3 ways community colleges can keep up with unpredictable IT demands

From what I’m hearing in my network, fall enrollment at community colleges in the United States is spiking dramatically. It’s no secret why: In the era of online learning, students looking to save on tuition are turning to community colleges as an affordable, local way to pursue a degree.

Initial survey research bears this out: By April 2020, around 20 percent of college-age students were changing their fall enrollment plans. That number could easily grow over the summer as the pandemic continues.

But where there are more students, there are more IT needs — more data and more demand. That can lead to more downtime, especially if IT backbones — back-up power supply, power distribution, racks, and cooling infrastructure — aren’t ready.

The rise of online learning — and what it means for IT infrastructure

In this article, I’ll walk through three strategies for community colleges to prepare for a future with unpredictable IT demands.

  1. Scalability: Staying flexible and responsive to changing needs
  2. Availability: Protecting equipment from downtime and damage
  3. Remote monitoring: Keeping watch without needing to be in the room

Scalable IT: Preparing for uncertainty

Is your enrollment rising from 2,000 students to 3,000 students this fall? What will it be in the spring? As we’ve all learned, it’s tough to predict the future. But it’s possible to prepare for it.

When it comes to IT backbones, it’s probably not financially feasible to stock up on three-phase uninterruptible power supplies (UPSs), like you would with bread and milk. What matters is that your system can accommodate future capacity growth. Can you quickly add 20 kW to the IT backbone without rewiring the entire panel?

Scalability emerges from both sides of the meter. On the supply side, you want to ensure you have enough capacity to support larger loads. That could involve some upfront electrical work. But once you’ve done that, you may not want to buy all the power distribution, UPS, and cooling capacity you’ll ever need, all at once.

Instead, you can deploy power and cooling modules incrementally. Perhaps you need 20 kW more power now that you’re looking at higher fall enrollment numbers. With scalable power and cooling products, you can size to your specific needs without over-deploying.

Other scalability enablers, especially for larger expansions, include pre-fabricated and micro data centers. These solutions range in size from self-contained cabinets to entire shipping containers, and dramatically accelerate capacity expansion.

Available IT: Uninterruptible online learning 

With more students learning online, downtime becomes more disruptive. It could also become more likely, as untested learning platforms create major demand spikes that bring down the network.

These days, 99.999% uptime is expected across the network and data center. Although that number may have a lot of nines, there’s a proven formula for achieving it:

  • Redundant IT gear (e.g., servers, drives, networking gear)
  • Redundant UPSs and the option to scale cooling
  • Software for remote monitoring and dispatch
  • Services (for warranties and preventive maintenance)
  • Generator or another back-up power source for long-term outages

If that sounds like a lot to consider, our previous blog post on ensuring edge computing availability provides a solid starting point.

Remote monitoring for IT: Be everywhere at once

You can probably scale up your IT backbone a lot faster than your IT team. With all this added infrastructure, there’s more equipment to monitor and maintain, but not necessarily enough people to be there on-site.

Fortunately, it’s now possible to be in multiple places at once using remote monitoring tools and services. These tools consist of hardware sensors that keep tabs on temperature, power quality, access, and other key conditions. They also use software and analytics to sense trends and anomalies, and then alert you to anything important. You can also add more eyes on your backbone via monitoring services by expert field service engineers such as APC™ by Schneider Electric, or one of our certified partners.

In the pandemic era, when your staff is working remotely, the ability to detect and resolve issues remotely is even more essential. These monitoring tools not only alert you to issues, they also diagnose faults, minimizing the need to travel on-site to find out what’s happening.

In the video below, watch how the Bainbridge Island School District uses remote monitoring tools to deliver uninterrupted digital learning in the video below.

Keeping ahead of changing IT capacity needs

The future is uncertain, especially in the higher education industry. For strategies on preparing your community college for whatever comes next, check out our new brochure, Online Learning in Unprecedented Times.

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