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p>If you check my biography, you’ll discover that I have a soft spot in my heart for the education vertical market.

So do savvy solutions providers. Although colleges and universities are struggling to balance their budgets, the education vertical remains a province for advanced technology projects.

Just ask Delaware State University (DSU), where all students, faculty and staff now carry smart cards to enhance IT security and network operations. Siemens AG’s Information & Communication Networks (ICN) division assisted with the smart card deployment.

The smart cards, about the size of a typical credit card, are packed with digital intelligence. A magnetic stripe on the card allows DSU students to make bookstore and food service purchases; embedded antennae unlock specified campus doors for approved cardholders; a barcode reader connects students to legacy library applications; and an embedded chip manages user identities when accessing DSU’s ERP (enterprise resource planning) applications, notes Charles D. Fletcher Jr., DSU’s assistant provost for technology & information systems & CTO.

Chris Meaney, director of secure network solutions for Siemens ICN, concedes that smart cards are had a slow start, but says the cards are rapidly gaining momentum-particularly on college campuses, where IT managers have to track thousands of roaming students as they attempt to access buildings and network services.

Deal 2 – Europe or Bust

Looks like my crystal ball is pretty accurate. Last week I predicted that U.S.-based solutions providers would buy their way to prominence in Europe. My column appeared hours before Cognizant Technology Solutions of Teaneck, N.J., acquired Infopulse, an IT services firm in The Netherlands. Infopulse specializes in Microsoft Corp. and IBM Corp. solutions, and strengthens Cognizant’s position in the banking and financial services verticals, according to Cognizant Chairman and CEO Kumar Mahadeva. Financial terms of the acquisition were not disclosed.

Like many of its rivals, Cognizant hopes to cash in on Europe’s IT recovery, which is gaining momentum. Overall IT spending in Europe will rise 3.6 percent this year, according to Gartner Inc. of Stamford, Conn. In addition to rising server and software sales, roughly 12 percent of European companies currently integrate voice and data traffic onto IP networks, and an additional 33 percent plan to deploy VoIP by 2005, according to International Data Corp. of Framingham, Mass.

Computer Sciences Corp. and Cap Gemini Ernst & Young also are combing Europe for IT services acquisitions.

Deal 3 – Cash In on Software Patches

Managing Microsoft’s security patches and bug fixes is a fulltime job that spells opportunity for solutions providers. In recent months, Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates has touted Systems Management Server (SMS) 2003 as an ideal tool for businesses that want to keep their patches current.

Some solutions providers agree. For example, Kommar Solutions Inc. of Cypress, Texas, helped the University of Houston to pilot test SMS 2003 on 100 clients earlier this year.
How did the pilot go? I’m working on an answer to that question as I you read this. More details to follow next week.

Deal 4 – Long Live 3Com?

Electronic Data Systems (EDS) Corp. has added 3Com Corp.’s switches, routers and Voice-over-IP (VoIP) hardware to its solutions portfolio. The deal represents a vote of confidence in 3Com CEO Bruce Claflin, who has spent the last three years striving to push 3Com out of Cisco Systems Inc.’s shadow. 3Com continues to struggle-sales fell 40 percent to $161.9 million in the three months ended Aug. 29-but it’s always nice to have EDS in your corner.

About Contract Watch: Each week, this column examines customer engagements that are stirring the channel, and the solutions providers behind them. Our goal is to strip away the hype and tell you what’s really selling-and what isn’t-in today’s IT marketplace. Send your tips to my e-mail address below.

Joseph C. Panettieri has covered Silicon Valley since 1992. He is editorial director of the New York Institute of Technology and founder of JCP Media Inc.