Interoperability

SIF 3.0

It's not here yet, but it's on the way. And what it has in store-- full support for web services-- promises to throw open new avenues of data integration for school districts.

SIF 3.0ONE OF THE EARLIEST ADOPTERS of the Schools Interoperability Framework (SIF), Joe Kitchens, superintendent of Western Heights Public Schools in Oklahoma City, awaits the impending arrival of its newest adaptation. "I was there when 1.0 came out," he says, "and I'll be there when 3.0 is released."

Kitchens' zeal is well founded. Six years ago, he began employing SIF, a specification for data sharing among educational software applications, to link Western Heights' student information system to a handful of applications, allowing integration among the SIS and the district's nutrition, library, and gradebook programs. "We weren't trying to be pioneers," he says. "We were just trying not to get lost in our own data. We looked around and it just seemed to us that the SIF process was the most promising approach to bringing together all of our multiple data sources."

The district has continued to add applications in stages. Today that original handful has grown to 10 disparate software applications that can share information.

The interoperability of these applications has dramatically improved the quality of the district's data-- and saved it a ton of money. "For every dollar we've ever put into the SIF business, we've gotten three back in return," Kitchens says.

Now on the horizon is the approaching, though yet to be determined release date of SIF 3.0, the next major update to the specification. Western Heights is committed to adding software to its systems that is SIF compliant, and this new version (code name Columbus) is likely to give the district more vendors to choose from-- maybe a lot more-- because it will be arriving with a profound upgrade: full support for web services.

What's ZIS All About?

To appreciate what web services support means in the life of this evolving spec, you have to understand a couple of things about the architecture that makes it work.

First proposed in 1997, the SIF is an "implementation specification," or a kind of blueprint that describes how information can be exchanged among applications in a K-12 setting. The SIF architecture relies on a software server called a Zone Integration Server (ZIS) and message gateways called agents. Think of a ZIS as the data-integration broker among applications that support the SIF spec. It provides a channel for transport and for controlling access to data. SIF agents are pieces of code that reside within a software application, or next to it, and serve as extensions of it in interactions with each other via the ZIS. Agents move messages to and from the message queue and translate an application's native data model.

Like the SIF spec, web services use Extensible Markup Language (XML) to tag data, but where the SIF agents are tied to the ZIS architecture, web services use a more generalized set of standards to get different types of software to talk to each other over the internet without human intervention. Web services are components in software applications that allow other applications to access an app's data and capabilities over the internet. You could also think of web services as pieces of software that make themselves available to other software over the internet. What matters here is that these services also allow computer programs to share information, data, and services, and lots of software vendors use them.

By the time the World Wide Web Consortium, an international organization that develops standards for the web, had offered its first definition of web services, the term was already on the radar of the Schools Interoperability Framework Association, the group that developed and maintains the SIF specification and serves as the vendor certification authority. In fact, SIFA released a web services reporting specification in 2006, but virtually none of the educational software vendors used it. The organization expects a different response to the Columbus release because it will lock in the necessary web services extensions, effectively getting everyone on the same page.

"ISVs [independent software vendors] that have balked at writing agents but know how to write web services-- and there are a lot of them out there-- will be able to develop SIF-enabled applications for the education market using any web-service-development tool set," explains SIFA framework architect Ron Kleinman. "This is the road to the future for us."

Kleinman emphasizes that the changes planned for SIF 3.0 are evolutionary, not revolutionary. The basic architecture remains the same, he says; SIFA is simply opening it to web services as well as SIF agents. He adds that the schools and districts interested in implementing that architecture should not wait for web services to become a part of the SIF implementation specification.

"If you're thinking of deploying a zone or buying agents, rest assured that they will play even in a web service zone," Kleinman says. "We would be crazy to betray our established user base and walk away from thousands of deployed zones with this release. It's not going to happen."

Wherefore Columbus?

SIF 3.0HOW DID SIF 3.0 COME BY its code name Columbus? "It's not because we're taking the spec to a new world," says Ron Kleinman, framework architect for the Schools Interoperability Framework Association (SIFA), which developed and maintains the SIF specification. "That would make what we've got now the old world, and it's definitely not that. It's just because it was originally conceived in Columbus, OH."

