On Open Standards

Is interoperability and vendor independence a mirage?

WITH ALL OF THE RECENT discussion about open source software, open standards may not be receiving the attention it deserves. People often become interested in open source software like Sakai (www.sakaiproject.org) or uPortal (www.uportal.org) because it is free of licensing charges, or because it allows programmers unfettered access to the source code. On the other hand, open standards can be implemented in either commercial or open-license software, and, in the long run, its impact on higher ed may be much broader than that of open source software.

For instance, you might look to open standards if you wanted to insulate your institution from the risks of proprietary systems that are put in jeopardy when the software vendor behind those systems is acquired by a competitor. Or, you might want to be able to freely substitute one application module (such as housing or degree audit) for another, mixing and matching vendors without having to rewrite expensive interfaces each time. Or you might even be developing your own add-on modules, perhaps to provide services through your portal, and you want to guarantee that the interfaces you build will not have to be changed when one of the underlying applications changes.

Are We There Yet?

How close are we to a “plug-compatible” level of interoperability among applications? How real is the prospect of community-based, vendor-embraced open standards? Depending on the area of business functionality, the answer ranges from “It’s all hype,” to “Done deal.” Many of the more interesting areas of functionality are somewhere in the middle: “We’re working on it.”

Registrars, bursars, admissions and financial aid officers, and others who need to shuffle student academic credentials among various computer systems and across institutions, have come together in a well-developed open standards organization, the Postsecondary Electronic Standards Council (www.pesc.org). PESC’s purpose is to bring together the education, government, and commercial players, as well as the major professional associations, to establish standards for the exchange of administrative data. PESC presides over one of the best-established standards in higher education, the format for exchanging electronic transcripts. One of PESC’s recent achievements has been to update the older EDI standard for transcripts into the newer XML format.

But PESC works within self-imposed limits. “Our real function,” says director Michael Sessa, “has been to standardize student-related administrative data like transcripts, test scores, admissions applications, financial aid, and degree audit. That’s our sweet spot. But we don’t run systems; we don’t have products.” PESC leaves it to institutions, service providers, and software vendors to decide how the business logic will process these standardized forms of data.

Open Standards in Action

At Northern Illinois University, a participant in PESC, standards play an important part in vital operations. “Let’s say a student at the College of DuPage, the largest community college in Illinois, wants to transfer to Northern,” says Donald Larson, registrar and executive director of Enrollment Services. “By using CAS [the Course Applicability System], the student can request a degree audit showing all the courses she would need to take to finish her degree at Northern.”

The magic behind this is that CAS provides a way to accept a standard-format electronic transcript from the student record system at the College of DuPage, and combine it with articulation agreement information from Northern, which is kept in a compatible standard format. Since Northern is migrating from a legacy system to Oracle PeopleSoft (www.peoplesoft.com), Larson is very interested in applying standard interfaces to other parts of the system, such as the handling of admissions applications that come in from the online application service, XAP (www.xap.com).

Sonny Monfort, project director of Enterprise IS at the Georgia Institute of Technology, thinks that the big application vendors see their business interests veering more in the direction of openness and interoperability. Georgia Tech has been following the trend closely, and has tested the beta version of SCT Banner 7 (www.sct.com) , a breakthrough in interoperability.

With the recently announced SCT Banner 7, SunGard SCT provides a much more “interconnectable” architecture than has previously existed, making available an extensive array of application programming interfaces (APIs) built according to the Web services model. According to Josh Horner, portal product manager at SunGard SCT, “We are starting to rewrite all internal SCT Banner components as Web services, based on a business object catalog.” The magic of APIs is that they provide a standard way for one software module to make use of another, either within the same application suite or across vendor boundaries. Ideally, even if the underlying programming changes, the API stays the same. SCT Banner’s first major external hookup will be with housing systems, followed by one-card, library, eProcurement, and bookstore systems.

“Since I’ve seen the first parts of the Banner API come out and work well, I’m excited about it,” says Georgia Tech’s Monfort. “We’re a big university with a lot of systems that get information from Banner, and need to put it back in. We’ve written a lot of homegrown interfaces, and we plan to get away from that.” Monfort is particularly keen on the APIs for the registration module. Georgia Tech wants to develop a registration system for non-credit, continuing, distance, and professional ed courses that has a different look and feel from the online registration for traditional students. But under the covers, it must work identically. APIs in Banner will make that much easier to achieve.

Vendor Vulnerability

Will the vendors lose out if it becomes too easy to plug in a separate housing or degree-audit module? Michael Zackrison, senior product manager of Portal, Community, and Collaboration Solutions at SunGard SCT, d'esn’t think so. “As long as our solutions provide value and we’re a good partner, the market will reward us with business. By opening up systems, we open up a whole range of possibilities of what our customers can do; possibilities that we aren’t even thinking of now. But that will only happen if we are working in a standards-based environment.”

SAP (www.sap.com) is also looking at interoperability. “We want to position SAP not just as a series of ERP components,” says Malcolm Woodfield, director of Global Business Development for Higher Education & Research, “but as a platform or environment that lets you operate horizontally across the institution. Then other applications can be added without expensive interfaces and integrations.” For example, he says, SAP is building cross applications that support research management, pulling functionality out of core ERP areas. The ERP data will be combined with specialized programs that track environmental health and safety, reporting on hazardous materials and the like. SAP is already evolving its solutions according to the Enterprise Services Architecture blueprint, based on the SAP NetWeaver platform, to allow customers to build their own applications on top of existing enterprise solutions.

“Higher education is a best-of-breed world,” says Woodfield. No doubt this is one reason behind higher ed’s persistent interest in open standards and other methods of getting disparate systems to work together more easily. That’s why it’s a safe bet we’ll see even more progress toward standard interfaces from both the community groups and the commercial vendors.

comments powered by Disqus