Got another scorpion last Friday. Well, in fairness, my son Andy got him. My wife spotted it in one of the moving boxes, and did the only sensible thing. She promptly closed it and waited till I got home. The box was full of that paper that movers seem to use so very much of. Anyway, while I was gingerly pulling individual sheets out of this box one at a time, my son was tearing into it willy-nilly, clearly not appreciating the gravity of the situation. When we were done, the box was empty, and still no scorpion. So we started folding the paper to throw it away and, of course - THE SCORPION FELL OUT ON THE FLOOR. It was hiding you see, as scorpions do. Same color as the paper. Squish. Current score: Sanniers 2, Scorpions 0.
Apart from scorpion hunting, a big chunk of last week was devoted to learning about ASU's Student Information System (SIS). Taking this opportunity to showcase my ignorance, here is my 30,000 foot view of the SIS.
- SIS is a homegrown system that is a little over 25 years old.
- It is based on IDMS, which owner Computer Associates describes as a Network and Relational DBMS for Ultra-High Performance
- It runs on an IBM mainframe.
- It handles the high volumes of transactions associated with student record keeping efficiently and reliably.
- Over the years, it has been successfully customized to represent many of the nuances of ASU business practices.
However, there is growing concern among those responsible for maintaining and enhancing SIS that it is rapidly approaching the end of its useful life. This concern is based primarily on the following reasoning:
- While the existing system does, for the most part, support ASU's current mode of operation, the challenges of transforming ASU into a New American University will require extensive, continuous change to the existing systems.
- Because of its IDMS roots, its age, and its modification history, SIS has become increasingly difficult to modify and adapt and now borders on unmaintainable.
- The system's implementation language, COBOL, is a dying tongue. The talent necessary to maintain and enhance the system is a precious, limited, and dwindling resource.
In short, in the words of Mr. Scott, "I canna change the laws of physics Captain. She canna take any more!".
So those who know the system best say we need a new starship -- a new SIS system, based on vendor supplied technology, such as those provided by Oracle, PeopleSoft, SCT, or SAP to name a few. Such a system would replace the IDMS database with a more modern, more flexible, relational database. Depending on the availability of resources, the system could be extended to replace not only SIS, but also the Financial and HR systems. The hope is that the new system's more modern design would provide the flexibility needed to support the ongoing needs of the New American University. The more integrated the systems, the more straightforward it should be to support the flow of information back that will allow for the amazon.com-ification of all of ASU's information systems. The result...a better working and learning environment for ASU students, faculty and staff; better access for the community at large.
Which would be great. I mean, who wouldn't want a new starship? Unfortunately, there are also some downsides.
- The cost of new starships is, well, astronomical. Without splitting hairs, a new system will cost on the order of several tens of millions of dollars, depending on who's counting, and on what you're counting.
- New starships take a long time to make. On the order of years. Several. Certainly not less than 2. Usually more, again depending on who's counting, and on what you think of as "done".
- While in the end, new starships are better, stronger, and faster than old starships, at first, new starships are worse, weaker, and go slower. They also feel strange to the users and they don't work all the time. This is known in the biz as the ERP learning curve. (By all accounts, implementing an ERP takes time, and there is a steep learning curve. "You have to grow live, instead of going live," said Gregg Jacob, the information systems and services manager for Tuolumne County, Calif. "It's a heuristic process. You can't expect to get it right the first time.")
- Building new starships doesn't always go well. Example1 Example2 Example3 Example4
Given all these risks, it's easy to say, "Ahhh, Mr. Scott could always find another warp or two in his drives come crunch time. Those techies always say they can't so it'll look cooler when they can." And that's certainly true sometimes - techies want to be appreciated just like everybody else does :).
But, sometimes there's nothing left. Sooner or later, the ship simply, really, no fooling CANNA TAKE ANYMORE. That happened recently at a Big 10 University who will go unnamed here. The old system just gave up the ghost. Couldn't get the students registered. Had to get out the pencils and paper.
That's the wrong time to be buying a new car (I mean starship). You can't get the best deal when your current one just won't go anymore and you still have to get to work. You don't get the best price and you don't get the best car.
This while process is risky. Its risky to get a new system and its scary not to get one.
So what do I think? Well, some of my friends think SIS must be replaced as soon as possible. Some of my friends think that we need to find a less expensive alternative that still takes us in the direction we want to go. Me...Well at the moment I support my friends.
Most of the conversation about the issue thus far has been among IT savvy folks, the ones charged with making the wheels turn. Many are convinced that a new system is the only option. Up till now though, as near as one week's asking around can tell me, there hasn't been a lot of discussion by the leadership - the Dean's, the VP's, etc. - about whether this is the year to pull the trigger or not. There is always pain in an organization this big, so the question is: Has the pain reached the level where the leadership will commit serious money to a long term solution? Because that's money that won't be available for other really important things. I think that dialog needs to happen soon.
We are fortunate to have Max Davis-Johnson on board, a veteran of NAU's PeopleSoft implementation. Max and company helped develop a replacement for an SIS system with a common heritage to ASU's. They made it work there too, and pretty quickly as I understand it. Max is among those leading the charge for a new system, under the battle cry "Close the Gap". He's a vet of this particular fight, so I think his position has to be respected.
That being said, what's missing for me at this moment is the other voice, the one saying, "Captain, I'm not sure we need a whole new system. By attaching the gaflommitz intake to the rheostatic injubinator, we can isolate the existing SIS system, keep it running, and still achieve all, or almost all, the improvements the New American University will need for the next several years."
"But that's never been tried before. We'll all be killed..."
I think you know how the rest of the story goes. Our missing hero does in fact connect the gaflommitz intake to the rheostatic injubinator and then -- depending on which version of the story you're writing -- the universe is saved or ... we all die.
I'm not at all sure about that gaflommitz intake, but I do wish there was a technical champion for an incremental approach. Not because I'm convinced that she would be right. She might well be wrong. But the dialog between the champions of the two approaches would help everyone make better decisions. Not only that but she also might spark new ideas on how to make do with the existing system while we "grow into" a new one. Even if the best thing is to craft a whole new system, there'll be a period of several years during the reengineering process where we'll have to live with what we have (or "run what we brung" as we used to say in the software biz). I'd just feel better about the whole debate if the technical champion for the status quo would make herself known...and I don't think I'm the only one.
Of course, I could be all wet. I have been before. I've really only been at this a week, and part of that time's been spent worrying about...I mean hunting...scorpions. But if a champion for the old SIS is out there, now is the time to come to the aid of your New American University.