Bringing Best Practices to University Systems

The University of Wisconsin needed to replace legacy homegrown mainframe software, written in COBOL on a Bull mainframe, with Web-based software. It now runs Sun servers hosting Oracle databases.

Sometimes custom-developed applications can be great—you get exactly what you want. At other times they hold you back. That's what happened at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls.

"We needed to replace our Student Administration system," says Mary-Alice Muraski, an associate professor of computer science who is currently managing a project to implement the new system. "[The system] was accessible only via cryptic software to a very limited number of staff and students." It was also running on an old Bull mainframe, which constrained concurrent connections to 30, limiting access during class-registration periods. As a result, registration had to be spread out over a three-to-four week period to accommodate the school's 6,000 students.

A few years ago, the Wisconsin University system struck a deal with PeopleSoft to provide new software for all campuses statewide. While many campuses decided to implement PeopleSoft 7, River Falls elected to wait for the new Internet capabilities of version 8 that would provide open access for all staff, faculty and students within the campus community through a Web browser.

"With the old system, teachers had to be on campus to turn in grades," says Muraski. "Using the new software, we'll be able to do it from the beach in Florida at Christmas."

With the software, students gain access to their grades as soon as they're posted. They can also register for classes, check their transcripts, and review their financial aid and bill status.

Product Information

Sun Microsystems Inc.
Santa Clara, Calif.
(800) 555-9786
www.sun.com

PeopleSoft Inc.
Pleasanton, Calif.
(800) 380-7638 www.peoplesoft.com

Oracle Corp.
Redwood City, Calif.
(800) 672-2531
www.oracle.com

Making the Switch
Muraski began working on the project full-time in January 2001.

"As an instructor, this is exciting for me to actually do what I have preached to my students for the past 12 years," she says. "I'll be able to take what I've learned and use it back in the classroom." By the time she took over, the state government had already decided that all universities were to implement PeopleSoft, but the details of the implementations were left up to the individual schools.

Based upon past positive experience, River Falls decided to stick with Sun Microsystems Inc. as the server vendor. Initially, the school planned to use separate servers for the PeopleSoft application and the Oracle database, but after receiving training, the team decided to put both on a single server. Sun had developed a new type of midrange server that allowed the processors to be dynamically allocated to the different domains with minimal downtime.

"At the time we had to purchase our hardware, PeopleSoft 8 Student Administration was a new product and the company didn't have any white papers that would help us to select the correct hardware," Muraski explains. "The Sun server was flexible enough that we could put everything on a single box and reconfigure it later to meet our needs."

Streamlining Procedures
In June 2001, the development server arrived along with the new student administration software. Then came the task of matching the software's features with the school's administrative procedures. Under the old architecture, every department had its own software to meet its particular operations or, as in the case of admissions, homegrown software that could be customized whenever needs changed. A common software package was being used for the first time that would let all the departments communicate electronically rather than by paper. This required ironing out all procedures.

"Since it's a fully integrated system, the decisions one business unit makes impact the entire system," says Muraski, "so we formed a team will all the functional units, such as Records and Admissions, as well as the networking and information services staff, to coordinate the deployment."

The goal, however, was not to customize the software to meet everyone's specialized procedures. "We are trying to implement this in a vanilla approach," she adds. "We are attempting to change the business practices on campus to meet the industry standard procedures rather than customizing the software."

After a period of developing and testing the new procedures, the new production server, the SunFire 6800, arrived in March 2002. A month later the team started loading the new applications. The server was configured with separate domains for the Oracle database and PeopleSoft application. The first application, handling admissions for the fall 2003 term, went live on Aug. 19. The remaining modules will gradually be rolled out. It's still too early to compute the cost savings, but Muraski expects that when the registration module goes live, the university will be able to cut its registration period from four weeks down to a single week.

Muraski says she will finish the project in about two years and then will be returning to her teaching position. And after that, if you happen to visit Florida in December, you may well see her sitting on the beach with a wireless laptop, grading exams and uploading the results to the university's site.

Details: University of Wisconsin-River Falls

Team Leader: Mary-Alice Muraski, Project Manager

Organization: University of Wisconsin-River Falls

Location: River Falls, Wisc.

Web Site: www.uwrf.edu

Goal: Replace legacy homegrown mainframe student administration software with web-based software providing greater scalability and flexibility.

Scope: University has approximately 6,000 students, plus faculty and staff, all of whom will be able to access the new system. Project took eighteen months from start till first services became available. Project will continue for about two years beyond that.

Equipment/Platform: Internally-developed student administration application written in COBOL running on a Bull mainframe. Application was web-enabled, however mainframe limited access to thirty concurrent users. Sun servers hosting Oracle databases, acting as file servers and running school's Endeavor library system.

Products:

  • Sun Fire 6800 server with 10 UltraSPARC III processors
  • Sun Fire 3800 Server with 4 UltraSPARC III processors
  • Sun StorEdge A5200 disk array
  • Solaris 8 operating system
  • PeopleSoft 8 Student Administration module
  • Oracle 8i database

Milestones:

  • June 2001: Arrival of the first components:
    • Sun Fire 3800 development server
    • StorEdge A5200 disk array and
    • PeopleSoft 8
  • March 2002: The production server, a Sun Fire 6800, was installed.
  • August 2002: The first services, applications for the fall 2003 term, went online, approximately 18 months after the start of the project.

Results: Cost savings not yet calculated, but registration period should be cut from three to four weeks down to a single week.

Advice to Others: "Plan, plan, plan. Then prototype. Finally, test, test, test. Keep in mind that since it is a fully integrated system, the decisions one business unit makes impact the entire system. Write everything down and the reasons why you made that decision. Later you will keep coming back to those decisions and if you have the reasons documented you don't need to rehash the decisions."

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