Patrick Plant, director of technology for the Anoka-Hennepin School District in Coon Rapids, MN, and a longtime SIFA board member, says that SIFA has been tracking the evolution of web services for some time.

"They are used quite a bit in higher ed and in business," he says, "and it's an attractive model, but they hadn't been such a good fit for K-12 because you need a development staff to complete the programming that web services require. Most school districts don't have that kind of staff available to them. And you'd be talking about creating custom interfaces to complete the components."

Anoka-Hennepin is the largest K-12 school district in Minnesota. Located north of the Twin Cities, it serves about 40,500 students and 248,000 residents living in 13 communities. It was also one of the first districts to implement the SIF specification. According to Plant, a beta version was in place at Anoka-Hennepin in the summer of 1999.

"We recognized that only through some kind of integration system could we effectively manage these expanding stores of siloed data," he says. "[No Child Left Behind] would later emerge as a driver of this integration, but just the notion of systemic use of the information was appealing. It became clear that we couldn't leave it all in silos. The creation of the SIF specification solved that problem. In fact, it was created to do just that."

Plant says he's looking forward to the web services support because it will expand his district's choice of vendors. He points to a popular internet service for organizing and managing professional development called MyLearningPlan, which Anoka-Hennepin uses as part of a staff development registration package.

"They don't currently have a SIF agent," Plant says, "so we haven't been able to bring them into our SIF infrastructure to take advantage of what we have in place. We'd love them to have a SIF agent, but it's one of those situations where there doesn't seem to be enough demand to make it worth their while. But they do have a web service.

"Keep in mind that web services are not plug-and-play," Plant adds. "If a vendor is offering a web service, ultimately someone has to write the code that allows that web service to interface with the system. But it provides another, now widely used methodology. And that's a good thing."

Evolution and Demand

SIF 3.0 adds another page to the evolving technology blueprint that is the SIF implementation specification, says Larry Fruth, SIFA's executive director. But he sees his organization's decision to support web services as part of both a logical evolution and a direct response to demand.

"I represent a K-12 constituency, mostly schools and states, and I can tell you that they're getting data requests from health care, criminal justice, higher education, the workforce, early childhood-- all different verticals from what they're used to," Fruth says. "Those verticals may have their own systems built on web service technologies. So this is a natural extension of what our audience wants."

SIFA has enjoyed dramatic growth over the last few years, seeing its membership, which includes both individuals and organizations, bloom from 68 just five years ago to more than 2,000 at the end of 2008, and double in the past year alone, thanks largely to the arrival of SIF 2.0.

Released in October 2006, the 2.0 specification upped the number of data objects that SIF defines from 89 to 102, allowing a wider range of applications to share data. Among the newly defined data objects were gradebook functionality, student discipline, and attendance, in addition to redesigned objects for student assessment and benchmarking data.

SIFA currently lists 18 government agencies among its members, including the US Department of Education and 10 state departments of education. But because the SIF itself is an open specification, it's tough to track the number of actual implementations.

"Anyone can implement it and develop for it," says Jill Abbott, SIFA's associate executive director and COO. "What we do know is that we're in all 50 states. We're actually working with 14 states on statewide implementations for vertical interoperability. And we're global; we've formalized our organizational structure in the United Kingdom, and we're finalizing the paperwork for the SIF Association AU in Australia."

"To make the most of the data we value, we need a truly open environment-- like the SIF-based architecture is now. I need the flexibility that allows me to recombine data from disparate systems. And I won't be satisfied without it."

No one at SIFA can say exactly when SIF 3.0 will be unveiled, because it's what the organization calls a "major" release. Unlike "dot" releases, which Abbott explains come along twice a year and don't involve big changes, a major release is, well, major. Everything is up for grabs, she says.

Fruth says that those companies that have already made an investment in building a SIF agent shouldn't worry about the future of the ZIS architecture. SIFA is committed to supporting that model of interfacing to SIF for the long term.

"Our reference infrastructure is never going away," Fruth says. "It's stable, solid, and predictable. But the fact is, some of the vendors have gone the web services route. I'm convinced that, for out-of-the-box interoperability, you can't beat our infrastructure. But to bring some of the big players to the table-- the Oracles and the IBMs-- web services has to be a part of the conversation."

