Java: Lending A Helping Hand

The academic and research in-dustry
is expected to continu-ally develop new technologies and scientific breakthroughs while
contending with limited, often shrinking budgets and scarce resources. Institutions must
also be able to recruit the best candidates for their student body and research facilities
despite mounting competition from non-traditional sources. On top of that, they must often
contend with IT environments that are poorly integrated, leaving many departments with a
variety of platforms, network configurations and legacy applications to support and
maintain.

With its platform independence, Java computing enables the integration of disparate
platforms and securely extends the network beyond the desktop for universal information
access, exchange and retrieval. It allows application developers to ‘Write once, run
anywhere,’ drastically reducing development time and costs and greatly simplifying
software deployment and maintenance.

As a network-based environment, Java computing provides an ideal platform for integrating
additional technologies such as real-time, on-demand simulations, audio and video for
self-paced courses. And more importantly, it lets researchers securely perform
collaborative research with colleagues around the globe and easily transfer this
information into practical applications.

Integrating to succeed
As part of a $7-million project announced recently by Ontario’s Ministry of Education and
Training, 29 colleges across the province will soon share common students, human resources
and financial information systems. It’s all in the name of efficiency, with system-wide
information that is consistent, reliable and available at any time. “Colleges have
been looking for ways to streamline their operations in order to save money,” says
Guy Morazain, Executive Director of the Ontario College Application Service (OCAS).
“The logical group to turn to was OCAS because we’re in the business of serving
colleges.”

OCAS, based in Guelph, Ontario, was established five years ago to process applications and
confirmations of acceptance to Ontario’s 25 Colleges of Applied Arts and Technology, three
agricultural colleges as well as the Toronto-based Michener Institute for Applied Health
Sciences. Each year, OCAS manages approximately 1,50,000 new applications for the
provinces 2,50,000 full-time college students.

The challenge
While OCAS acts as a central clearing house for applications, each college must still run
its own internal computer system to assist accepted students with registration procedures
and ongoing campus activity.

Over the years, though, the landscape has been scattered with combinations of
off-the-shelf and home-grown software solutions running on different OSs. Some systems are
in desperate need of replacement while some have been recently acquired or developed and
may still be in implementation mode. And then there is the Y2K issue which is a big
concern at several colleges.

All of which made a good business case for a Java-based common information system to allow
all colleges in Ontario to use the same set of integrated software to support their three
mission-critical systems-student information, human resources and finance.

When the onus was put on OCAS to manage the development, implementation and maintenance of
the common information system, Morazain knew immediately that Sun’s Java platform was the
necessary ingredient in a project that would see all of the colleges networked within five
years. The OCAS online registration system is being rewritten in Java, reducing the lines
of code significantly.

“Java is the most promising tool because it is object-oriented, network-centric and
very scalable,” says Morazain, adding there’s a disparity in terms of bandwidth
because the colleges are spread over a wide geographic area. He adds, “Using a
multi-tier approach to Java end-to-end allows us to use databases as a commodity. And Java
supports a wide range of client stations as well-from a network computer to a PC-giving us
greater flexibility.”

At present, two Sun JavaStations and a Netra j server have been installed at the OCAS
office. A Sun Ultra Enterprise 3000 server is being used as the database development
platform. Over the next five years, additional Sun servers will be rolled out to each
college.

The solution
Implementation of Java-based common information systems will take place in stages. The
Client Information System (CIS), which was set for delivery in October 1998, allows
students with a personal identification number to change demographic information, check
admission status, register for courses, access time-tables and check grades.

The HR and financial components, developed by Atlanta-based Ross Systems Inc will be
rolled out to the colleges in groups of six, beginning in April 1998.
One of the most difficult aspects of the project involves the balance between shared
facilities and adequate response times. Morazain says that there are huge opportunities to
keep costs under control by sharing servers, database software and telecommunications
lines. But the WAN that links all servers and associated software outside the college’s
LAN must be fast enough to permit adequate response times for a business function within a
college.

The plan is to deploy software solutions with a shared flavor whereby servers are
positioned at optimum locations throughout the province. OS software, applications
software and even college data will be housed in such a way that the number of servers is
reduced. The caveat to this approach involves adequate line speeds accessing the servers.

“The biggest challenge will be to create a system that is common and shared, but
still has the ability to give local flavor and support local differences between each
college,” says Morazain. “We’re addressing this by creating a rules engine in
Java to allow each college to define its own set of business rules outside of the
programming language.”

What next
To curb uncertainty during the design and implementation phases of the project, OCAS is
keeping an open-door policy. All information-including press releases, meeting transcripts
and costs-is posted on the OCAS web site (www.ocas.on.ca).
One of the first proof-of-concept applications OCAS has developed is a Rapid Decision
Environment which allows people to conduct interactive discussions on various issues.
“The alternative would be to fly people in from all over Ontario, but that’s just not
feasible,” says Morazain. “Instead, we’ll meet on the net using Java.” With
the right tools in place, Morazain is confident that Ontario’s colleges will soon have a
common information system that’s set for the future.

“We looked at the horizon and understood that Java was here to stay,” says
Morazain. “Java will only get better and that’s important because we want to develop
a product today that will still be relevant when we finally have all of our colleges
networked to the common information system.”

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