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Concord on campus

Concord on campus

Auckland University is undergoing a revolution of sorts as it moves to a common Oracle base for much of its application environment. Flexibility is essential, especially for the learning management system, which must be able to accommodate new ways of ways of handling information in a connected world…

Auckland University CIO Stephen Whiteside, left, is affable and relaxed as we sit down with IT support services head Tim Chaffe for a coffee and a chat on an upper-level terrace that forms part of a lobby and coffee bar for post-graduate IT students and lecturers at the multi-level IT learning centre in the campus’s crowded heart. Chaffe is similarly cheerful as we take in the view out towards the Skytower at the top of a rise on the other side of the city’s main thoroughfare, Queen Street. The busy campus, with the hundreds of students congregating in the computer-equipped learning halls, is blessed by the proximity of Albert Park and its huge Morton Bay fig trees.

This is a friendly place. The two men are happy to talk more or less in tandem, each filling the gaps in the conversation where they feel they have something to contribute. Our discussion, in tune with the relaxed setting, takes a random course. We are here to talk about how the university is upgrading its computer systems to build an architecture that will support future growth and development. At the heart of this operation, at least from a staff and student point of view, is the learning management system, which Chaffe describes an IT system that brings students, instructors and lecturers together online. In theory, he says, the system creates collaborative groups where everybody gets together to focus on their study, ask questions, receive responses and generally help each other. It also has an assessment component. “It is a complete learning environment.”

And its name, believe it or not, is Cecil.

But there’s more to all of this complexity. The university is in the process of consolidating all of its PeopleSoft applications, including student administration, human resources, finance, property and portal solutions onto an Oracle 10g database over the next year. The current Oracle 9i database and Microsoft SQL Server databases will also move to the new environment.

First out of the gate, though, is Cecil. As a comprehensive learning environment, it’s a complex system that must reflect the way the younger generation is evolving in its learning habits. Whiteside and Chaffe point to the use of technologies that would have been unheard of in the days when perhaps most of the lecturers had gone to university: online discussion forums, for example, and the use of SMS to communicate instantly via cellphone. As Chaffe says, the education landscape is changing. For many institutions distance is no longer an issue. Connected, computer-savvy students can learn from any location.

“We have a high focus on enhancing learning, interaction and collaboration with our students,” says Whiteside. “We do some distance learning but that is not our main market. Our primary goal is not be like a major US institution that sells courses around the world but rather to enhance and enrich the students’ experience and create efficiencies in preparing and coordinating information in a structured way through the learning management system.”

Adding to the challenge has been the fact that the system itself has experienced huge growth over the past few years. So much so, in fact, that from a business continuity perspective it has become the most time-critical system under Whiteside’s care. “We have had to really look at how we are supporting the system and develop strategies to cope with that growth.”

Along with this growth are the external factors, including the slow opening up of the telecommunications market to high-speed broadband networking. Chaffe says it is satisfying to see a lot more student activity out of hours now. “The students are getting in there and doing more things now,” he says. “They are able to come to the university and keep tabs on things while they are here. They hop into the information common room and do some work and then they go home and work online from there. It is interesting to see the students adapting to it increasingly.”

Whiteside points out that learning management systems are not exclusive to the higher education sector. The university is finding there is crossover between the tech-savvy schools and students bringing their knowledge through to the higher learning institution. “The difference for us is the degree of collaboration and integration with the research-driven teaching that we do. Students are arriving with a strong degree of IT literacy and using the collaboration tools they grew up with, which raises another challenge for us. We have to understand the digital divide. We have to look at things like SMS messaging and blogs because they are native to the students in terms of interaction. Most of the lecturers grew up in environments where those things weren’t available.”

Today, says Whiteside, it’s a matter of horses for courses. SMS, for example, would be of little use in teaching a comprehensive course and PDAs are suitable only for the simpler tasks. However, cellphone-smartphone technologies are always on and that makes them ideal for a quick communication of small items to students – perhaps for something like a change of location.

