PlayStations, Apple TVs, laptops: How one university handles an on-campus network

CIO Leah Kraus talks about the unique challenges of overseeing university technology.
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Photo Illustration: Dianna "Mick" McDougall; Source: Getty Images

· 4 min read

North Carolina Central University—a school of approximately 8,000 students—is located in Durham, about a dozen miles or less from locations like Dell, Cisco, and Lenovo, where tough security protocols prevent just any old device from connecting to their networks.

“If you walk into one of their places, your phone stops working, right?” said Leah Kraus, who has to have a more open approach as CIO of a university.

In addition to overseeing the operation of administrative computing services, the NCCU website, campus-owned desktops and laptops, and classroom tech like smart boards and videoconferencing, Kraus and her team of about 60 staff members welcome a variety of devices that both off- and on-campus students can connect to a network.

Xboxes are welcome—as are PlayStations, Apple TVs, printers, and any other aspects of what Kraus calls a “living learning environment,” saying, “If it connects to a network, we try to support the student in having it connected to our campus network so they can do their work as well as their leisure.”

Kraus spoke with IT Brew about the unique risks and responsibilities of a university environment that welcomes so many connections.

The following responses have been edited for length and clarity.

What does a university IT team have to contend with that traditional IT teams do not?

We standardize on certain software and hardware, but if a researcher needs a specific device that needs to be connected to a specific piece of equipment, I, as CIO, can't say, “Well, no, you can't have that.” I’m the approver for every tech purchase on campus…if it has to go through our IT security for review, then it does that, but typically it’s a grant and it’s this piece of equipment, and we can find ways of securing around it.

What would you say to somebody who says: “How do you let all these Xboxes on campus?!”

That’s the point of having a very strong network segmentation and trusting your network engineers to build it out so you can do that. There was a time where folks were even saying, “We can’t do Bluetooth,” and, “We can’t do this.” What is the return on investment with that argument?

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Our livelihood is students. It’s not widgets, right? Almost half of our students live on our campus. If they are not happy, then they’re going to be out on social [media]…It’s a real return on investment discussion. What’s the risk mitigation? What’s the risk analysis? Can we risk this? And yes, because you’re mitigating it.

How do you secure that kind of setup?

The guest network doesn’t touch anything. We have a separate student network, a separate faculty network, a staff network.

Say there is a situation where somebody accidentally clicks a link and suddenly there's malicious code on the network. How does a university go about containing that and addressing that?

So, the way our network is designed, it doesn’t breach the building. It would stay contained…Not to say it’s impenetrable, but it is much stronger. Part of our network refresh that we did in 2018–19 allowed that.

If you look at all of your IT teams, is there ever a sense of fatigue?

We’ve had several vacancies. I think the Great Resignation is part of that IT fatigue. The state of North Carolina has had a freeze on raises. So, a team that was working really, really hard for two years…[not having] the ability to compensate for that creates some fatigue. And then when you have folks leaving, and the folks that are remaining are still having to get the job done, that creates some fatigue…

So, the toughest part for me right now is…potentially losing amazing individuals to what are amazing opportunities for them and then just not being able to fully provide them the compensation and gratitude for the work, for the job well done.—BH

Do you work in IT or have information about your IT department you want to share? Email [email protected] or DM @BillyHurls on Twitter.

Top insights for IT pros

From cybersecurity and big data to software development and gaming. Our IT Brew newsletter delivers the latest news and analysis of trends shaping the IT industry, like only The Brew can.