Staffing Memo - March 31, 2006

To: Colby Faculty

From: Ray Phillips, Dir. of Information Technology Services

Date: Friday, March 31, 2006

Re: Urgent Staffing Realignment in ITS

 

During the past two months, vulnerabilities in the ability of ITS to maintain reliable operations of critical servers have become better understood and the need to add staff in this area has become clear.  We cannot wait for a new position to be approved in the normal budgetary process to achieve this staffing addition so the increase must be accomplished immediately by staff reallocation within ITS.  Because there are no other viable options, effective immediately the currently vacant Faculty Development Specialist position in Academic ITS is being permanently reallocated to Administrative ITS to augment central server support.

 

This staffing situation and this solution were reviewed by the recent ITS Overseers Visiting Committee, who concurred with our assessment that the College information technology infrastructure is at risk as a result of the extremely small staff that supports the central servers.  The campus IT Committee has also agreed that it is imperative that staff be added to support the central servers and that this reallocation of the position in Academic ITS is appropriate.  The IT Committee further agrees that adding a position back into Academic ITS in the future is very important and that, in the meantime, effort be made to provide support in some other way for faculty needing assistance with web page maintenance and other tasks.

 

It is important that members of the Colby community, especially the faculty, understand the nature of the support crisis we face that is leading to this staffing change.  The central server environment consists of around 85 servers that provide much of Colby’s information technology functionality: web, email, library, institutional databases, backups, user authentication, scheduling, calendar, facility maintenance, etc.   These servers are comprised of hardware, operating systems (UNIX and Windows) and the applications that run on them.  We have three members of the ITS staff responsible for the reliable operation of these systems and each has responsibility for one major area – UNIX operating system, Windows Server operating system, and the highly complex Web application environment (including the content management system and the interface to the institutional databases and other servers).

 

The ITS staff members responsible for these areas have performed heroically but it is always an uncertain time when any of them is away from campus on vacation, sick leave, participating at conferences, or for any other reason.  If any one of them is unavailable when a major malfunction in one or more servers occurs, it is possible in some situations that the service cannot be restored for an extended period of time, perhaps even for a week or more, until someone can be brought in on a consulting basis, brought up to speed on the system configuration, and can troubleshoot the malfunction.  For some services, all of us in the College might be able to endure a two week outage.  For many critical services, such an outage would be disastrous.

 

In my October 2005 presentation to the Board of Trustees on business continuity/disaster recovery, the possible absence of critical staff was identified as a significant risk that might be mitigated by sharing responsibilities among existing members of the staff.  While we continue to apply this approach, it is clear now that the amount of work and the complexity of each area make this approach by itself insufficient to ensure that our critical central servers are highly reliable.

 

Because I must solve this problem now and cannot wait the extended period of time that it will take to add a staff position in ITS through the normal budgetary planning process, I must reallocate an existing position.  For this reason, I am moving the Faculty Development Specialist position from Academic ITS into Administrative ITS to create a fourth server support position that will focus on the web environment and have UNIX support responsibilities as well.  This will achieve what I now consider to be the critical minimum staffing in this area.  It is still very thin but we will be better able to sustain operations if we experience a major system failure when any one of the four is away for an extended period of time or when they are occupied with other system support.

 

Although this removes a good deal of the risk in our central server support area once we fill this position, I am fully aware of the detrimental impact that this will have in support of the academic program.  We are, in fact, already scheduled to add one support position this summer in Academic ITS so the number of staff positions will be unchanged between now and this fall even with this emergency staff shift.  However, that new position will focus on quantitative analysis and statistics, especially in GIS (Geographical Information Systems) support.  This position is critical to the opening of the Diamond Building and the operation of the GIS Lab and Data Analysis classrooms that are being constructed there and to the growing use of these applications elsewhere on campus.

 

Support of the academic program at Colby has always been a top priority for us in ITS and I do not make this staffing change casually.  I hope everyone recognizes, however, how critical to all areas of the College, especially the academic program, are the suite of services maintained by this small group of people in Administrative ITS.  I understand the concerns that all of you have and I share them.  However, the possible consequences of not taking this step immediately are far more serious.

 

I very much appreciate the support that I have received from President Adams and Vice Presidents Ed Yeterian and Doug Terp as we have identified and tried to address this situation.  The realization of the seriousness of our staffing situation has come at a time when it has been difficult to take any other step than to shift an existing position.  I am hopeful that we will eventually have approval to add a position back in Academic ITS, but funding is very tight in the College and there is no assurance that it can be accomplished soon.  As usual, this need must be evaluated with other competing staffing needs.

 

We know that for many faculty members there is concern about assistance with tasks such as web page creation and maintenance.  We are continuing to review strategies for web page development and support in the College and to develop options that faculty and staff may use, including documentation to assist those doing it themselves, workshops to acquaint faculty, staff and students with the new web content management system, site conversion assistance to facilitate easy maintenance, and possibly developing a cadre of students to work directly with faculty on web work.  We know that needs among departments and among individuals differ and we hope to have a range of services sufficient to enable each of you to achieve your objectives.  Both Toni Fredette’s Academic ITS and Cathy Langlais’ Administrative ITS groups are working on these areas of support but our staffing level does not allow us to do all that we wish.

 

I would be glad to explore this further with interested members of the faculty and others in the community.