Big Ten IT Graduates to Its Intranet: AMS Teaches the Purdue University Intranet to Stand on Its Own Two Feet

Data. It is accumulating so rapidly, and in so many different sources, that organizations are struggling to consolidate the information and provide access to it across the enterprise and within the supply chain. UNIX is becoming a major platform for data warehousing, and HP-UX servers provide the scalability needed to run BI/DW solutions.

Purdue University developed the Web-centric Student Services Information system (SSINFO) so its students could find out about anything they needed to know to make their lives at the Big Ten school less hectic and more enjoyable. From financial aid awards to scholarship searches; from job postings to searching for off-campus housing; from volunteering to purchasing concert tickets; it's all there on the Web. Even if students need help with their schoolwork, they can view a list of people who are interested in tutoring. There's a lot of information that is very student-specific, but there's also a lot of general information that puts opportunity at each student's fingertips.

All this was made possible through the efforts of a talented program development staff using Cincom Smalltalk as the object-oriented technology of choice, along with Cincom VisualWorks and its Web development component, VisualWave. Purdue has its VisualWorks application servers running on Windows 95 machines, with its VisualWave Web server software on NT machines. These application servers write to and retrieve information from its Oracle database on the HP-UX platform. Cincom Smalltalk simplifies packaging, support and new-version delivery, while offering a new business model to existing users of VisualWorks and ObjectStudio. Cincom Smalltalk packages together VisualWorks 5i1 main components and ObjectStudio Enterprise 6.2.

SSINFO uses the HP9000-K570 system, which includes a 100 Base T network interface card. The machine runs an HP-UX version 11.0 operating system, driving an Oracle database. The IT staff has added an additional gig of memory since implementing it, which brings the total to 2 gig. The configuration includes 2 CPUs in the machine, 30 gig of disk space and 2 gig of memory. There is a campus backbone that is used for access to the Internet. The University uses the network node manager product of OpenView and it plans to pilot the IT/O product in the very near future.

But that's SSINFO as it is today. Just how did Purdue implement such a successful student-focused system? It wasn't that long ago that it was only a long-range plan of the University's Management Information staff.

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Purdue's Configuration:

Application Servers. Eleven VisualWorks application servers that comprise a distributed processing environment. These are 128 MB RAM, 333 MHz, Windows 95 machines.

Web Servers. Six VisualWave Web servers on Compaq NT (Model 1850R) workstations. Each server has 384 MB RAM, 450 MHz processors.

Database. Oracle database residing on an HP 9000-K570 UNIX platform. The HP 9000 has two CPUs, 30 GB of disk space and one GB of memory.

Design the System

In 1995, Purdue started to work on a new "object-oriented" Student Services System, which was to be designed and built as a constellation of several major student administration functions. The intent was to share data and consistently apply common business rules among various functions, which included:

• Student Contact System (recruitment)

• Academic Record

• Master Schedule

• Individual Plan of Study, Academic Monitoring, Candidate Processing

• Student Registration and Scheduling

• Transfer Credit Articulation

• Admissions

• Student Billing and Payments

• Financial Aid

The Management Information staff knew that this was a major undertaking and that they were moving into a challenging technology area. They decided that they would prefer to partner with an organization experienced in this development environment.

According to the Director of Applications and Project Management Services, Nancy Yuochunas, Purdue went through an RFP process in order to find a partner. "We talked with three different companies, and selected American Management Systems (AMS), because of its expertise in this technology area, and its experience in higher education," says Yuochunas. "We partnered with them to jump-start our development staff in the object-oriented environment, and in using the VisualWorks tool set."

Susan Gothard, the Technical Project Manager for Student Systems, adds that "one of the requirements of the partnership was the concept of knowledge transfer. The intent was for the partner to be able to eventually leave us alone, and for us to be able to stand on our own two feet."

And stand on their own two feet they did. AMS provided the initial training for the Purdue staff to learn how to use VisualWorks and VisualWave in an object-oriented, integrated development environment.

VisualWorks is a robust Smalltalk Integrated Development Environment that provides cross-platform compatibility across Windows, Macintosh and a variety of UNIX platforms (including Linux). Additionally, VisualWorks offers strong integration with the Internet, and a core engine that Purdue sees as the best performing and most stable in the Smalltalk market.

VisualWave, a key component of VisualWorks, provides a fast way to create, deliver and change interactive intranet and Internet applications. VisualWave allows the University to move their business-critical applications onto the Web, and provide a dynamic, two-way communication interface with users.

The Purdue staff became productive very quickly. They had object-oriented analysis and design training in May 1995, and by the end of June, they began interviewing different people on campus about what kind of information they would like to see in the Student Contact System. The team had six weeks of VisualWorks training and by December 1995, they began development.

