Insufficient bandwidth, dated wiring, archaic applications, lack of high-performance computing systems and insufficient funding.
The challenge for Viji Murali — on the job at WSU Pullman since August — is to chart and navigate a course that will position WSU among the nation’s top research universities in computingcapabilities.
Although the situation is daunting, no sympathy is necessary. Murali, WSU’s new vice president for information services and chief information officer, came into the position eyes wide open. In fact, she was specifically recruited for the job by President Elson S. Floyd because of her experience and track record in turning similar situations around.
From 1987-1999 Murali held several administrative computing positions at the University of Arizona. Before leaving, Arizona was ranked in the top 500 supercomputing sites in the world — an elite group. Moving to Western Michigan University, she became vice president for information technology and CIO, 1999-2007. Under her leadership, WMU transitioned to enterprise-based systems and programs, became the number two-ranked university in the nation for wireless capabilities, and introduced high-speed wired connections.
WSU administrators, aware for several years that the university’s IT system was woefully outdated, assigned a committee to study the issue and prepare a strategic plan in early 2007. Several months before Murali’s arrival, the ink was still drying on the document, which now helps guide many decisions.
“There is no need to reinvent the wheel,” Murali said, “we’ll utilize it (the plan) and let it stand for the next year.However, the era of the five-year strategic plan is no longer viable. Strategic plans are living documents and need to be refreshed. So within a year, we will review our strategic plan and refresh it regularly.”
Meanwhile Murali, like Floyd, has hit the ground running, reorganizing her staff, delegating duties, setting specific objectives and strategies, and outlining deadlines.
20-year-old programs
“In terms of applications, we have a portal and programs that students, faculty and staff use independently to access information,” she said. “But behind the scenes, there is no integration among these applications. Everyone is doing things independently. One area where we appear to be ahead is Distance Degree Programs.
“There is no one central place where information is easily accessible,” she said. “And, the infrastructure is still based on IBM mainframe technology with programs that are 20 years old.”
Many of WSU’s central core service programs, through which it manages data relating to registration, admissions, academic records, personnel, payroll and accounting, are referred to as “legacy” systems — programs designed from scratch by WSU personnel.
Solution: Murali has proposed purchasing an Enterprise Resource Package (ERP) — an integrated group of programs that relate to the university’s core systems, programs that will be updated regularly by the manufacturer to keep pace with new technology.
Moving to the dark side
Overall, the CIO estimates that WSU is about eight years behind in its IT infrastructure and bandwidth capabilities.
“Our infrastructure has virtually no high-speed bandwidth and connectivity with other institutions in the state,” she said. “As one of only two major research universities in the state, we should be on the state’s map in terms of high-speed connectivity — we’re not. We have some high-speed lines but not enough for a research university and not enough for where WSU wants to be.”
As an initial solution, Viji is working aggressively to locate and acquire access to regional fiber that is currently unused — sometimes referred to as “dark fiber.” In the past few weeks, a pair of dark fibers has been identified in this region. WSU is trying to determine who specifically owns it, how much is available, and how much it will cost to purchase that access.
If successful, WSU Pullman might be able to increase its bandwidth by 70 to 400 times, moving it from approximately 0.5 gigabytes/second capacity to 40 – 400 gigabytes/second. The cost, however, could be substantial, easily into the millions of dollars.
One-two punch
Access to high-speed fiber bandwidth, in turn, would allow the university to access high-performance computing centers at other locations and establish a supercomputer center of its own.
“Lack of a supercomputer means that faculty and researchers don’t have the computing space and speed they need to do their research in an efficient manner. There are a few selected areas within the university with higher computing ability, but generally it’s not available to all researchers.”
Supercomputing, she noted, can be facilitated by a single machine, a multiple system, or a cluster of machines (also known as nodes). Its processing power allows researchers to transfer and utilize massive, integrated databases of information, to tackle complex calculations, and to see processed results in a short amount of time (seconds or minutes rather than hours or days).
“As a research university with a national reputation, we must have high-performance computing facilities. That capacity doesn’t exist here yet,” Murali said.
But along with access to dark fiber bandwidth, this is a situation that she hopes to reverse in a short amount of time — weeks or months, not years.
Domino effect
If Murali succeeds in landing a dark fiber contract(s), and the proverbial pipeline to the internet is enlarged, the university will need to accelerate its plans to upgrade internet wiring in most of its buildings.
“Our buildings, particularly those on the WSU Pullman campus, don’t have the high-speed wiring that is needed,” said Murali.“Because the urban campuses are newer, some have a little better wiring and connectivity in their buildings and classrooms, but still they are hampered by a lack of high-speed connectivity — an inability that also limits them in terms of internet meetings, conferences and research.”
Educational stage
Regarding the overhaul of WSU’s core systems, Murali said that WSU is now in the “educational process.”  IT staff are conducting research to find out what the university’s current and future needs are, what types of demands and growth are anticipated, and what vendor product and capabilities are.
The next step will be to prepare a request for proposal or information to be sent to vendors.“Vendors are currently coming to campus to give demonstrations,” Murali said. “Oracle has already come, and other vendors are scheduled soon.”
Ensuring delivery
WSU administrators have requested $1 million from the Legislature in 2008 to prepare a study and report that will be submitted to the state’s Department of Information Systems. “That report must provide a detailed description of the system we are proposing and how we are planning to accomplish that task,” Murali said.
Approval of the plan from DIS is mandatory in order to receive funding consideration from the Legislature. Although it requires a lot of work, Viji said the state’s planning requirement is a “very good thing.”
“There have been other agencies that have been given large amounts of funding in the past but failed to produce what they promised. The state put this system in place to ensure that all state organizations can deliver on their promises and that taxpayer money is being well spent. They are demanding responsibility and accountability for what they are giving us.”
Target 2012
Completing the research and plan to move WSU’s core system to the next level is an “enormous task that is broad in scope,” Murali said. “It will take us through much of 2008 to complete it. If we get funding, we anticipate that implementation of that plan will begin in 2009 and that it will take about three years to develop.”