Calling All Vendors

Meredith Bickell, technical services supervisor for the Wyoming Department of Education, would be happy to see the smaller educational software vendors join that conversation.

In 2005, Wyoming contracted with SIF integration solutions provider Edustructures for a statewide implementation of the SIF specification. Called the Wyoming Integrated Statewide Education Data System, it was the first statewide deployment of software based on the SIF spec.

"Our data quality within the districts has improved immensely," Bickell says. "That's been the key piece for us. When we started this implementation, we had 11 student information systems within the state, and now we have three. We've standardized within the state, and that has hugely improved our data quality by, among other things, reducing the number of data entry points. We can turn around district-level data collections much quicker. Our collection windows for things like enrollment, attendance, crime and violence, and even staff demographics-- quite disparate types of data-- are now only two weeks."

The implementation focused on developing a vertical framework for reporting to state and national departments of education. Now the district is looking at horizontal data interoperability among applications at the school and district levels. The problem, says Bickell, is that many of the educational software vendors just aren't developing SIF agents.

"As we've begun to put this horizontal piece in place, we've found that the vendors aren't keeping up with what we need," she says. "For example, there's no good SIF agent for special education IEP [individualized education program] monitoring software in the district. The special education vendors are writing SIF agents, but they're only passing [basic] student data objects. They're not passing the IEP information, and that's where we're suffering right now."

Bickell says that the original plan was to implement 10 SIF agents within each district, but she says the state has yet to find 10 vendors to provide them.

Edustructures is a well-known, Utah-based provider of SIF-certified educational applications. Its SIFWorks Integration Platform is built to support all versions of the SIF spec. The company's president, Steve Curtis, says that despite Edustructures' commitment to the ZIS-based architecture and its catalog of SIF agents, it's ready for version 3.0. "I think it's great news. In fact, Edustructures has led the introduction of web services into the SIF specification. We've been trying to push that agenda forward for a couple of years now."

Curtis doesn't doubt Fruth's assurance that SIFA will remain committed to the ZIS architecture in future versions of SIF. The central message broker-- ZIS-- where the integration can be administered, secured, monitored, and configured, is the lynchpin of the system. "That's where the primary benefits of SIF are and will continue to be," he says. "It's the central component of the SIF architecture, which will be part of SIF 3.0 and beyond."

But he adds: "True interoperability is best accomplished when applications can be purchased and put into service in an integrated model, without significant customization or modification. We should continue to make it as easy as possible for applications to interface with SIF. Support of a web service transport is a logical step in the evolution of SIF, and application vendors that would never have written a SIF agent will be more likely to embrace SIF when they can do it using a traditional web service interface."

Wait-and-See Mode

Without the kind of integration that SIF allows, districts simply couldn't make the most of their data, which would then make it impossible for them to carry out an essential part of their educational mission.

For example, although Western Heights is a long-time user and supporter of the SIF spec, it uses the Scantron Achievement Series, which doesn't currently offer a SIF agent. The web-based districtwide assessment platform allows K-12 educators to develop and administer online and paper-based tests, to capture immediate results, and to produce standards-based reports. Superintendent Kitchens is a big fan of the tool, but because Scantron is without a SIF agent it's very difficult for him to integrate the data it generates with other applications in his district.

Links

"It's web-based, so teachers have to go to a website to see the results of an assessment," Kitchens explains. "That's useful, of course, but I don't want to go to the website and just look. I want to retain that information and use it. But because it doesn't offer a SIF agent, none of that data comes back to my district. I can't recombine it with other data and ship it out of my data warehouse to, say, parents. To do that, I'd have to pull it out, and that's very difficult."

Kitchens is hopeful about the expansion of the ZIS architecture to include web services, but for now he's in wait-and-see mode. "Educating children is one of the most complex things human beings do," he says. "We're not building widgets here. To make the most of the data we value, we need a truly open environment-- like the SIF-based architecture is now. I need the flexibility that allows me to recombine data from disparate systems. And I won't be satisfied without it."

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This article originally appeared in the 8/1/2009 issue of THE Journal.

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