Legacy Systems Graduate to Web Services

Students can go online to register, check schedules or pay parking tickets.

When students at Texas A&M University signed up for classes for the coming semester, they had a new option—they could register online.

As college students rely more and more on the Web, universities are faced with keeping up with the expectations of students and the demands of their administrations to deliver seamless content.

Schools such as Texas A&M and the New Jersey Institute of Technology are paving the way by rolling out Web services that let students register for classes, check schedules and pay the occasional campus parking ticket from the comfort of dorm rooms, homes or Internet cafes.

"Our goal is to provide communication capabilities, transaction processing for core university services and access to information, independent of time or place," said David Ullman, NJITs CIO and associate provost for IS and technology.

Integrating the variety of campus applications can be a challenge. At Texas A&M, the university provides the network backbone, but each department decides which applications and platforms it will deploy as a Web service.

"Weve got about every flavor of everything here," said Tim Chester, senior IT manager at Texas A&M, in College Station. The university runs several legacy COBOL applications on an OS/390 mainframe as well as applications on BSD, Irix, Solaris, Unix and a variety of Windows platforms. Before its move to Web services, Texas A&M used a series of batch file updates delivered over FTP to various applications to integrate the systems.

NJIT, in Newark, has a similar job: integrating a host of Solaris, Unix, Windows and COBOL applications running on Alpha servers. The institute offered online services using an old, green-screen interface, which enabled students to log in to their Unix time-sharing accounts. But the school decided to migrate to a Web-based system because it has a more pleasing interface.

Although both schools used EDI (electronic data interchange) to integrate financial and transcript sharing applications with external partners, each chose an XML-based solution for behind-the-firewall application integration. Experts agree that EDI isnt a practical solution for these universities.

"EDI is a closed and older system thats extremely expensive," said Sally Hudson, an analyst at International Data Corp., of Framingham, Mass. "XML is a universal tagging language that isnt rocket science. The university atmosphere is a good place to develop this. None of the services requires a complex transaction."

When it came time to choose the proper solution, Texas A&M chose EntireX Communicator from Software AG after weighing that application along with IBMs WebSphere and several 3270 screen scraper applications.

"At the time, we felt that WebSphere focused too much on Web scripting instead of message brokering," Chester said. "The screen scraper applications were too slow."

NJIT replaced its home-grown integration solution with Campus Pipeline Inc.s Web Platform portal, which uses an XML-based Mercury Message Broker system to integrate with legacy applications.

The immediate payback for both organizations has been the capability to redeploy existing code without needing to rewrite it for a new platform.

Chester estimated that the programmers working on an upgrade to Texas A&Ms class registration system cut the development time in half by reusing the code from a COBOL-based telephone registration application in the Web registration application.

Chester was quick to point out that this new environment allows the university staff to continue to invest in best-of-breed applications and platforms without the fear of arbitrary support issues.

The greatest hurdle in deploying the new environment, Chester said, was getting Texas A&M programmers to see beyond their own development environments.

After a few days spent with the Software AG consultants, the development staff understood how to incorporate the broker API in their coding.

Ultimately, Chesters group spent about 2,280 man-hours on the proposal, design, coding and rollout of Texas A&Ms Web services offerings.

NJITs Ullman said that understanding integration issues is a two-way street. "We need Web developers that understand transaction processing systems," he said.

With the respective new integrated environments in place, both schools have delivered amazing results.

"Our registrar characterizes registration now as a nonevent," Ullman said. "Friday night, we let the seniors register online, then the juniors on Saturday night and the sophomores on Sunday night. When the registrar comes in on Monday morning, three-quarters of the registration is done."

Texas A&M has gone beyond online class registration and developed a directory service system that resides on top of Lightweight Directory Access Protocol. It is used by campus applications that let researchers find and apply for grants and let students evaluate faculty online. "Weve just scraped the tip of the iceberg," Chester said.

Robert Daly is a New Jersey-based free-lance writer. He can be reached at [email protected]