Staying on course strategically

IT department managers are important contacts for SWITCH. They help us to tailor our services to universities’ needs.

Text: Christoph Witzig, published on 20.05.2016

University IT departments are responsible for IT strategy and architecture, running central IT services and providing support for university members. As such, they play a vital role for SWITCH. In addition to meeting users’ needs, our services have to fit in with the universities’ IT environments, strategies, timetables and budgets.

It is thus essential for SWITCH to liaise with the IT departments on several levels:

First and foremost is the community level, where the focus is on the technology and functionality behind the services. All hierarchical levels and domains are represented in the working groups, from technical staff to management.

IT management is another key level. Here, it is important for SWITCH to understand strategic considerations and needs so that we can take a holistic approach to our work. SWITCH can call on a variety of bodies and platforms to interact with IT management.

Suggestions for improvements welcome

Firstly, there are face-to-face meetings with individual IT department managers, which allow them to provide feedback on services, offer suggestions for improvements and share their wishes.

Secondly, SWITCH sits on the ASIUS, FID and PH-ID bodies. These bring together IT department managers from traditional universities, universities of applied science and universities of teacher education two to four times a year, typically for a whole day. Attending these meetings is indispensable to SWITCH because they reveal the issues IT departments care about most and those on which they want to collaborate. Where a joint approach is sought, SWITCH services may be the answer.

Keeping in touch with the community

Thirdly, the ICT Focus also plays a major role. It is an opportunity for us to inform IT department managers and their staff about SWITCH services and the progress of projects, and it also helps us to keep in touch with the community and hear its views and expectations concerning key strategic fields.

Strategy driven by needs

IT department managers are also represented on SWITCH’s Foundation Council and Committee. This ensures that the foundation’s overall strategy is aligned with the needs of university IT.

With the entry into force of the Federal Act on the Funding and Coordination of the Higher Education Sector and the formation of swissuniversities, ASIUS, FID and PH-ID intend to form three chambers in a network of IT departments. This will not result in any significant changes from SWITCH’s perspective. The IT departments remain invaluable stakeholders, and working together with them is absolutely essential.

In the following three articles, the heads of ASIUS, FID and PH-ID share their views.

In close contact with the universities

"As a foundation of the Swiss universities, SWITCH is better acquainted with their IT needs and environments than any commercial provider. It fosters close contact with them and can thus act fast to set the tone in IT-related discussions with a view to developing the academic IT landscape. The community forms the basis of SWITCH’s understanding of what its services must deliver. Communications between the universities and SWITCH are very open. This has made it possible for SWITCH to build up a range of services that are ideally matched to universities’ needs. As a university-led foundation, it is non-profit-making and close to the academic community, making it an especially attractive provider of valuable services.

In addition to providing technical IT services, SWITCH also acts as a platform organiser, brining people together to share their knowledge and experience on organisational, strategic and operational topics. This informal interaction makes SWITCH a valued partner for universities. The University of St. Gallen, for example, sees the ISMS Working Group created by SWITCH as very useful.

Key information supplier

SWITCH is also a permanent guest at ASIUS meetings and thus engages in constant dialogue with its members on existing and new projects and national initiatives. ASIUS really appreciates this interaction and sees it as hugely important. From our point of view, SWITCH is a key information supplier. Successes worth mentioning here include SWITCH’s original service, the network, and the two new services SWITCHdrive and SWITCHengines. At the University of St. Gallen at least, the latter have both done a lot to ease the workload of local IT staff. SWITCHprocure is another success story. A further central and important service is SWITCHaai, which has long since become an established part of life at Swiss universities, while the Swiss edu-ID offers interesting scope for enlarging the range of services covered.

Continuity desired

What ASIUS wants from SWITCH is continuity in its services. This requires sufficient certainty in planning, i.e. thorough evaluation of needs and firm commitments from customers, who need to be able to form a clear picture at an early stage of exactly what a service does and how much it costs. ASIUS also wants SWITCH to address the topic of sourcing more intensively and draw up a strategy setting out which products and services it buys in on the free market, which it develops and operates itself and why. SWITCH services should additionally be embedded in the offerings of local university IT departments.

Going forward, SWITCH should retain its role as a central provider of broadly used services for academic institutions in Switzerland and a platform for sharing experience. It could also add new information services to its portfolio."

