Grrrowl Power: Penn State University Integrates Tradition with Technology
Over the years, huge volumes of different types of legacy data have been generated by all the various groups within an enterprise. These enterprises risk becoming crippled with delays, bottlenecks, redundant effort and needless error when users lack timely access to accurate, consistent information. First-generation Web applications were mainly designed as stand-alone systems, but now companies are looking for ways to use the Web to leverage their existing application assets and data stores.
However, problems have occurred when trying to integrate an enterprise's legacy data with Web applications in order to take advantage of the benefits of easy and instant access. A solution is needed that will enable companies to build robust applications for the Web that allow legacy and Web integration, without compromising accuracy and security.
"Accommodating the Web is meaningless if you can't preserve existing application and database investments," says Penn State's Peter deVries. "We have been building mainframe systems for 20 years. As we create client/server and intranet applications, our philosophy is to transition and improve the capabilities of those mainframe systems, not replace them."
deVries speaks from experience. As Director of Advanced Technology for Penn State University (PSU), he was involved in an Internet development project designed to give students and staff members direct access to a wealth of institutional information.
Dubbed eLion (after PSU's Nittany Lion mascot), the new system provides a custom search engine, a hypertext listing of suggested academic and advising references, open access to student information systems, an artificial intelligence-based advising service, and a variety of support services for faculty, staff and students.
But, the new eLion system didn't happen overnight.
Facing the Challenge
PSU had an enormous legacy of mainframe databases and transaction processing environments, much of it based on Software AG's ADABAS database and natural fourth-generation language. PSU is a sprawling statewide system of 24 campuses and 80,000 students, plus faculty and administrative staff. All of the data for the entire University system - including student, faculty and administrative records, financial and academic information - is centralized on IBM OS/390 mainframe systems. PSU's challenge was to give students, faculty and staff members Internet-enabled access to this wealth of institutional information.
"Penn State is like any other institution needing to change the way it services its customers," says Ken Blythe, Senior Director of Administrative Systems at PSU. "Penn State students want information and services anywhere, anytime. They want to be able to handle routine administrative and advising interactions with the University on their own."
So, PSU began its development journey. "The biggest challenges from a development standpoint were twofold," remarks Blythe. "The system would have to support 80,000 student users, with peak access rates of 20,000 hits per hour. And, it would have to be ready by the next academic year."
Establish the Architecture
Initially, staff members within the University's Office of Administrative Systems (OAS) decided to implement a two-tiered client/server system. Personal computers would handle all of the processing requirements for the presentation layer, allowing the mainframe to focus on data access and processing tasks. Unfortunately, the mainframe quickly became overburdened by this combination of new and old systems, to the point where key business applications came to a grinding halt during periods of heavy usage.
DeVries and his colleagues realized they needed to offload much of the processing requirements from the legacy system if things were to get back on track. Some soul searching ensued in which alternative data access strategies were considered. It was at this point that the skeleton of a three-tiered system began to take shape. The mainframe would stay in the picture as the data server; Web servers would host the primary application logic; and the presentation layer would be a combination of traditional desktop clients and thin clients running Web browsers.
DeVries makes a distinction between two-tier, client-oriented development tools and three-tier environments. Two-tier tools pack all the code for the user interface, application logic and business rules into the client, relying on a database server to retrieve data for processing. Three-tier architectures add an intermediate tier of servers to support application logic and distributed computing services. These middle-tier services are shared by many applications. Thus, instead of writing the same function or service in every new application, developers can write the function once and place it on a server accessible by all applications. This improves the scalability and reusability of client/server environments.
"Three-tier applications are easier to adapt to the Web's distributed makeup because of their distinct separation between business logic, presentation and data," deVries explains. "This simplifies the translation into HTML files. Client browsers present the application, while Web servers funnel queries and transactions to an intermediate tier of database and application servers."
Select the Right Tools
Achieving these ambitious development goals meant finding a software development system that was robust, supported multiple client platforms, offered object-oriented technology and could tie the new tier of Web servers seamlessly with the existing legacy systems. And it had to be fast.
"We read all the literature that said you should develop applications to support your customers," Blythe recalls. "They implied you can put together relatively cheap components to help change your delivery model. The truth is that all of those cheap components don't work very well. You need a robust technology to be able to ensure high reliability, availability and responsiveness."
The solution chosen: Cincom's Smalltalk as the object-oriented technology of choice, and VisualWorks and its Web development component VisualWave as the right tool set to use.
VisualWorks is an ANSI-standard programming language that provides the foundation for VisualWave, which enables businesses to move their business-critical applications effectively and efficiently onto the Web. VisualWorks contains a library of more than 900 classes and 24,000 methods and includes the characteristics of true object-oriented technology: polymorphism, inheritance and encapsulation. Designed to speed application development, VisualWorks offers developers support for high-level debuggers and performance analyzers, full execution speed of native machine code and sophisticated memory management.
"As we were moving into advanced functions and client server computing architectures, it became more important to make a transition away from the procedure-oriented approach," continues Blythe. "As we examined the situation, only one thing made sense - object-oriented applications. The keystone to all of our object-oriented activities is the need for high productivity, which is achieved through heavy reuse of methods and classes, standards and services available in the object-oriented world. This convinced us even more to select VisualWorks and VisualWave."
