Apr 23 2007

Will Service-Oriented Architecture Lead Education Technology into the Future?

Service-oriented architecture offers a way to tie together applications and simplify cross-institutional processes.

Chris Rother

Remember the early days of the Internet when college Web sites were no more than glorified brochures? Visitors could read about the mission of a college and find a contact number for more information.

Pardon the cliché, but we've come a long way, haven't we? Today's students can register for classes, apply for housing, pay tuition and do just about everything in between directly from college Web sites.

But there's still room for improvement. While these processes are available online, they're siloed into different applications owned by different departments. There's a lot of duplication, and information is not always presented in a logical, coherent manner.

Instead of accessing one system to register for classes, another to apply for financial aid and another to find housing, wouldn't it be nice if a single system could guide students through these essential campus processes?

Well, get ready because here it comes. Backed by an IBM grant for hardware, software and services, Rice University is preparing to launch a service-oriented architecture (SOA) for higher education called the Rice Open Collaborative Learning Environment.

SOA uses common Web languages to tie applications together so they can share data and services without requiring complex integration projects. That shifts the focus to offering services rather than building applications with the services embedded in the code. SOA also moves the business logic to the forefront and gives institutions more flexibility to change, explains Jim Phelps, senior IT architect at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Rather than developing new applications from scratch, departments can tap into services that already exist on campus. “We have to become much more agile,” says Phelps.

But agility is just the beginning. With SOA, colleges and universities can band together to share resources and save money while delivering better services.

For instance, a network of schools can create a central digital library or curriculum database that the schools could all tap into. That gives smaller institutions in the network access to those state-of-the-art services that they might not otherwise be able to afford. Or rather than having high schools send transcripts to every school that each student applies to, they could post student transcripts in a secure central repository that colleges could access.

On the research side, SOA can bring about greater innovation by helping institutions collaborate with one another to stretch limited resources. “We're not going to be siloed anymore,” says Kamran Khan, vice provost for IT at Rice. “I truly believe we are heading in the right direction.”

My guess is that it won't be long before we look back at today's campus Web sites and use the same cliché: We've come a long way.

Why soa?

Reality changes quickly today, and successful businesses have learned to move with greater speed and agility to keep up.

Colleges and universities face unique challenges to moving in cybertime. On most campuses, every department has its own chief financial officer and its own budget. So as institutional goals evolve, it's a massive undertaking to change the campus' scattered internal processes.

That's where service-oriented architecture can help. SOA brings a myriad of moving parts together in a logical, coherent way. But it only works if those departments avoid turf wars and focus on common goals and systems, says Jim Phelps, senior IT architect at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“It's a very large culture change,” Phelps says of implementing SOA.