California State Fullerton Distributes SIS Functionality Via the Internet

It's a fact - the Internet has fundamentally changed the rules for information delivery. True, the technology is still maturing, but today it provides a growing range of capabilities that did not exist two years ago. Many experts contend that this emergence is having as profound of an effect on society as the printing press. For those institutions striving to be change agents in higher education, the Internet presents a totally new set of tools to distribute information systems' functionality to new and existing clients. California State University (CSU) at Fullerton is one such organization.

CSU-Fullerton, like most other universities, has invested many years and millions of dollars developing, enhancing and maintaining sophisticated, legacy-based student systems. These systems contain sets of complex business logic which power the thousands of daily, menial tasks that keep classrooms open and research ongoing. The problem: in this model, legacy application functionality exists only for individuals with a connection to CSU-Fullerton mainframe facilities; i.e., a very small, captive audience. But replacing this functionality is an enormous effort and distributing it to remote clients is difficult and expensive. External customers typically must interface with the organization via "customer service physics." For example, if a student needs to resolve a billing problem they must go to Student Financial Services and a trained person must help them interpret system information.

CSU-Fullerton, seeing the inherent problems in this type of system, is changing the rules. It is organizing a consortium to spearhead the development of a suite of Web-enabled applications which distribute the functionality of its Student Information System software without modifying the mainframe applications.

Sherri Newcomb, CFO at CSU-Fullerton explains: "The problems of legacy information systems as perceived by users and management are largely I/O in nature - the input of data is cumbersome and legacy systems have not allowed for the efficient workflow distribution of input; and the output has been inflexible, untimely and paper-based. These limitations have negatively impacted our bottom line, both in terms of finance and service."

Meeting Goals with New Tools

The goals of the CSU consortium project are:

  • Provide application functionality to new distributed users (including students, instructors and administrators) by giving them access via the Internet with no need to deploy a propriety backbone network. An example of this goal is that students using any desktop computer with a Web browser and Internet access can register and drop/add online in real time while accessing general account information.
  • Reduce operating costs through elimination of administrative overhead.
  • Increase student satisfaction through new service physics.
  • Provide interoperability by using a standard Web browser running on any platform.
  • Extend the life of legacy systems and associated investments through implementation of a Web-enabled application.

A server-based, Web-enabled prototype application has already been developed that interfaces with Fullerton's student systems on their mainframe. The application directly accesses and updates information on student billing, holds, registration and general information. The prototype, developed by Computer Systems Development, Inc., (Albuquerque, N.M.) uses Salvo, a middleware product created by Simware (Ottawa, Canada) to access legacy data and transform it into information presented in a GUI form. "Internet technologies such as Salvo allow us to inexpensively overcome [legacy system-based] problems while leveraging the benefits of and investment in our legacy systems," says Newcomb.

Designed as a Web-centric application server, Salvo provides both a development and deployment framework which effectively blends Web and IS environments. Data captured by Salvo can be interpreted, transformed and enhanced using REXX, Visual Basic, or JavaScript and presented via HTML as an intuitive GUI, which completely replaces the familiar and arcane "green screens."

How it All Works

The user initiates an ODBC or HTTP request through an application or a Web browser. The request is sent to Salvo, running on a centralized server with access to multiple existing platforms. A single user session may create, using the application rules (instructions), multiple queries to multiple applications and/or ODBC-compliant databases.

The results of these queries are assembled, acted upon by a Salvo application, and presented back to the user in a GUI form via a Web browser interface. Salvo addresses data- and field-level security concerns through various security administration mechanics, including data-level security via Secure Socket Layers (SSL) and field-level security via rules defined by a Salvo administrator. Application functionality is presented based upon the user's authorization.

The Internet, in combination with the Salvo product, has the potential to change the face of information systems and the institutions these systems support. Giving both Internet access, and systems such as these, to students, instructors and administrators alike has the potential to change the way information systems operate forever.

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This article originally appeared in the 12/01/1997 issue of THE Journal.