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
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,
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.
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