“Instant messaging has got to be easy and available,” says Chaffe. “I know some people who use it all the time. Others don’t. It’s interesting, too, to see how Telecom has been pushing Push2Talk – really, a voice form of instant messaging.”

Whiteside says the vast increase in wireless technologies over the past few years has presented a challenge as well. Like many large universities, the Auckland institution is a federated environment, which meant a large part of wireless usage has evolved from the faculties themselves. The central security team has had the task of coordinating the faculties and getting them to agree on standards. These have encompassed areas such as security, architecture and technology.

Similar challenges are arriving with other core collaborative technologies that are making their mark. Whiteside says the onset of these new technologies are posing a new strategic challenge as the internal IT teams must learn to interface with whatever the students might be bringing directly to the mix. It’s an important issue that must be accommodated.

Cecil, which currently runs over a Microsoft SQL Server-based system, presents its own challenge because of the size of its 30,000-strong user base. “We needed a new environment that was highly available and scalable and could handle the high transaction load during peak student usage,” says Whiteside. “The move to Oracle 10g will provide us with better availability of our IT systems, easier management of applications and reduced IT support costs.”

Chaffe adds his take on the decision to go with Oracle. “There are a number of drivers, and it comes back to a common perception throughout the industry – that the September 11 tragedy in New York heightened awareness of the need to cater for disaster and disaster recovery. If you’ve got a bunch of applications running on different database systems that’s a hard thing to do.”

Now, with all of the primary applications moving across to Oracle, the university has taken the first steps towards regaining control in the event of a disaster. It has negotiated a licence deal with Oracle that covers all the campuses and is available for anybody to use. Faculties still have a choice – they can use whatever they want, but it is hard to beat an application that, as Whiteside describes it, is free and easy to use. “We already had a significant and successful use of Oracle, says Whiteside. The bond with Oracle had grown even stronger with the evolving links between the university’s administration and the faculties’ academic research.

“Our direction will be to migrate applications that aren’t already on Oracle to the new platform,” says Whiteside. “It doesn’t make sense to have other environments, particularly when it comes to business continuity from an enterprise perspective. IT increasingly pervades our core operational activities. It only makes sense to standardise on a robust database to give us the performance and business continuity we need. We currently operate two Sun servers running Java and Solaris technology, and we will maintain these in the short-term. In the future we can either supplement the Sun platform with new Intel servers clustered together using Oracle Real Application Clusters or, alternatively, we can fully migrate from Sun to an Intel-only clustered platform. We’ll be evaluating the cost-benefits for the various scenarios over the next few months and expect to make a decision on our final architecture later this year.” It is hoped that an Oracle Real Application Cluster 10g platform could bring greater price, performance and flexibility benefits.

Whiteside is dismissive of suggestions that favourable pricing has perhaps been a powerful influence in the university’s choice of platforms. Yes, he says, the university does get educational discounts but a glance at any total cost of ownership model will tell you that other factors are far more significant – what you want to achieve, for example, and the expense of continuing support.

Chaffe concurs, emphasising that the core strategy has been to standardise the core set of services that support all users. “The faculties will offer their services and there might be some variety at the edge,” he says. “The researchers will use whatever tools they know because their business isn’t the technology – it’s their research. It’s about flexibility. We need solid, more traditional IT at the core.”

The nature of the university’s operations – in particular its research focus – places a huge emphasis on middleware and pure computing grunt for interaction with research data. Researchers mapping the human genome, for example, process vast masses of data. The university has already delved into grid technology. The faculty of science, in particular, has delivered some powerful grid complexes.

Scientists are also finding themselves making greater use of academics outside their professions. Experts in statistics analysis, computing and the biological sciences are coming together to make sense of the data they are gathering.

And that’s where the lingua franca of a common underlying platform will prove hugely valuable, although the scientists will still want to opt for what they know best. As Whiteside says, you cannot mandate easily to academics.

