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June 26, 2014

Technology Corner: Working to advance the University’s mission


Though perhaps not as visible as the iconic Cathedral of Learning, Pitt’s information technology infrastructure is central to today’s achievement of the teaching/learning and research mission of the University. CSSD, as the central information technology division, develops, maintains, secures and continually enhances Pitt’s technology infrastructure and provides centrally supported enterprise technology services.

As we plan, make strategic decisions and initiate projects throughout the course of the year, CSSD considers technology — and decisions about technological innovation — within the context of the ways in which the technology advances the University’s mission. Technology in and of itself is intriguing, challenging and engaging. But that’s not enough. Technology must enable the University to achieve its goals and objectives.

A strong, secure infrastructure is a necessary foundation for successful implementation of technology at a world-class research university. Much of our work to provide that infrastructure involves projects that take place out of sight of the campus community, such as recent work to replace network switches and upgrade border routers. We will double bandwidth for faculty and staff this fall, allowing faster connections to research and other networks.

Other initiatives also will support faculty and staff efforts to advance the University mission. Key projects this year focused on services that foster collaboration and increase productivity and efficiency, such as upgrades to the email system and enhanced mobile offerings. Our business intelligence team is working closely with other areas of the University to communicate more effectively the reliable data available to be used for administrative decision-making.

We have established a Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA)-compliant zone for researchers with federal contracts and have begun a significant upgrade of the environment housing the high-performance computing systems hosted at the Network Operations Center. This summer, we will begin working with faculty focus groups on identifying a reliable enterprise electronic lab notebook system that meets security and research data management requirements.

My Pitt email

Our most visible initiative this summer — affecting everyone at the University — is the implementation of the new email system. The Pitt system processes roughly 24 million email messages every month, but until now, those messages were being managed across several different programs. This year, faculty, staff and students all will have Exchange email accounts under the umbrella title of My Pitt Email, offering a more professional interface and features such as a calendar and a Pitt address book. (Faculty and staff who want to stay with the legacy IMAP interface can do so; CSSD will forward their email to the legacy system.)

Faculty and staff will be able to increase their mailbox quota as needed through a self-service accounts management tool. Detailed information about the new email system is available at

The global, mobile world of higher education

As we considered options for upgrading Pitt’s email system, we collected information and suggestions from faculty, staff and students. A not-unexpected finding was that a growing number of people reported using a mobile device, rather than a desktop machine, to read Pitt email messages.

We know that mobile services are growing more important for people. Pitt’s wireless network averaged 21,000 client connections each day this year. By the end of the summer, we will release an updated mobile Pitt site (, which works across mobile platforms), with apps that enable students to view class schedules and grades and add or drop courses.

CSSD Technology Services staff worked closely with the Center for Instructional Development and Distance Education (CIDDE) and implemented improvements to CourseWeb, the University’s web-based course management system. Faculty and staff are seeing a number of significant enhancements, such as improved course discussion and messaging tools; streamlined grading for online assignments; an updated math editing tool; new online test and survey options, including test question analysis, and a new retention center designed to help instructors identify students at risk.

Recognizing that teaching and learning now take place asynchronously and on various mobile devices, we also are coordinating with CIDDE staff to identify an enterprise video platform that lends itself to lecture-capture and can be used across the University for a variety of video functions.

The global eduroam consortium allows Pitt faculty, staff and students to use their accounts to log in to other participating institutions’ wireless networks — and allows visiting scholars to use their home institution account on our wireless network. In this past year, visitors from 30 different countries used the eduroam service at Pitt.

Cloud services like support collaboration and efficiency; users can store and access documents and files securely from both desktop and mobile devices from any location with an Internet connection — around campus or around the world. CSSD increased the Box account storage space to 50 GB this year.  Adoption of the service is growing steadily. By the end of the 2013 spring term, more than 7,000 people had activated their Box accounts; by the beginning of this month, more than 20,000 users had activated accounts.

Business intelligence

CSSD is responsible for the University Data Warehouse and the related business intelligence processes. The University Data Warehouse serves as the authoritative data source for University reporting; it combines data from various University systems into one reliable system. Business intelligence transforms the raw data into meaningful information that can be used to analyze and predict performance.

Vice Provost Juan Manfredi, Associate Vice Chancellor Jane Thompson and I identified key people from across the University to serve on a number of committees to look closely at how data are entered into source systems to ensure their accuracy and reliability and to define and document the data available in the warehouse so that it can be accessed easily and used by administrators in decision-making.

Also underway, CSSD’s business intelligence team is developing a dashboard with research accounting data for principal investigators and interactive dashboards and reports for a range of student-related data for administrators.

The University’s faculty information system provides faculty with a secure, web-based resource for creating CVs, annual reviews, online profiles and other documents important to academic careers. Currently, there are more than 4,000 user accounts in the system. Pitt faculty members also use this resource to search for colleagues who share research interests.


Cyber-security threats are real — and increasing. The University network is probed for vulnerabilities more than 380,000 times a month. Filters blocked roughly 15 million malware delivery attempts from Pitt email accounts last year.

But it’s important that technology resources be as accessible as possible for the University’s legitimate users. For an institution like Pitt, a balanced approach to security is critical in order to support the diverse needs of world-renowned researchers.

Some years ago, CSSD established enterprise firewalls and research security zones in order to most effectively meet security and collaboration needs for Pitt researchers. We now also provide a FISMA-compliant environment for research being done with grants and contracts from federal agencies such as the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. Pitt’s FISMA environment contains a well-defined security perimeter and computing resources that support projects up to the “moderate security” category level.

Individual responsibility is critical to an effective approach to security, however. Faculty and staff must change passwords regularly, install antivirus software, be wary of suspicious emails and protect laptops with encryption and theft recovery software. Security measures are outlined for you in the Secure Your Data resource community in My Pitt.

CSSD’s approach to technology continues to provide both a foundation and springboard for the University’s future progress and strength in research, teaching and collaboration. Learn more about our services and our strategic planning by visiting the website.

Jinx Walton is the University’s chief information officer.