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Best Practices: January 2003 Power portal: Cal Poly sets pace with Web services

By Judith Lamont

Like many universities, California Polytechnic State University has been exploring ways of improving support to its students, faculty and administration. Turning to the Internet was a logical option for a school heavily oriented toward computer science and engineering. The strategy selected by Cal Poly was to develop a portal that is based on Web services and draws upon many existing information systems. Within 18 months, the university had deployed its portal, my.calpoly.edu, and integrated 20 applications. Cal Poly’s experience provides a compelling story about how good planning and use of resources can result in a strong yet cost-effective application.

Although many educational institutions offer course catalogs and descriptive materials on their Web sites, few have developed a comprehensive range of interactive services. Doing so requires successful integration of a variety of disparate legacy systems, which can be a difficult task. Universities have seen their information systems grow dramatically, but not necessarily according to a systematic plan.

Web services allow various applications to interact with each other and exchange data according to a set of standards. That approach allows organizations to retain their investment in existing systems, while drawing on the content to provide a new set of capabilities. Use of Web services is therefore an efficient way to leverage legacy data that resides throughout the enterprise, sometimes in home-grown, proprietary systems that may be based on different operating systems.

Use of a portal brings this information together in an interface that presents a variety of channels represented by windows in the portal. The term “portal” has many different interpretations, but a portal should:

  • serve as a gateway for users who can use a single log-in for all services,;

  • offer custom views depending on the user role, and ;

  • allow content providers to create a channel and deliver their information through the portal.;

Among the basic capabilities desired at Cal Poly were e-mail, calendar, registration, access to grades and online student entrance application.

In addition to providing a portal for users, Cal Poly also wanted to create a development environment that gave autonomy to application developers throughout the university, while providing centralized resources. The portal, Web services and development environment all would be placed in the context of a Web application infrastructure that would ensure interoperability and extensibility for future applications.

Some exploratory work had already been done by spring 2001, when a more formal group formed to investigate Cal Poly’s options. Some of the commercially available portal infrastructures were not geared toward the university environment or were not feasible because of licensing costs. Developing its own portal would have offered Cal Poly customized interactivity, but that approach also had significant drawbacks.

“After a lot of discussion and soul searching,” says Chris Stavros, Web strategist at Cal Poly, “we decided on Java because of its portability across different platforms, and its scalability.” In addition, Stavros says, the fault tolerance and load balancing inherent in the technology were important features.

Through the Java in Administration Special Interest Group (JA-SIG, ja-sig.org), Cal Poly obtained uPortal, a free portal infrastructure with a pre-existing set of channels. JA-SIG is an independent organization that helps provide information for educational institutions from companies developing administrative applications that use Java technology. Because of its open architecture, uPortal can be readily customized. The presentation layer that determines what the user sees can be separated from the core processes. Thus the portal has a different appearance, depending on the user role. That same separation of the presentation layer from the core processes helps minimize the work involved in supporting specialized delivery to clients such as wireless devices or ADA-compliant browsers.

uPortal also provides the security infrastructure for authentication and authorization. This capability can depend on the LDAP directory (as in Cal Poly’s case), which stores information about users, and controls role-based access. The use of Web services presents significant security challenges, partly because the services often require access to multiple systems that may have different rules. Therefore a rigorous security infrastructure is important for portals that use Web services to deliver information. A data warehouse draws information from the legacy systems so that students have 24/7 access to their records, even when the legacy systems are undergoing updating and other maintenance.

The first rollout took place over the summer of 2001, when the portal was deployed. It provided an announcement system that let groups send out customized notices to each other, and single-click access to e-mail, calendaring and several student information systems. One of the student information systems was Power, an online class scheduling and registration system; another was Mustang Info, which provides access to information such as financial aid award status, class schedules and course catalogs. The initial implementation also included the news feeds and other channels contained in the uPortal software. Later, more capabilities were added. For example, prospective students can now submit an application online and then track its progress as it moves through the evaluation process.

Student response has been very positive. Chris Allen, a senior majoring in computer science, cites the convenience of accessing multiple services through the portal, and finds it easy to use. He uses it for e-mail, class registration, making tuition payments and accessing information on current events, among other things. “I was impressed with the amount of foresight that went into the design of the Web site,” says Allen. “Students can configure their view of the site to display frequently accessed features as soon as they log in.” He also values the ability of my.calpoly to quickly spread information throughout the campus, noting that the site provides a clear path for communication between university officials and the student population.

Although the IT department handles universitywide applications, other groups develop or sponsor applications for subsets of students. For example, the Admissions Office has integrated the portal into their recruitment workflow. Student Academic Services is developing a study group channel that will allow online discussions among students in specific classes. Financial Aid has sponsored an online scholarships channel, and Student Accounts, one for student billing and account reporting.

Professors have also been using the portal structure in innovative and sometimes unexpected ways. For example, in the College of Business, Professor Patricia McQuaid has used the portal and several of its applications in a course designed to teach principles of code testing. The students worked with the portal developers to learn about testing applications that are under development, which brings its own set of challenges. The students were excited to be working on real-world applications, and their hands-on experience is considered a strong asset by prospective employers

Vendors who recognize the value of uPortal in the university environment have begun to integrate their applications. For example, Blackboard announced in August 2002 that its Building Blocks program is enabling integration of the uPortal with the Blackboard e-Education Suite through an API. Stavros cites the benefits of providing unified access to the university’s services, which include having a consistent interface and a single sign-on for all applications.

He also points out, however, that in some cases, Cal Poly’s integration initiatives could not be done at the API level, and required access to the source code. In that respect, the open architecture of uPortal was an essential element for achieving the university’s goals for a system that made broad use of Web services.

Cal Poly’s aggressive approach to implementing a portal-based infrastructure puts it at the forefront of the university movement toward a Web services approach to applications development. “I am fortunate to work with a very talented group of my.calpoly team members who really understand this infrastructure,” says Stavros. “The team’s strong abilities along with the contributions of the operational support staff allow us not only to meet the needs we have today, but also to prepare for the future.”


Judith Lamont is a research analyst with Zentek Corp., e-mail jlamont@sprintmail.com.

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