Yes, says Chaffe: “You have to make the systems attractive to their users. This is human nature. If something is easy to use and useful, and it doesn’t cost the users too much, that’s where they will go.”

Perhaps the key to cooperation will lie in collaboration and debate. “Academics are very interested in saving costs and being efficient and effective,” says Whiteside. “We generally find we can have sensible debate and agree on solutions. The collaborative process might not always work but I think a highly intelligent user community can have successful debates to sort things out.”

It helps to have the greater university participating in defining IT governance, says Chaffe. “They are very interested in the IT infrastructure and they play an important role in helping us drive that…”

In fact, says Whiteside, there are three forums between the IT strategy and policy committee. One is the technical forum, the other is an administrative forum and the third – and most effective – is the academic forum.

Meanwhile higher learning is striving to move forward despite having a major inhibitor in the lack of a national research and education network – although that has been promised by IT Minister David Cunliffe for the fourth quarter of this year. “A lot of people overseas assume we don’t have access to a high-speed research and engineering network, which means we miss out on collaboration and have to make up for it in other ways,” says Whiteside. “And, being in New Zealand, we stretch our dollar far better than our overseas counterparts do. We have to be effective in doing that and clever in the way we use our money. So maybe we are not as visible as scientists in other countries but there is definitely a lot of activity going on here.”

Chaffe joins with Whiteside in a passionate plea for the academic network. “Our advanced network is the key to enabling our guys to participate more in the international community.”

If New Zealand is to attract high-quality academic and research staff, it must have a first-world communications infrastructure, says Whiteside. “Are they going to be willing to leave their environment for a lifestyle move here, now matter how attractive it is, and be cut off from the rest of the world?”, he asks.

Returning to issues closer to home, Whiteside agrees there has been a lot of speculation about how Oracle’s takeover of PeopleSoft will affect the user community. It’s an important issue for Whiteside and the university because all of the campus administrative functions are running on PeopleSoft applications. “We are quite positive about it,” he says. “We feel that a stronger local office with more people will be quite good for us, as will a combined development effort. We have made a significant investment in both Oracle and PeopleSoft and, as a result, the merger makes us more confident in our future migration paths. The combined Oracle and PeopleSoft companies mean more choice for us going forward.” The university is New Zealand’s second largest PeopleSoft site.

“One of the key benefits is that we’ll have a better support organisation. In a small country like New Zealand, large international vendors often struggle to provide the levels of service and support required. Oracle has a strong support arm that will be enormously beneficial to us and other PeopleSoft customers.”

Chaffe says disaster recovery is one of Oracle’s strengths. “It’s important. We are well placed in our toolsets.”

Moving forward, the university is finding new ways to exploit and expand its database platform. It is creating a data centre for the new Business and Economics Department, which will be completed in late 2006. “The ability to run all of our enterprise systems on the one platform makes this a very straightforward migration,” said Whiteside. “The consolidation of all our databases also assists our disaster recovery programme by giving us a simple, uncomplicated environment that can be easily replicated into a dual system.”

SIDEBAR STORY

Discord on campus

While Auckland University’s Stephen Whiteside has a hugely positive story to tell about the institution’s ERP implementation, some US universities have had to cope with their worst nightmare – failure at enrolment time…

By Thomas Wailgum

When Stefanie Fillers returned to the University of Massachusetts-Amherst campus last year, she needed to log into the school's new online registration system, called Spire, to make certain that the courses she had signed up for would allow her to graduate. She also wanted to waive her participation in UMass's health insurance plan. So when Spire crashed the day before classes began, Fillers, a senior, was annoyed. But at least she knew where her classes were -- unlike most first-year students.

"The freshmen were going crazy because they didn't know where to go," Fillers says. The Spire system allows all 24,000 students at the Amherst campus to register for classes and perform other online activities. So when it crashed as the result of a PeopleSoft web portal implementation that had been rushed, classes were half-empty for the first three days of the semester. And there were long lines everywhere you looked.

