School's integration team finds innovation without alienation

WINNER: Web Services

How do you help a team of developers learn to work with Web services when the version of the tool they are using predates the XML technology and thus does not support it?

Members of the FCPC Team: Back row: Michael Walter, Neel Phacke, Gary Pollcastro, Ted Davis. Center row: Jaye Cole, Kathie Higham, Ann Nagle, Vincent Kelso Brian Crooch. Front row: Robin Ward, Pam Poulos, Marisue Uhrich, Tariq Ahmed, Narendar Ramachandrudu.

That was the challenge facing Ted Davis, director, knowledge asset management, IT department at Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) in Alexandria, Va.

In the past year, FCPS undertook an EAI project designed to link student and administrative data systems, and eliminate what Davis called "spaghetti" architecture that had grown up over the years. The project would enable student data to be entered once and then allow it to be accessed by a variety of apps, from school bus scheduling to library book checkout.

As Davis explained in his documentation for the Innovator Awards: "FCPS has enterprise applications covering every major function. Like any large organization there are human resources, payroll, and financial management applications. However, like other school systems, there are also student information, library, transportation, food services, special education, and many instructional apps.

"The need for in-tegration among the many applications is great. For instance, the student information application maintains information on students. This information is needed by the transportation application so they can catch the bus. It is needed by the library application so they can check out books. It is needed by the food services application so they can pay for meals."

The EAI project used a brokered architecture based on Web services and the webMethods Integration Platform, said Davis. The initial work "culminated in the deployment of a new summer school application that integrates with five other applications."

But simplifying the architecture was not easy.

While the overall EAI project was a major challenge for IT, Davis said one of the biggest challenges was to help the team of PowerBuilder developers learn to work with the new concept of Web services, a technology that was not supported by the older version of PowerBuilder they were using.

That problem was solved using an innovative combination of new technology and old-fashioned ingenuity.

The overall EAI project was led by the school system's Integration Working Group (IWG) made up of technical leaders representing the various enterprise applications, Davis said. "The IWG's main goals were to design a scalable architecture for sharing data and services among applications, provide Web access to integrated data and services, and seamlessly provide data and services to work processes and eliminate dependency on paper forms."

But there was a summer school application being implemented in a version of PowerBuilder, which Davis said "did not understand the Web services" technology being used in the school-wide integration project. So the IWG team needed to figure out how the PowerBuilder application would invoke the service via webMethods. The IWG team looked at COM, Java and C++ for a possible interface.

Then the team hit on an innovative idea of having the PowerBuilder developers invoke Java stored procedures in Oracle -- a familiar concept to them -- which in turn invoked the Web services.

As Davis explained, the IWG "integration developers created the Java stored procedure by first creating the service in webMethods. They then used webMethods to generate the Web Services Description Language (WSDL) file. They used Oracle JDeveloper to import the WSDL file and then build the Java stored procedure that invoked the Web service."

As an example of how this worked, Davis pointed to a PowerBuilder application that provides a count of students that match a search criterion: "In this case, PowerBuilder invokes a stored procedure, which then invokes the requestStudentCount Web service. webMethods then retrieves the information from the student information application via the replyStudentCount service. webMethods converts all data to the common format and returns the data to the PowerBuilder application."

The idea not only solved the school district's data integration problem, it helped the PowerBuilder team painlessly join the transition to the Web services technology.

As Davis told ADT: "We thought it was clever and it worked like a champ."


Project: Enterprise Application Integration (EAI)

Purpose: To migrate school apps from an inefficient point-to-point architecture to a brokered architecture based on Web services that would provide Web access to data and eliminate paper forms.

Benefits: Student information can be entered once and then be accessed by a variety of apps.

Platform: Sun Solaris TOOLS webMethods Integration Platform, Oracle JDeveloper, Mercury LoadRunner

Ted Davis, Marisue Uhrich, Pam Poulos, Gary Policastro, Mark Andrachek, Tariq Ahmad, Michael Walter, L'Tanya Wells, Vincent Kelso, Robin Ward, Brian Crooch, Jaye Cole, Kathie Higham, Sher Nasir, Therese Chaplin, Ann Nagle, Rusty Austin, Dave Arnold, Naren Ramachandrudu, Neel Phadke

FCPS Enterprise Application Integration Project is an ongoing initiative to integrate FCPS' 45 enterprise systems for one of the largest school districts in the U.S. At the time of the awards, the system had undergone both architecture prototyping and initial production releases, demonstrating the full-scale benefits of the innovative solution. FCPS' project displayed excellent envisioning and realization of the benefits of enterprise integration, for example, by demonstrating that student registration should interoperate with the transportation, food service and library systems, and reduce redundant data entry. FCPS overcame the extreme challenge of migrating from a stovepipe, "spaghetti-code" architecture, to a state-of-the-art Web services integration architecture, innovative within the public sector.

Keane Team Leader: Thomas J. Mowbray, Keane Inc.

About the Author

Rich Seeley is Web Editor for Campus Technology.



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