Build the System
Using the Cincom Smalltalk Integrated Development Environment, Penn State began its development of eLion. "eLion is a tool for students, faculty and advisors to gain access to school data," says Scott Smith, Director of Systems Operations at PSU. "Students can access their grades, transcripts and course schedules. Faculty can obtain class lists. Advisors can perform a whole series of tasks to examine the academic progress of students. eLion is accessible through the Internet, providing a single resource that addresses the academic complexities of our curriculum, policies and procedures. The system is designed to provide expert advice and up-to-date, consistent information to supplement the student-advisor relationship."
As planned, eLion was structured on a three-tier architecture. A series of NT Intel-based servers run the Netscape Enterprise Web Server software. Behind that, a series of application servers running the VisualWave applications host the primary application logic. Load balancing is achieved using IBM's WebSphere product. When data needs to be retrieved from the integrated database, DCE middleware is used to connect to the PSU mainframe computer to extract the information.
On the client side, VisualWave streamlined the creation of the user interface and the Web-to-database access mechanisms. "VisualWave automatically generates the HTML and the CGI scripts necessary to execute a client/server application as a Web application," deVries explains. "It allowed us to create an application in one complete graphical environment which is automatically deployable on the Web."
Savor the Results
"VisualWave allowed us to rapidly develop an interactive Web application to meet our challenge," comments Blythe. "The new application interfaces with our legacy system for data access and uses a Kerberos-based security system to ease the administrative overhead. It empowers our student body to access administrative records that include class registration, course information, grades, transcripts and faculty and administrative information over the Internet. We're very excited to be deploying this application with the VisualWave Server.
"With Cincom Smalltalk, we have been able to rapidly create a complete client/server/Web system from the ground up," Blythe continues. "The end product has significantly eased processing requirements for the University's existing legacy system, while preserving a substantial investment in mainframe technology."
eLion is not the only deployment of Cincom Smalltalk products on the PSU campus. "Another area where we use the object-oriented technology is in admissions applications," adds Blythe. "We are now receiving more than 7,000 applications electronically each year, from all over the world. eLion is the premier implementation of Cincom Smalltalk at this time, but we are developing many other systems like the admissions application system that utilize the same tools. Cincom Smalltalk is a ubiquitous technology at the University." Cincom Smalltalk products are also being used to move the University's business administration systems to the Web. The base product was extended to include a framework for code generation using metadata about each of the 600 business functions.
Penn State got much, much more than they had planned on. In addition to the ease and success of the eLion implementation and many others, PSU developers felt the time spent learning and using VisualWorks and VisualWave was well spent, particularly because of the dividends it paid in the way it enhances productivity and promotes teamwork.
"Because it's an object-oriented language, our developers work closely together to share what they learn," comments Smith. "To reuse the objects that are created, it requires interaction with other developers. We hold regular development sessions where all the eLion developers get together and discuss solutions. Cincom's products have helped us develop a better teamwork approach than procedure-oriented tools have in the past."
"Once we get our team members up to speed in object-orientation, they become very productive very rapidly," Blythe adds. "Some people come right out of college and they already have the background in object orientation. In a few weeks they are doing remarkable work with VisualWorks and VisualWave."
Smith identifies two additional features of the Cincom Smalltalk tools that significantly enhance productivity. "First, the structure of the VisualWorks language presents an advantage, enabling us to develop a method or class in object technology and easily reuse it for similar applications that use the same object. The second advantage is the ease with which our designers can develop the graphical presentation of that application for the Web. It is a very quick and easy process to use VisualWave for that purpose." Penn State has created a large library of reusable code to enable e-commerce functionality, to access security and middleware services, and to streamline application development.
"The Cincom Smalltalk tools allow us to keep right on the technological edge, as Cincom continues to enhance their development environment," comments Smith. "We plan to extend the eLion application to include many other features. Our development team continues to get hit with new requirements, and are constantly stimulated with new ways to present information to our audiences."
Penn State's mission is to turn out graduates who understand the technological, environmental and ethical challenges they will face in a world of accelerating change. That same philosophy is evidently at work among Penn State's administrative staff. By allowing direct student, staff and faculty access to administrative records and services, the eLion system has streamlined the University's administrative processes, thereby contributing to the future success of the University and to its students.
About the Author: Lawrence Brooks is the Communications Manager for the Brooks Communications Group (Cincinnati). He can be reached at email@example.com.
Cincom Smalltalk is the Cincom offering released in January. This release simplifies support and new deliveries while offering a business model to new and existing users of VisualWorks and ObjectStudio. Cincom Smalltalk packages VisualWorks 5i.1 with its various components and ObjectStudio Enterprise 6.2.
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 is widely recognized as the best performing and most stable in the Smalltalk market.
VisualWave is a key component of VisualWorks, which can create, deliver and change interactive intranet and Internet applications. VisualWave lets businesses move their business-critical applications onto the Web and provides a true two-way communication link with customers. This customer interface allows businesses and their customers to interact through immediate access to key information systems and applications. VisualWave provides a time-to-market advantage in delivering products, services and solutions to customers. Time-critical changes can be implemented immediately, allowing businesses to gain a competitive edge. -L.B.