University's Data Traffic Unsnarled

Picture a team of subcontractors at work on a new structure, with each worker needing up-to-date building directions to complete his task. A typical scene, but add this twist: What if the workers spoke different languages, making it impossible for them to understand the same lists of materials and schedules?

Texas A&M University in College Station faced a similar conundrum: It needed to share a wealth of information about students, budgets and payroll - all housed in a legacy Adabas system on a central IBM 390 - with dozens of disparate systems scattered across the university's academic and administrative departments.

"What we had been doing is sharing this information by dumping it into text files and then FTP-ing them all over campus," says Timothy Chester, senior IT manager for the school's computing and information systems division.

For example, files containing student names, their dormitory locations and their class schedules would be electronically transferred to all of the departments that needed the data in their own applications. It worked, Chester says, but as soon as one student swapped classes or changed residence, which happens frequently on a campus of 44,000 students, the files were rendered inaccurate.

How the Technology Works

The answer was to develop a set of XML-based services that take vital information stored on the mainframe, such as current class schedules and students' billing information, and make it available to any and all other computing platforms via the Web.

This was accomplished using Entire X, a set of XML integration tools from Darmstadt, Germany-based Software AG. The tools, which act as data translators, enable software developers at the university to work in a variety of programming languages and incorporate existing code into new Web-accessible applications.

The biggest benefit so far is a 50% reduction in system development time, Chester says. "We wanted to go with XML-based services primarily because they're platform- and programming-neutral," he says. "You get all of the benefits of that, plus you can also support real-time transactions."

One of the first XML-based applications Chester's group developed enables students to register for classes via the Web. It's faster and more accurate than registration through an aging legacy touch-tone telephone system with just 120 lines, says registrar Donald D. Carter.

Chester's team developed a series of scripts and stored them on a Web server. Whenever a student wants to search a class schedule, a request in XML format is executed against the mainframe. The response information is also sent back in XML and is then merged with a style sheet so it can be read via the Web application.

"Entire X sits in the middle, like a traffic cop, accepting incoming messages and routing them where they need to go," Chester says. "We chose it because it supports all of our programming, including Microsoft, Java, tools from HP and Sun, and Linux, too."

Corporations can learn a thing or two from the Texas A&M implementation.

"You can have a successful system that leverages existing applications, even if those applications are long in the tooth," says Uttam Narsu, an analyst at Giga Information Group Inc. in Cambridge, Mass.

"If what you really need is not new applications but to evoke greater access to those applications, XML and Web services is a viable way to do that," he says.

What's Next

After about a year of development, Texas A&M's new Web-based registration system was activated on Nov. 5, 2001, and students used it to sign up for spring classes. Carter says the system cost about $1 million to implement. Since then, it has supported about 3,000 sessions, and students have reported that it's easy to use. So far, Chester says, the IT help desk has received fewer than a half-dozen calls about the Web-based application.

"With the Web, we have a more accurate registration, because students have the visuals right in front of them on the screen," Carter says. "They can see which sections of a class are open and know instantaneously if they can get a seat.

"I've been in this business 36 years, and when we went live with this, it was an overwhelming success," he says.

As more students move to the Web to register for classes, Carter says, the plan is to gradually reduce the number of phone lines used for that purpose, thereby significantly cutting the university's communications costs.

"By this time next year, there will be very minimal use of telephone registration," he predicts.

Meanwhile, Chester's group has more plans for similar Web-based services. "We'll use this as a pilot project for other applications, such as students getting their grades online, applying for financial aid and even receiving their award letters - all online," Chester says.

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Copyright © 2002 IDG Communications, Inc.

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