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Revolutionizing the Education System to Face the Real World Problems

By Ann Kovalchick, CIO, Daniel Feitelberg, Senior Advisor to the Chancellor, UC Merced


Ann Kovalchick, CIO, Daniel Feitelberg, Senior Advisor to the Chancellor, UC Merced

Higher education is a sector deeply steeped in tradition and ritual. As a young campus coming of age in a period of emergent change, UC Merced needs to manage the tensions inherent in establishing a legacy while remaining nimble and open to adaptation.

The UC Merced 2020 Project, a $1.3 billion expansion of campus facilities through a performance-based public-private partnership, illustrates how we are building a durable institution that is prepared to address the opportunities of a rapidly changing technological environment.

Like governments, universities and colleges are some of the world’s most durable institutions. In the context of a government or university, the lifecycle of a building is a relatively short period of time. In contrast to our nation’s oldest universities, UC Merced is only 12 years old. To build a durable institution, we need to ensure that our facilities will remain in a state of good repair for their entire lifecycle.

And that’s why we considered a new delivery model for our civil infrastructure and facilities. Our hope was to identify a structure that would enable us to rapidly build the campus and to maintain it over time.

We selected an availability payment concession, because it enabled an interdisciplinary approach to solving design, construction, maintenance and financing issues. In this model, the university makes predetermined payments that are reduced in the event that the facilities do not perform to standard structure helps us to build and manage facilities that achieve good building performance throughout their lifecycle. It enables us to share performance and financial risk.

It also helps us achieve our information technology goals. In this model, our infrastructure contracts provide for basic IT infrastructure, enabling the campus to focus on the design and implementation of its enterprise services.

In 2015, UC Merced launched the Next Genera­tion Network upgrade, a multiyear effort to replace the campus network hardware and a redesign of the campus architecture. With the up­grade soon to be completed on the existing campus, UC Merced is posi­tioned for expansion and growth and the corresponding need to move big data and converged voice and video for research, instruction and campus communication.

UC Merced’s Office of Information Technology (OIT) has recognized disruptive forces as opportunities to leap forward with the adoption of a cloud-first strategy. The execution of this strategy was one such opportunity as we struggled to design an appropriate approach to meeting research computing needs.

Investing in a brick-and-mortar solution to design a server room was indeed an option, but would require a defined commitment to consuming building space based on fixed assumptions of computational needs, power and cooling. Given the rapid rate of change, such assumptions are a risk.

Instead, UC Merced chose to design a modular environment to house research computing resources in a scalable and cost-effective way. Faculty often prefer to have their research computing infrastructure close at hand, but younger faculty are comfortable with cloud-based solutions so long as service demands for computing, storage and bandwidth are met. By designing a modular solution to meet research computing needs, the 2020 project is leaping forward over traditional solutions.

As well, the public-private partnership that undergirds the 2020 project provides a significant benefit by broadening access to knowledge for problem solving. OIT had originally anticipated meeting research computing needs by using a containerized solution. Widely adopted since the mid-2000s by tech industry leaders such as Google and Microsoft, a containerized solution seemed to strike a good compromise between high performance and low-cost, rapid-deployment construction.

However, the 2020 developers proposed instead an alternate design and convincingly made the case for modular construction that provides flexible scalability from a rack-centric perspective, as rack-level considerations become paramount due to the increasing density of technology loads.

We faced a similar decision when thinking about how to best manage costs associated with network services for student residence halls. Recognizing the increasing density of wireless devices, we decided to increase access points and strategically locate data ports for wired connections in common areas, for example, for visual display and presentation or high I/O needs. This reduces capital costs while increasing operational costs; however, it allows for adaptation to emerging needs driven by technological change.

As infrastructure has moved to the cloud, capital costs have declined while operating costs increase. Responsibilities for cost management become shared, institutional responsibilities. Making infrastructure decisions today for the needs of tomorrow requires clear communication and coordination among stakeholders.

Whereas infrastructure decisions have historically been made as fixed agreements to drive brick-and-mortar construction, the disruptions of rapid change in today’s world means complexity must be managed and right-sized to insure scalability. Management and planning systems must be built to ensure decisions are recalibrated over time as technologies change and more information becomes available.

The Merced 2020 Project will provide for the long-term management of our facilities and enable a flexible technology environment so that our institution can focus on what we do best: enable students to learn, enable researchers to solve real world problems, and enable public service.

Founded in 2005, UC Merced is the first American research university of the 21st century. It is a major base of advanced research, aiming to drive economic growth.