Around the same time, returning Stanford University students were also welcomed by a non-functioning web portal that prevented them from finding out where their classes were. And 3000 students at Indiana University were denied financial aid by a buggy new ERP system, even though they had already received loan commitments. While the IT department and financial aid administrators scrambled to fix the bugs in the complex system, short-term loans were processed for those cash-strapped coeds who needed to pay for classes, rent and food.

These campus meltdowns illustrate how the growing reliance on expensive ERP systems has created nightmare scenarios for some college CIOs. In every case, the new systems are designed to centralise business processes in what historically has been a hodgepodge of siloed legacy systems. And indeed, that's exactly why college administrators are drawn to ERP systems. They drool over the integrated views that an ERP system offers of finance, HR, student records, financial aid and more.

But those same officials often fail to see the enormous cultural and technical obstacles that can delay -- and even cripple -- such ambitious implementations. A recent US survey found that university ERP implementations have taken far longer than expected and cost five times more than what the projected price tag was. "There are a lot of people who have scar tissue from ERP failures,” says Bob Weir, vice-president of IS at Northeastern University.

ERP implementations are difficult, even in very top-down corporate environments. Getting them to work in universities, which are essentially a conglomeration of decentralised fiefdoms, is nearly impossible. Staff in the largely autonomous departments do not cotton well to the one-size-fits-all strategy of an ERP implementation. Yet for universities, developing all software in-house is not an option. These non-profit organisations simply don't have the talent and financial resources to create and manage a robust enterprise system. Indeed, representatives from PeopleSoft, which dominates the higher education market for ERP, say that a large part of the problem results from the inexperience of university IT departments and their tendency to rush implementations and inadequately test the new systems.

There is, however, a workable alternative, according to some university CIOs who have endured ERP implementations and lived to tell about it. And that is using an integration middleware layer to stitch together a number of best-of-breed applications. In this environment, the integration layer allows CIOs to plug legacy systems into newer web-based applications. Northeastern's Weir is using this approach to provide state-of-the-art systems for NU's students and administrators.

"The beauty of the web is that you can do it all behind the curtain, using a relatively steady interface," he says.

ERP or bust

By the mid-1990s, most university administrative systems were a disconnected mess of legacy applications. Forward-thinking administrators knew that they needed to graduate their aging homegrown systems. College administrators loved the idea of having an HR management, financial and student administration system that could unite offices and departments. PeopleSoft was one of the first ERP vendors to promise that views into financial aid information, class enrollment and registration data, staff benefits and faculty course loads would be available in real-time, with increased efficiencies and reduced costs.

The pitch worked.

At the end of 2004, PeopleSoft could boast more than 730 college and university installations, and it was the clear leader in higher ed. However, universities also purchased financial systems from other vendors. One university that bought into the ERP pitch early on was Cleveland State, and it now serves as a cautionary tale for CIOs. In a suit Cleveland State filed against PeopleSoft, the university alleged that the vendor sold it virtually unusable software that caused Cleveland State to lose millions of dollars in revenue because it couldn't collect accounts receivables, and subsequently, it had to install other software to do the job. (On February 25, Oracle -- which has since acquired PeopleSoft -- and Cleveland State settled. News sources estimate the undisclosed settlement at US$4.25 million.)

Northeastern is another university that succumbed to the ERP siren song, initially at least. The urban Boston university had long-term plans to reinvent itself into a US News & World Report top 100 institution, and at the heart of this overhaul would be PeopleSoft software. "My predecessor and his boss bought it hook, line and sinker," Weir says. Northeastern's former president and the head of IS purchased 22 modules and wanted them installed by Y2K.