SWITCH as service provider and bridgehead

"SWITCH is a foundation that was set up by and for us, the universities. Its purpose is to provide us with IT services. SWITCH comes into play wherever a university of applied science is too small to handle a service properly in-house, so close contact between FID and SWITCH is important. SWITCH is thus a permanent fixture at our FID meetings. It is vital that SWITCH listens to our wishes and needs so that it can take them into account when developing its services.

An institution like SWITCH may be less important for larger universities because they might have the financial resources to develop their own services. Smaller ones, on the other hand, have to place more emphasis on solidarity and collaborating on service development rather than going it alone. SWITCHdrive was created on the basis of an idea submitted by FID to SWITCH’s innovation process.

Tailored to universities’ needs

SWITCHprocure is also the product of close collaboration. SWITCH does not always have to create services itself. Its services are increasingly in competition with those of commercial providers. More and more, we need to weigh up the pros and cons of a commercial solution compared with a solution from another tertiary education institution. Universities have specific requirements, for example, in terms of data security. That was the case with SWITCHdrive: as regards functionality, the service can absolutely hold its own against commercial offerings. SWITCHdrive is also perfectly tailored to universities’ needs with the AAI login. One of the biggest challenges SWITCH faces is how to design a service that universities will actually want to use. One way it does this is by having its qualified specialists liaise with the community.

SWITCH also needs to be able to discontinue existing services when the situation changes. This is why it is important for SWITCH to start thinking about how a new service will be replaced while it is still in development.

SWITCH in demand as a coordinator

SWITCH can also serve universities by acting as a bridgehead to commercial providers – a go-between, if you will – by conducting negotiations and subjecting contracts to a legal review. This is what SWITCHprocure does. It can also analyse the advantages and disadvantages of various firms. The great thing about SWITCH is that, as a foundation, it provides services in our interest and is not focused on making a profit.

Another of its key tasks is connecting universities with each other, and not just in the technical sense. This interaction is becoming more and more important in the field of security in particular."


Continuity and expertise

"SWITCH is a valuable conduit for services we are unable or unwilling to provide ourselves. Some universities of teacher education are relatively small and mainly teach non-technical subjects. As a result, they have different needs compared with, say, ASIUS or FID. Nevertheless, we use some SWITCH services a lot, including SWITCHportfolio, SWITCHtube and SWITCHdrive. Eduroam and SWITCHaai – and thus the Swiss edu-ID that will replace it – are crucial services for us. Staff and students alike need fast, uncomplicated access to the Internet. SWITCH’s services deliver this across the board.

Adding value by lightening the workload and ensuring continuity

We are happy to turn to SWITCH for advice on which services make sense and are viable for us. In general, it is hugely supportive and lightens our workload considerably. We choose the services from its portfolio that best meet our needs. Our IT requirements are fairly average; we are primarily an infrastructure operator, so we are happy to make use of SWITCH services when they complement or support our in-house IT environment in a sensible way.

We are enormously grateful to have had the same capable, helpful partners for many years. This continuity is essential and improves cooperation markedly. To take just one example, the assistance we received at the University of Teacher Education Bern with our IDP hosting was outstanding. SWITCH even helped us on the administrative side, which should actually have been our responsibility. We certainly welcomed this extraordinary level of commitment.

Familiar with our environment

SWITCH has a deep understanding of our university environment. The combination of this and its specialist expertise is hard to find among commercial providers. The same is true of its sophisticated products, communication and knowledge regarding the status of services within their lifecycle. SWITCH also delivery good value for money. SWITCHdrive, for instance, costs a lot less than the commercial alternatives. Other key factors are the high reliability and stability of the services.

Data centre in the cloud

What we want from SWITCH going forward is continuity and a focus on the essential aspects. As things stand, we are very satisfied with what SWITCH gives us. In five to 10 years’ time, however, we might be using a cloud environment for a lot of our data. SWITCH could then take over the running of our data centres or provide an LDAP covering all the universities of teacher education. We could definitely get on board with a solution like that."


About the author
Christoph   Witzig

Christoph Witzig

Christoph Witzig has worked at SWITCH since 2005 and is currently Head of Infrastructure & Identity Services. After studying particle physics at the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, he gained his doctorate at CERN in Geneva and held a number of positions, some in the US.

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