Higher Education: A Lesson in Mainframe Server Automation

In order to meet the heavy computing demands of the largest U.S. school system, the New York City Board of Education uses an enterprise server and high-performance software to deliver all of the information required to administer more than one million students.

How do you serve out data in the United States’ largest K-12 school system? With a big ladle. That’s why, in order to meet the heavy computing demands of this school system, the New York City Board of Education (NYCBOE) uses an enterprise server and high-performance database software to deliver all of the information required to administer to more than one million students. Such a system supplies a combination of performance and manageable costs that smaller server-based systems cannot emulate.

Data is important for any school system, but it is absolutely critical for the management of the NYCBOE. We use data in a variety of ways to analyze programs, student performance, budget development and more. The quality and integrity of the data, and the reliability of the Student Information System are essential for the daily operation of the school system.

Since 1988, the NYCBOE has used ATS (Automate The Schools), a K-12 Student Information system written using Computer Corporation of America’s (CCA’s) Model 204 database management software. We chose it for two reasons. First, we had funding available from the State of New York, which uses Model 204 extensively. And second, we had a need for the highest performance system we could find and capacity that we wouldn’t outgrow.

The Board of Education’s IT staff (which includes seven consultants from CGI) is essentially on its own when it comes to working with this powerful application, although we have, in the past, called on the consultants at Computer Corporation of America for assistance. Because of our size, we don’t have too many organizations to which we can look to model our operation. The vast majority of school systems simply don’t need a mainframe to organize and schedule their student populations.

The very largest school systems favor enterprise server installations. In the case of the largest school systems, such large systems are an irrefutable requirement. Still, most school administration systems are dwarfed by the size of the system installed in the City of New York. The second largest system is that of Los Angeles, and while substantial, it is roughly 60 percent of the size of the New York system. As a result, there is not much to talk about when we discuss our computing requirements with other IT professionals in this field.

Fortunately, over the years, we have developed enormous experience and development expertise with the system and the 4,000 programs needed to run the school system’s administration. As a result, we can run this system efficiently, with a team of experienced IT professionals and vendors who pay attention to us and support us effectively.

The Board’s ATS student information system runs in CCA’s Model 204, and operates on an IBM-390 Model 9672-Y56 computer. We purchased the system several months ago, and it is one of IBM’s newest enterprise-class systems. The main ATS subsystems are student registration/enrollment, student demographics, parent and home address information, daily attendance, subject class attendance, health and immunization, Title-1 collection, and elementary and middle school report cards. Then, there are basic block scheduling, exam results and histories for almost all of the above areas. More than 300 varieties of reports are produced at school, district and central levels. In addition, the system handles the computing tasks for purchasing, special education, summer school registration and attendance, high school allocation systems, school-based management reports and human resources.

Just How Big?

We designed this system from the beginning to serve our entire student population. We took about six months to put together requirements and carry out the initial development. We knew that we couldn’t complete the entire installation all at once, because of the size of the installation and the infrastructure that had to be created to support it. After all, the initial release required us to network every school in the city. That’s nearly 1,200 official schools, as we call them, at approximately 1,500 sites.

The workstation population of PCs and Macs is enormous, even by Fortune 500 company standards, with nearly 20,000 systems used for the administrative network, and tens of thousands on the instructional network. In fact, the budget for the New York City Board of Education – $10.5 billion – would rank the organization in the 150s section of the Fortune 500, ahead of household names like Gillette, Sun Microsystems, H.J. Heinz, GAP, Northwest Airlines and CBS.

All the PCs, wiring and networking equipment had to be in place at each school before it could be integrated into the system. Our initial implementation in a single school district of 30 schools and 10,000 students helped us iron out problems and gave us time to prepare for installation across the school system.

Designed, developed and implemented within six months, the initial test release was built with limited, but critical, functionality to serve a single school district of approximately 10,000 students.

Over the years the application has grown and matured into what it is today, a mission-critical tool for automating important and time-consuming tasks at all of our schools. It now resides on an enterprise mainframe server and looks after 1.1 million New York City public school students.

Currently, we’re using the MVS/ESA 5.2.2 operating system, CCA’s Model 204 (Rel 4.1.1), three Sirius products (SirMon, SirTune, Fast Reorg) and InfoTech Software’s SoftSpy.

