Thursday, 14 November 2013 17:49

University of Melbourne turbocharges student portal with Oracle platform Featured


Originally created in the mid-noughties, The University of Melbourne's student portal was showing its age, with symptoms including the inability to keep up with demand at peak times, such as during enrolment season. Redevelopment on the back of a new, Oracle-based enterprise platform delivered the required performance and paved the way for a much greater level of integration.

The University of Melbourne's student portal was originally developed in the mid-2000s, and by 2012 it was past its prime. According to CIO and head of infrastructure Sendur Kathir there were several problems that had to be faced. The underlying technology was going out of support, the performance - especially during peak load - was not meeting student expectations, it was hard to integrate additional systems, and "it wasn't a contemporary design."

Students had become used to Web 2.0 and services such as Amazon and internet banking, and consequently "they want things to work easily and quickly," he explained.

Traffic to a university's student portal tends to be seasonal, with a major peak occurring around the beginning of the academic year as students enrol.

If the portal was to remain "the place you go to do the things you want to do as a student," it needed a thorough overhaul. The list of requirements included:

• Excellent cross-platform compatibility to accommodate the wide variety of computers and devices in use under a BYOD policy;

• Good performance, especially at peak times;

• Seamless integration with a range of systems, including single-sign-on (SSO) for a good user experience.

To meet these requirements, and a part of a broader architecture refresh, the Student Portal was redeveloped on an all-Oracle platform, featuring an Oracle Exalogic Engineered System (replacing old hardware from Sun, Dell and HP) with the WebLogic application server and Fusion middleware.

Mr Kathir said that while consideration was given to the integration of 'best of breed' components from different vendors, the university's decade-long relationship with Oracle meant some of the pieces were already in place and it made more sense to consolidate on Oracle than to increase the diversity of suppliers.

Page 2 - the project.

The University's director of enterprise solutions Niranjan Prabhu noted that some thought was given to the use of open source software, but licensing savings were offset by increased support costs. Having 'one throat to choke' was certainly a consideration, he said, and another was that Oracle's Engineered Systems approach makes it much easier to apply upgrades as they come as complete sets.

The Student Portal project started in June 2012, and was ready for an extended pilot starting in January 2013 before it went live in April.

"It's the first application we've used in anger on the new Oracle infrastructure," said Mr Prabhu, and it was straightforward to add the new portal functionality that was required. "The dream of SOA [service-oriented architecture] has been alive and well for some time," but it was now becoming a reality for The University of Melbourne.

The portal refresh depended on the other application modernisation and integration projects, and at the same time the university was creating a solid foundation for all of its enterprise systems, with appropriate provision for disaster recovery and other considerations.

Having the new platform in place reduced the cost of redeveloping the portal by around 40%, Mr Prabhu said, in part by virtually eliminating rework.

Mr Kathir noted that the decision to do so much work in parallel was ambitious, and it would have been safer to take a more sequential approach if the deadline to roll out the new portal had not been so pressing.

User feedback about the revamped system has been very positive, according to Mr Kathir, and it met the performance objectives. "Engineered Systems are all about performance," he said, and the benefits are apparent especially during periods of peak usage of the portal. The old portal required bespoke connections to the university's other systems, and therefore it was hard to extend the integration beyond the small number that were originally supported. But the new architecture means the portal can be easily connected to other internal systems, as well as to social media, he said.

One stumbling block was that the Blackboard learning management system used at the University of Melbourne was not SAML compliant, explained Mr Prabhu. "That was a real pain point," said Mr Kathir, but according to Mr Prabhu, Oracle and Blackboard are now working together on the issue, and a future version of Blackboard is expected to support SSO via SAML.

The new portal was featured in a keynote presentation at the recent Oracle Open World conference.

What's ahead? Find out on page 3.

Not surprisingly - given that the inability to easily integrate with additional applications was missing from the original portal - further work is planned. The next stage will be to provide a native mobile experience for users.

But it's not just about the student portal. Considerable effort had gone into getting the architecture and infrastructure right as part of a deliberate strategy to simplify the IT environment, said Mr Kathir: "we've gone through the hard yards" and now the university is well placed to deploy new systems and functionality.

Adopting Oracle's stack has lessened the need for Tibco's integration software and Microsoft's SQL Server, and that will progressively reduced as up to 200 applications are consolidated on the new platform. The university has upgraded its ERP system to Oracle eBusiness Suite 12 running on the Exalogic, and Oracle Business Intelligence Enterprise Edition will be deployed during November. Further ahead, Oracle eProcurement is due to go live (also on the Exalogic, thanks to its multi-tenant operation) in April 2014.

At the same time, the all-Oracle approach has allowed the university to move to a single support team in place of the previous separate groups to look after networking, storage and applications.

"It was been a very complex overall program," said Mr Kathir, but the benefits of the new platform are apparent when applications are migrated to it: "the performance improvements are certainly there." The Exa platform advantages could not be cost-justified for any of the individual systems that do or will run on it, but it was well justified as a consolidated platform for all of the univerity's major systems. "For us, it's the right thing to do in the current investment cycle", he explained.

It is possible that this will be the university's final large-scale hardware investment. Mr Kathir said thought is being given to the next investment cycle, and the university is already sourcing some cloud-based services. Furthermore, discussions are taking place with other institutions about the possibility of shared systems, which have the potential for better return on technology investment, but more difficult to achieve. But "if you want to be transformative, it usually involves hard work," he said.


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Stephen Withers

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Stephen Withers is one of Australia¹s most experienced IT journalists, having begun his career in the days of 8-bit 'microcomputers'. He covers the gamut from gadgets to enterprise systems. In previous lives he has been an academic, a systems programmer, an IT support manager, and an online services manager. Stephen holds an honours degree in Management Sciences and a PhD in Industrial and Business Studies.




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