In 1998, with his predecessors shown the door and an IS department in disarray, Weir took the top IT job at Northeastern. The new administration charged him with getting the derailed ERP project back on track. The first thing Weir did was bring the administration's expectations back to reality. Instead of installing 22 modules before Y2K, Weir scaled back the plan to just one: PeopleSoft's HR application would replace the non-compliant Y2K homegrown app. He further winnowed the scope down to exclude Northeastern's 11,000 part-time employees from the HR application: only the 4000 full-time employees would be in the upgraded system for now. "We had a Y2K deadline, and we bludgeoned our way to the goal," Weir says.

He managed to get through Y2K, but a major question remained: How would he handle the other enterprise system rollouts staring him in the face?

Standardising at Stanford

Like Northeastern, Stanford University also bought into the late '90s enterprise software pitch. But unlike Northeastern, Stanford never slowed down its implementation engine. "In hindsight, we tried to do too much in too little time," says Randy Livingston, Stanford's vice-president of business affairs and CFO.

Starting in 2001, Stanford implemented student administration systems, PeopleSoft HR, Oracle financials and several other ancillary applications. Four years later, users still complain that they have lower productivity with the new systems than with the previous ones, which were supported by a highly customised mainframe. Users also have had difficulties in accessing critical information on a timely basis. Livingston says many transactions -- such as initiating a purchase requisition or requesting a reimbursement -- take longer for users to do than with the prior legacy system.

Stanford has also not realised any of the projected savings the vendors promised. "We are finding that the new ERP applications cost considerably more to support than our legacy applications," Livingston says. And he doesn't know how much it will cost to get the enterprise systems working at the level everyone was accustomed to.

But Stanford's biggest problem is that its IT department is still trying to get campuswide buy-in for the enterprise applications, which have necessitated new ways of doing business. And that either leads to non-use of the new systems or costly customisations to keep everyone happy. For example, Stanford's law school operates on a semester schedule, while the other six schools operate on a trimester schedule. "This means that every aspect of the student administration system needs to be configured differently for the law school," Livingston says. Within the schools, some faculty are paid a 12-month salary; other schools pay by nine months, 10 months or 11 months. "The standard HR payroll system is not designed to handle all these unusual pay schedules," Livingston says.

Livingston has his work cut out for him now that his CIO, Chris Handley, resigned in December 2004 and forced him to take over the IT reins. Livingston has since reorganised the IT department, which he hopes will be better able to manage the enterprise projects going forward. He created a separate administrative systems group that will report directly to him, with responsibility for development, integration and support of the major ERP systems.

The hurdles Stanford and other universities face with the new ERP system are largely cultural ones. For instance, lean staffs and tight budgets at most university campuses usually lead to a lack of proper training and systems testing. At Stanford, Livingston says that plenty of training was offered, but many users didn't take it. He has set up new training programmes, including a group who sit side by side with users to help them learn how to do certain complex tasks. There are also periodic user group meetings; website and email lists that offer more help and expert users embedded in the various departments to aid their colleagues.

Stanford's IT was still struggling with integrating the enterprise systems when the newly launched PeopleSoft web portal (called Axess) crashed last year. Like the new UMass portal, Axess couldn't handle the load of all the returning students trying to log in to the untested web-based system at the same time, Livingston says. Stanford was able to fix those problems relatively quickly, but Livingston and his staff continue to struggle with the enterprise projects. The university's departments remain "highly suspicious and resistant" of his efforts to standardise and centralise business processes, Livingston says.

Overloaded at UMass

At the University of Massachusetts, IT hoped to originally have the web portal rollout installed by March 2004. Delays in testing the Spire system, however, forced them up against an immovable deadline: the return of 24,000 students to campus over Labour Day weekend.

By midday on the Tuesday after the long weekend, the system choked after some periods of slowness, says John Dubach, CIO at UMass-Amherst. It stayed down for four days at the most crucial time of the year -- when students needed to add or drop classes and find out where their classes were on campus.

