Why UCAS turned to APIs to link up the admissions process for millions of students

The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) has turned to integrations specialist MuleSoft's Anypoint Platform, as it looks to link up its siloed backend systems and give university applicants a more consistent user experience.

“We are two years through a digital transformation programme replacing the majority of front-end and back-end systems, starting on postgraduate then undergraduate services,” Mark Woodfield, head of technology development at UCAS told ComputerworldUK. UCAS moved to the cloud with AWS in 2013 and the entire programme is due for completion by 2020.

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MuleSoft, the former middleware specialists which went public in March this year, offers its flagship Anypoint Platform to customers looking to integrate modern software-as-a-service (SaaS) applications, with legacy on-premises software, primarily through Application Programming Interfaces (APIs).

UCAS is embarking on a complete rethink of its data architecture strategy, moving from monolithic databases to having the right data near the relevant system, decommissioning legacy systems where possible.

By moving away from monolithic systems, UCAS wants to give all users a single search capability across courses. Before this change the undergrad and postgrad systems were completely separate.

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Woodfield said he wants to get to the point where every user has a consistent user experience, and MuleSoft becomes "the platform sitting between all of these services".

Nick Harper, head of enterprise architecture at UCAS added: "In the legacy world an undergrad and postgrad would start from scratch, but now we use a cradle to grave analogy, where a profile of you can be built up over time."

Ross Mason, founder and VP of product strategy at MuleSoft explained to Computerworld UK in more general terms. "You used to wire stuff together with point-to-point code, which takes time and is expensive.

"Now we connect those apps and every time you open up a reusable interface to the application, an API, which means once it is exposed there is a lot you can do with it across apps, and control information flow, and data governance. So this becomes a powerful baseline for unlocking the value of the enterprise."

In short, UCAS wants to turn its technology assets, such as its CRM or database, into building blocks that can be more easily pluggable and reusable across the organisation, and even outside of it.

Next, UCAS wants to expose these new APIs for third parties to consume, modernising the way its systems communicate with universities and colleges, but also for new business models like validating job applicants coming out of university.

“We see our partner platform as one of our biggest areas for growth. Opening up and exposing our internal APIs will help us drive continuous improvement and innovation, and is also key to helping us attract the best developer talent,” Woodfield added in the official press release.

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Why MuleSoft?

Harper said MuleSoft was a natural choice for the organisation as it transitions to being cloud-first. "We identified an architecture which required integration and was to be API led, and because we are cloud-centric it was a logical step for us to use MuleSoft," he said.

Flexibility is key for UCAS as it deals with defined seasonal peaks of activity around applying for higher education. In 2016 it handled almost three million applications, with 535,000 students securing places at one of over 380 universities and colleges across the UK.

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Where MuleSoft really helps UCAS is in keeping its legacy systems operational while it makes this transition. "We knew we had a legacy estate to sustain with the operational job around results day that couldn't be compromised.

"Equally we couldn't make many changes to those environments, that weren't flexible or robust...MuleSoft bridged the gap to wrap and integrate old services, and decouple new services, to kill two birds with one stone."

This new architecture will also significantly reduce the cost of change within UCAS. Before if it wanted to change something on the front-end, like a simple postcode lookup, it would have to be replicated across five systems. Now any changes will automatically permeate across services.

This transformation has meant a change in staffing and skills within the organisation. "Upskilling people and getting experienced talent around the MuleSoft platform is a challenge for us," Woodfield admits.

Harper added: "APIs weren't a new thing to us, and the development teams wanted to go in that direction anyway. The standardisation of the way we work now was the challenge.

"Part of this transformation means time and effort spent to ensure the quality of people we recruited was high, with modern views on how cloud, digital systems should work."

Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

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