The first system Purdue worked on was the Student Contact System (SCS), which handles the University's recruitment activities. Two significant schedule delays gave Purdue the luxury to devote extra time to this first system. The original implementation was scheduled for the spring of 1996, but this turned out to be totally unrealistic, because of the complexities of the data conversion, the need to produce a design that supported reusability, and the scope of the recruitment process redesign. The system was eventually scheduled for implementation in the spring of 1998. The extra time was, however, put to productive use to improve both the product (system) and establish an effective development process.

The foundation of the system was designed as a set of infrastructures that could be reused throughout all of the other student projects as they went forward. These infrastructures were identified through iterative design processes that sometimes required completely redesigning portions of the system.

As the team worked on the system, they looked for ways to organize their development activities so that they could continually improve upon performance.

And, to help the transition into new recruitment processes, the data from the existing system was converted to a reporting database in the spring of 1997, and the Admissions Office staff began developing queries to support their new activities.

Finally, to assure the quality of the data conversion, two full conversion tests were run.

The two-year delay ended up giving them an opportunity to deal with the type of performance and quality issues that you don't normally get to deal with in a system.

Create Reusable Frameworks

The SCS implementation included a significant amount of application frameworks that proved to be very useful in later development. "One of the things we can say about VisualWorks is that anything we had already built in the Recruitment System, that was applicable to use in SSINFO, was reused," comments Gothard. "We didn't have to redo anything that was already done. This is probably the biggest advantage to using VisualWorks."

These frameworks included, but were not limited to: Persistent Object Framework, Network Communications Framework, Client/Server Framework, Transaction Processing Framework, GUI Framework and a Web Framework. But one of the key frameworks developed was the Configuration Management Framework.

Configuration management has always been the bane of client/server systems. Configuration management is all about dealing with updating and configuring software that may be distributed on hundreds, perhaps thousands of computers. Purdue has completely solved this problem. Their systems are self-updating and have the ability to do realtime patches to themselves. For example, they can patch the SSINFO system to fix a problem while the system is running, resulting in zero downtime for the students.

However, Purdue takes configuration management beyond that. Every server component of the system is the exact same program. It simply configures itself differently when it starts, so it is running the correct components. It does this with no intervention from a person. This means that Purdue can add a new application server to the system simply by placing a configuration entry for it in the database and starting the server program on the machine. It will configure itself and join in the environment, possibly even picking up and helping with any processing that is currently running. This ease of configuration means that the system has built-in fault tolerance: Should any machine fail, it can easily be replaced by any other.

Get to the Information

Now that this portion of the Student Services System had been implemented, next came the challenge of providing students with direct electronic access to the general information and to their own specific academic information. At the time, to access information, students had to telnet in and look at a display that was similar to a 3270 emulation screen. Even worse, the system ran off a copy of the student services production database. The information was not always current, and there was no way to guarantee that the information was complete. Purdue knew it needed to invest in a student information system that could be accessed through the Internet, would share production data whenever possible and would integrate with the new Student Services System. Thus, began the design and implementation of SSINFO.

The design followed a phased implementation schedule:

Phase I. By following their general approach to system development (i.e., analysis [event based]; general design; detailed design; development; testing; and implementation), within four months, Phase I of the new SSINFO Web-based system went live (June '99). SSINFO accesses information from both the SCS database and Purdue's legacy systems. As the legacy systems are retired and moved to the new integrated database of the Student Services Systems, more information will be displayed from the new system and less from the remaining legacy systems. "I think the significance of this is that it was just the previous December when we first received word that we were going to really do the project," comments Gothard. "We started working on it at the beginning of the year and it went live in June. That's pretty significant." Phase I included those things that were relevant to new students who were going to be on campus through the summer signing up for classes.

Phase II. This phase came out in August 1999 and added a significant amount of the financial-aid information. In addition to viewing financial-aid application data and award status, students could track their loan applications and checks. Students with incomplete applications had online access to personalized instructions for providing their missing data.

Phase III. When implemented, Phase III will include several enhancements, including ways to collect an alternate billing address for students who want to be billed someplace other than their home address. The Purdue staff is confident that this phase will be easy to implement. As Yuochunas remarks, "I guess the two points I'd like to make are, first, we're really quite happy with VisualWorks. And second, a key factor to our success has been the talent of the staff that is using the tool. They really understand its capabilities and have taken full advantage of its potential."

Where to Now?

Purdue projects the entire Student Services System to be a 7- to 9-year project, with major functionality being delivered about every 12 to 18 months. And they intend to have at least three projects running concurrently. As they identify the requirements and the project scope is better defined, the staff knows the implementations will go smoothly, thanks to the power of their interactive development environment made possible with Cincom Smalltalk technology and their HP-UX platform.

And how does Purdue think they will face the future and all the challenges to come? As the Executive Director of Management Information for Purdue, Laverne Knodle, comments, "We all know that there are changes coming in higher education. None of us know exactly what those changes are going to be or how fast they're going to come. But, we feel that since we put this type of flexible system in place, we are in a better position to respond to these changes in a timely manner."

- Lawrence Brooks is Communications Manager for Brooks Communications Group (Cincinnati). He can be reached at brooks_comm_grp@email.com.