Dubach would later realise that his staff did not do enough load testing on Spire. A configuration problem with the password system also reared its ugly head. An explanatory email had been sent out to the students, informing them of the password requirements in the new system. It turns out no one read the email and as a result students flooded the "I forgot my password" option because they couldn't log in. After about a thousand of these requests, the system buckled. "We didn't test for a thousand password requests," Dubach says.

The opening day nightmare was compounded by the fact that PeopleSoft seemed unable to help. "We were looking for help left and right," Dubach says. "PeopleSoft had suggestions but no solutions to anything. They hadn't had that much experience with the portal in this type of environment."

PeopleSoft representatives see it differently. Jim McGlothlin, now a vice-president with Oracle who also worked for PeopleSoft, says that onsite consultants for the vendor did help UMass out. McGlothlin says universities sometimes experience problems with the software because of their tight deadlines and inadequate load testing of the new system. "You need to allow a couple of weeks to do proper load testing," he says.

After four long days and nights, Dubach and his staff were able to corner most of the problems. Students and faculty were allowed back onto the system without restriction the following Monday. A few periods of slowness raised the anxiety levels during the weeks after, but the system never went down again. Dubach reports that student registration in November classes went smoothly.

Dubach took away some valuable lessons. First off, he says he was naive about the amount of testing and fine-tuning such a new and intensive system demanded. In the future, Dubach says, he will try to coordinate hardware upgrades with application upgrades. When he buys new hardware, he will install the software upgrades on the new hardware, test it and have it working perfectly before he replaces the old systems with the new ones.

While Dubach says he is going to stick it out with PeopleSoft, in large part because UMass has already purchased the software licences, some university CIOs say there is an easier way.

Middleware to the rescue

From the looks of it, Northeastern's student self-service portal, called MyNEU, has all the features of a modern-day web portal, like Stanford's Axess and UMass's Spire. Each student's personalised site has links enabling him to check his courses, grades, finals schedule and, if he has a campus job, his latest payroll information.

But who would ever believe that lurking behind it all is a 25-year-old Cobol mainframe, chugging along. "It works like a champ," says Weir. The interface keeps the student body happy and permits Weir to keep that mainframe in service while he works on other forward-facing applications.

Weir and his staff are able to integrate the front ends and back ends by using using middleware — in this case, IBM's WebSphere product among others. So while HTML and Java code allow students to use the add-drop class function on their MyNEU page, WebSphere is doing the heavy lifting behind the scenes, interactively "typing" the web information into the mainframe. In this way, Northeastern's IT can utilise web interfaces to keep the front end looking pretty without having to rip out the back end with every upgrade. "The beauty of the web is that you can mask all of that to the customer," Weir adds.

Weir hasn't completely abandoned enterprise applications. His team is just now putting the finishing touches on the PeopleSoft HR system it began working on back in 1998; those 11,000 part-time workers are finally being added to the HR system. In February 2002, NU also finished a PeopleSoft contributor relations module that it started in 2001.

Weir's approach has been to use the PeopleSoft software where applicable and to add other elements to the system as needed, integrating everything via the middleware layer. Some may call it "lipstick on a pig", but Weir and his staff are in the process of freeing themselves from the slog of ERP implementations and upgrades. And the key advantage of this approach is that IS matches software to the department's needs -- and doesn't try to force departmental processes onto the software, which can result in costly customisations.

In this environment, Northeastern will have the flexibility to unplug one app from the mainframe, plug in another application and not worry about integrating the two applications in the same tightly coupled way you need to with standard ERP integration. Right now, integration is "like a pile of spaghetti. If you take one meatball out, you’ve got to hook back up all those noodles," Weir says.

In the future, he believes that web services will allow easier removal of the various applications. "You can pull [applications] out and hold the rest of them steady," he says. Weir also plans on buying enterprise-wide software from vendors that offer open architectural standards and interfaces. Some ERP vendors, including Oracle, are making noise about doing just that.

"I'll never rely 100% on any one vendor," Weir says. "They don't have everything you need."

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