What do you think are the most important elements of a good university? Academic reputation? Good football team? How about their ability to give you information online?
Florida State University (FSU) maintains its university database on an IBM System/390 mainframe, which is managed by the Florida Northwest Regional Data Center. While many administrative departments had access to university data via the mainframe, the process for extracting the information was often tedious and time-consuming. Students and faculty had no direct access to the mainframe data and would make requests via university personnel to obtain information or perform simple administrative functions.
Waiting In Line Vs. Going Online
As FSU's program began to take shape, the IT department sought a way to provide students with secure Web access to their enrollment and transcript profiles that resided on the mainframe. Michael Byers, associate director of Florida Northwest Regional Data Center, recommended Shadow Web Server for OS/390, an EAI (enterprise application integration) solution by Neon Systems (Sugar Land, TX). FSU's application development team began working on the project in the late fall of 1997. The project, which was to become a major part of the university's StudentsFirst program, was labeled "FSyou!".
FSU's president and provost made an announcement at the end of the fall semester in 1997 that the FSyou! project would be up and running before the beginning of the fall 1998 semester. Mike Nola, coordinator of computer applications at FSU Technology Development Group recalls, "I knew we would have to start hacking fast. Within a week we had a repository up and running, and within eight months a four-person team had completed the upgrade of 26 applications." Nola credits the quickness of Web-enabling the data to using simple REXX (restructured extended executor) scripts versus more complex programming languages.
The goal of FSyou! was to minimize the need for students to contact or visit university officials to obtain information or request simple administrative changes. The first application deployed was the compilation of class rosters for faculty use. The data, already accessible from the mainframe, provided the FSU development team with an archived data source with which to test. The application compiled class lists, which included student data and photographs. "It was a big hit with the faculty," says Nola. "Professors can easily find out the students assigned to their classes and also get pertinent background information on their students such as what other courses they are taking and their degree plans. Additionally, professors can e-mail the entire class or one student directly."
As of the summer of 2000, students were given the ability to perform a host of school-related transactions over the Shadow Web Server using a major credit card or the FSUCard, which is an ID smart card/debit card. "This feature has several student benefits," notes Nola. "Students studying abroad can use their credit cards to pay for their tuition instead of using the traditional snail mail system. Also, on-campus students don't have to drive to the registrar's office, find parking, and wait for two to four hours in line to enroll for the semester and pay for tuition." In fact, thanks to the FSyou! program, long lines at the registrar's office have virtually been eliminated. Over the past year FSU took in over $7 million via Web transactions. Last August the site was accessed 4.3 million times by students who were checking their grades, printing unofficial transcripts, registering for classes, and paying for tuition.
The FSU application development team recently designed an application for the athletic department. It gives athletic personnel access to student athletes' academic progress in 30 seconds, instead of taking four days, previously. The athletic administration can determine which students lack adequate enrollment, need help with their studies, or should be congratulated for their academic successes.
"We've gotten a lot of positive feedback about the FSyou! solution, including a nomination from Yahoo! for being one of the top 20 'Most Wired Universities'," notes Nola. "But, even though the accolades are nice and it is personally rewarding to know we're making a positive difference at this university, the thing that makes me feel the best is how secure it is." The FSU application development team went to great lengths to insure that students' data would be secure. The first step was to build time-out functionality into the system. If a student logs on to the system and then becomes inactive for more than five minutes, the Shadow Web Server automatically logs the student out of the system. Additionally, the data that resides on the mainframe is protected by 128-bit encryption, which makes it very difficult for an unauthorized user to intercept. "I made sure that the best possible security was used as the foundation of this solution," says Nola.
FSU's example of using EAI technology is readily transferable to other vertical markets such as manufacturing, healthcare, and banking. Like college students, suppliers, affiliates, and strategic partners demand 24/7 access to information, whether it's the status of a job-in-progress, a patient's records, or a customer's credit history.
Questions about this article? E-mail the author at JayM@corrypub.com.