organization at Diné College used to be just a bunch of "geeks in the basement." With the help of well-timed grants and the visibility of network management software, these geeks transformed their network from a collection of spare servers to an e-learning epicenter.

Despite vast IT improvements, show-stopping problems still struck Diné College's network before they tapped into the benefits of a comprehensive network management tools suite.

Email, for example, would mysteriously go down for the school's 1,800 students, or else a router might shut off and IT director Francesca Shiekh's staff of 13 wouldn't hear about it until the irate calls started coming in.

We used to be ... the geeks in the basement. That perception's changed.
Francesca Shiekh
IT DirectorDiné College

"Unless someone walked through the server room, we wouldn't even know when a drive went bad," Shiekh said, recalling the old days. "Issues at remote sites, we wouldn't find out until users reported it."

Three months ago, she finally made the move to using network management software, OmniCenter by Netreo, and her staff was finally able to jump ahead of the curve, to the point where they would often be notified and able to fix outages before the first users started logging on in the morning.

Getting a better grip on network visibility across the Tsaile, Ariz.-based college's two campuses and six community centers was a natural next step for Shiekh. Six years before, when she took on the job, the IT department didn't even have a proper server room.

"Servers … were just on desks left and right," she said. "It wasn't about monitoring the servers, it was more a question of what are these things sitting there, and what are they doing."

Through a federal grant, Shiekh was finally able to get her IT staff a permanent home and move past the cobbled-together servers they had been relying on, but even as IT improved dramatically, expectations increased even faster.

Intermittent email and Internet access would no longer cut it for the two-year college's students, who were becoming increasingly tech savvy and tech dependent. Also, the college's distance learning program, once almost entirely untouched, had begun to thrive.

"We needed to get proactive," she said. "There's less patience for downtime, there's less patience for interruption of service. When I came here six years ago, people were used to email not working."

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So Shiekh began evaluating options, with Netreo's OmniCenter at the top of the list after a sales representative showed it to her.

"What I really liked about Netreo was I could see everything in one place: Servers, certain applications, switches, routers, ITV systems," she said. "Anything you can connect to the network and can ping has a life pulse on Netreo."

Netreo's OmniCenter, which is aimed at a wide range of medium to large businesses, also had a flexible pricing plan that caught Shiekh's attention: Licenses could be bought on a year-to-year basis, or customers could purchase a "perpetual" license, which let Diné's IT department confidently purchase the package without worrying whether their budget cycle would be slashed the next year.

It's also given Diné's staff a more efficient way to track down problems. Previously, Shiekh's network administrator used individual point tools to scan each machine for problems.

"It was very subjective. It was up to him to log in and check this router and that router, and if you forget one, you forget one," she said. "The tools were there, but there was nothing automated to tell us, 'Look there's a problem!' "

Dennis Drogseth, vice president of IT analysis firm Enterprise Management Associates, said that as IT organizations become charged with solving more sophisticated problems, the benefits of network management suites quickly become apparent.

Historically, Drogseth said, these platforms were often too expensive, both in the initial price and in administrative costs.

"But now there is a focus on management of the service rather than the components," he said. "If that's the model, which is becoming more and more where people understand they need to go, you can't get there with just point tools."

IT organizations that want to take network management to the next level must break down the silos that point tools create, he said. Instead of managing devices, a network engineer must manage the network as a whole, and IT staff must be able to see and share information about the network more holistically.

This broader view can lead to surprising findings or, at the very least, a better understanding across the IT organization of how each person's role fits into a bigger picture.

Along with new network management software, processes also need to change, Drogseth said. He said these concepts were often linked. The Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL), for example, is a big driver for adopting more comprehensive management technology. ITIL is an international collection of best practices for IT service management.

"Companies should look for technologies that support more collaborative ways of working," he said. "But at the same time, they should look at cultural and process issues that are keeping people fragmented."

Shiekh said that in her first six years on the job, she had never fully understood how much infrastructure her employees were monitoring. It was only with the installation of OmniCenter that she fully grasped it.

"I've learned that my staff has a lot more to look after than I really realized, because I get to see everything going on now," she said. "Before, it was just when they told me about it, and they would tell me about it if it was mission critical, or if they thought I'd hear about it anyway, but otherwise they would do it."

That new visibility, she said, allowed her to stay away from micromanaging while still being able to see trouble spots if they got out of hand.

The overall transformation on Diné's network has been substantial, if often unseen. There's less noticeable downtime, Shiekh said, and the college continues to require more services, adding to her organization's responsibilities.

Even the local community, part of the 26,000-square-mile Navajo Nation and without any malls or big-box retail, has begun tapping into the IT center's expertise.

"We just used to be in a hole in the basement of the administrative building -- the geeks in the basement," Shiekh said. "That perception's changed. Now we get some of the general population in the area coming in for technical advice from us."

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