Impressive Load-Handling

At the start of a school year, we produce a lot of reports. This year, we set new records for the opening of school and a single day’s report generation. Our new single-day record now stands at 48,000 user-generated reports. Each year, the report generation increases by 15 percent to 20 percent. We make use of the database’s power to handle the registration process, which exercises the admission, discharge and transfer functions that determine the placement of students from school to school. We also produce a lot of reports that ensure students will be assigned to the correct classroom so we can accurately report their attendance. The total number of defined users to the system is approximately 15,000, with more being added daily. On any given day, 3,000 to 5,000 users log on to ATS over many miles of cabling. They connect to Model 204 from nearly every area of the NYCBOE.

We have peak days on which nearly 1,500 concurrent users are accessing the system, and the system doesn’t stumble. They connect to Model 204 directly, via VTAM with Model 204’s User Language screens and interface. Even during non-peak days, about 1,000 users are connected concurrently. Generally, the biggest usage times for the Model 204 system could probably be predicted by anyone who is familiar with the school year. Both the beginning and end of the year tend to be big activity periods. There is another burst of heavy use both at the end of January and at the beginning of February. On a daily basis, peak usage occurs between 9 a.m. and noon.

In 11 years, the database has grown tenfold, and we’ve written well over three million lines of code to support the ATS administration program. We dedicate 18 developers to continue to build and maintain it, out of our total NYCBOE IT staff of 500 professionals. That’s the kind of effort required to keep things running smoothly as we regularly add users across the school system, build in more functionality, add more data and maintain the system. We have links to other systems at the Board of Education, including the Special Education System. We’ll use CCA’s MQ/204, in conjunction with IBM’s MQSeries enterprise integration product, to give us an industrial-strength interface to the high school scheduling package. The NYCBOE hasn’t ignored the Internet, and has piloted a Web-to-mainframe interface, with an eventual goal to develop intranet or Web-enabled applications.

Making the Y2K Grade

While you might have expected us to have our hands full with Y2K when dealing with a legacy system, we actually anticipated the issue when we built the system about 11 years ago. We were mostly compliant on the date formats, but that doesn’t mean that we didn’t have to work hard to manage the remediation that was required.

We carried out our preliminary analysis of the problem in two steps. First, we checked all the date formats stored in Model 204 files. Then, we checked samples of code date processing. We only needed to expand four date fields across the administration applications to be compliant. Tests of sample code showed that even with the YYYYMMDD format, some date processing was not compliant. Of approximately 4,000 programs, about 1,000 were not compliant. Our internal staff went to work remediating the affected programs.

To test our work, we created a subset of our TEST region where online subsystems would use separate data files and the system date could be manipulated. We tested the changes as they were made, and we moved these programs into production as they were completed. This was done to minimize the impact on regular development work. The entire coding/testing regime took a year, with several months analysis and setup before that. Testing did not uncover any significant problems, and the rollover went smoothly.

Continuing Administration

At a time when applications seem to outgrow their underlying technology faster than a 3-year-old outgrows Barney, we feel confident that the technologies used to deploy the ATS system will continue to meet our stringent requirements well into the new millennium. In fact, in 11 years of the Model 204 system’s operation, only one other database product – DB2 – has been seriously considered. However, we feel that to adequately meet our demanding computing needs, our applications require Model 204 on a 390-class computer. Why? Because this combination has performed in a very large and challenging environment.

Such performance is a crucial factor in the success of our operation, because enterprise server power makes it possible to complete work, despite the strict and unchanging timeframes that our school days and our school year impose on the ATS system. It also allows for quick and easy development, and nothing on the Enterprise Server seems as quick for development. This makes a big difference when one realizes how much development is required to keep up with the constantly expanded administrative requirements of running a school system of this size.

We periodically review our computing assumptions to make sure we’ve taken the most effective information technology path. We have to account for a substantial budget, and we must ensure we leverage the power of every dollar we spend. But, we’ve been unable to find a better option, and this has confirmed our thinking that when you need to meet the heavy demands that the administration of such a large organization impose, mainframe power is a powerful solution.

Other enterprise server-based organizations have considered moving to a more distributed technology using smaller servers. However, we continue to think that our application provides an ideal example of such a system’s ability to deliver the highest levels of performance. Add to that the advantage of the centralized system’s ease of development and maintenance, compared to a decentralized solution, and one thing becomes clear to us: The choice we made more than 10 years ago is the choice we’d still make today.

About the Author: Kamal S. Kumar is Director of Student Systems Development for the New York City Board of Education. He can be reached at kamal.kumar@nycboe.net.