Feb 09 2007

How and Why Colleges Are Building Web Applications with Microsoft's .NET

Microsoft's .NET helps create rich Web applications using a building-block approach.

Cazenovia College needed to appear bigger than it was.

Four years ago the 900-student liberal arts school, based in Cazenovia, N.Y., decided it could better use technology – particularly its Web site – to compete with larger colleges and universities by attracting applicants, enhancing the student experience and keeping operations running smoothly.

Of course, this had to be done while staying within the budget constraints typical of a small college. That task was presented to James Van Dusen, the new director of technology development, who found a way to significantly enhance the college's Web site using free software and adding just two employees.

When Van Dusen was hired at Cazenovia in 2002, he quickly made two significant decisions: He brought management of the Web site in-house, and he turned the mixed-vendor environment into a Microsoft shop.

At about the same time, Microsoft's .NET platform was gaining steam. It consists of a collection of class libraries that developers can leverage in their own applications to relieve them of having to write mundane code that, for example, tells a program to print a document or refresh a screen.

To help build interest in the new platform, Microsoft was offering free tools and support to help developers learn to build applications to run on it, recounts Van Dusen. That made developing Web applications for .NET an easy choice.

“It doesn't matter what size your college is, the competition always seems to be bigger and has more resources,” says Van Dusen. “But we can still accomplish a lot with limited resources because of .NET.”

At Your Service

Using .NET, the Florida Community College at Jacksonville has pushed out 1,500 Web service apps.

Going for Results

Cutting application development costs is a goal that's familiar to plenty of higher education IT directors. Microsoft's .NET has emerged as a way to achieve big results on small budgets because it is relatively easy to understand and develop for, so it cuts down on programming personnel costs. Yet when leveraged correctly, it can frame a powerful architecture for reusable modules of code that set the foundation for future application development.

Van Dusen quickly learned the advantages of leveraging existing code. His team embarked on building a Web portal framework that was based on the .NET platform, but required a significant amount of custom development to make it applicable to the college's needs. Roughly six months into the endeavor, Van Dusen learned about DotNetNuke and changed course. DotNetNuke is an opensource Web application framework that sits on top of .NET and offers even more help to developers in terms of supplying prebuilt code that deals with the underlying .NET platform and provides code modules – a news ticker or calendar – that developers can pop into their own Web programs.

“With DotNetNuke, we're keeping the cost down on labor,” Van Dusen says. “It's really great because you've got a huge pool [of development] to draw from.”

Initially his department added just one part-time .NET developer to build a portal system with single sign-on, file management, and integration with Microsoft Exchange and with the college's student information system. Two years ago, that .NET developer became a full-time employee and the college hired a second full-time developer.

The team has created a number of applications, including an online judicial system for students and online time sheets that integrate into the college's payroll software, as well as a site administration tool that designates liaisons from each department to update their areas of the Web site.

“Everything is done online using a Web console, and if you know Microsoft Word, you can update the Web site using this tool,” says Van Dusen.

With little training, the individual department head can get control of his or her area on the Web site, he explains. Full Web workflow processing allows the communications department to maintain consistency and to oversee verbiage and content before it goes live on the site. They are able to do it using simple tools – all Web-based, no Windows- or Mac-based applications required.

Do It Yourself

To easily build applications using .NET, check out the DotNetNuke freeware that sits atop .NET and simplifies the use of pre-built code. For more information, go to www.dotnetnuke.com.

Next, Van Dusen plans to build an alumni portal environment using version 3.5 of DotNetNuke. He hopes the college will be able to launch it this summer.

Again and Again

The concept of reusable code is hardly new or exclusive to Microsoft's .NET platform. But it's the fact that .NET simplifies building reusable code, for Web or desktop applications, that makes it attractive to many institutions of higher education. Still, college technology executives say that IT departments must first identify that building reusable code is a priority, and create an architecture for these modules, in order to build applications that can be leveraged in the future.

“One of the biggest mistakes people make is they don't develop modules that are reusable to ensure what is developed is exposed through Web services,” cautions Dennis Reiman, associate vice president of management information systems/ decision support systems and chief technology officer at Florida Community College at Jacksonville, which has more than 100,000 users.

With .NET, the college has built roughly 1,500 Web services – application modules that can be accessed across the Internet and interact with another application. These modules can be leveraged and reused by multiple programs, says Reiman.

Developer Discipline

While Microsoft has made developing for .NET easy, one drawback is that many developers will try to produce a Web application as quickly as possible without thinking about the future.

“One problem for a lot of junior programmers is that .NET has some nice gadgets that let you put together quick little applications; the problem is that if there isn't a good architecture, you run into brick walls any time your program deviates from how the wizard works,” says Lance Keene, president of Keene Systems, a consultancy in Andover, Mass., that builds Web applications for large organizations.

Keene recommends developers follow the best practices laid out by Microsoft on the Microsoft Developer Network (msdn2.microsoft.com/en-us/library/ms184411.aspx). These dictate development issues, such as creating world-ready applications, handling exceptions, and dealing with networks and security.

Keene also suggests using tools such as Microsoft's Visual Studio suite because it allows developers to write, edit, compile and debug their applications in a single integrated development environment (IDE).

“Web development is painful to debug. With Visual Studio you can step through your code,” he says. “One mistake some programmers who come over from the Unix world make is they don't use the IDE. If you do that, then you don't have the editing features.


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