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September 2002

University data migration follows course

MB Foster’s UDALink eases move away from 3000 applications

A private university at the leading edge of marketing learned several lessons while moving away from its home-grown HP 3000 applications. A familiar course through a reliable HP 3000 tool made moving its data the easiest test to pass.

Graceland University was founded in 1895 in southern Iowa, and the school has overcome a remote location by branching out into distance learning in recent years. Outreach programs let students earn degrees in areas such as nursing with online or independent study, but that leading edge market also makes Graceland a unique academic computing customer.

When a faculty committee voted to move away from HP 3000 applications written in-house, Director of Information David Debarthe didn’t have to do much studying to find a tool to migrate his data to HP’s Unix systems. Graceland was already using DataExpress, the MB Foster product now known as MBF-UDALink.

“We used it for almost everything for reporting,” Debarthe said. Tied to the HP 3000 data dictionary, DataExpress let Graceland’s users do their own report writing. The users at the university of 4,000-plus students had been involved in the design of Graceland’s application databases, “so they had a huge leg up on their report writing.”

But when the university looked at enhancing its systems, it chose to purchase software rather than revamp its in-house written systems on the HP 3000. Graceland had been using the Uniface 4GL on the 3000, and that tool vendor had started to phase out support for MPE/iX. Faced with moving away from a platform with years of data, Debarthe and his IT staff turned to DataExpress to smooth the move to a packaged solution.

The Jenzabar CX total campus solution uses IBM’s Informix database, a repository whose data structure was far different from the TurboIMAGE database at the heart of the university’s HP 3000 applications. The application’s vendor didn’t even want Graceland to use its existing data.

“When we started the conversion, the software vendor felt like we shouldn’t try to convert any data at all,” Debarthe said. “They felt like they could have us up in six to nine months, and they’d start us with admissions like we didn’t have a system.”

But the extensive data mining features the university had enjoyed with its HP 3000 system wouldn’t survive such a conversion, so the university turned to DataExpress. “We didn’t want to lose our historical data,” Debarthe said. “We used DataExpress to extract the historical data to import into the [Informix] tables. We did a lot of transfer that they said couldn’t be done, and were able to extract it in whatever format we needed.”

DataExpress ran on the HP 3000 to do the needed conversions, and then the school’s IT department imported the historical data into the HP Unix system. The Jenzabar application was sold with Cognos’ Impromptu and PowerPlay reporting tools running on an HP 9000. When some tables were too large for a single report to handle, those reports had to be reconfigured.

“In some cases we were able to upscale the limits, and in others we did extractions by date,” he said. “We were able to use [DataExpress] very successfully.”

The four-person IT group on the project had no Informix experience when first implementing the new application, so a week of training included some study of the new database. “Our people did a lot of reverse engineering, since the vendor said we couldn’t do data conversion.”

DataExpress made extractions quickly enough to let the IT group use a test process on the conversions. A training database was set up, and then the group would populate it, “and then we’d go examine tables [in it] and see what changed,” Debarthe said. “Once we knew what had changed in the data, we knew what we had to do on our imports. Once we knew the format we had to go to, DataExpress made it very simple for us to get our data formatted that way.”

The project took three years to finish, working a module at a time. The last piece, the payroll module, was moved this January. Both Jenzabar and the HP 3000 systems are designed as integrated modules, so the university had to run two systems in sync for many months.

“We’re proud of the fact that they said it couldn’t be done, and we did it anyway,” Debarthe said. “DataExpress allowed us to format and extract our data.”

Increases in Jenzabar’s support fees will make Graceland move its application once more, and it’s leaning toward an in-house written system again. “We were much better off with our home-grown system,” Debarthe said. “They want to know what it’s going to take to get back to that.”

Choosing an application supplier was a difficult process for Graceland, which has an aggressive admissions marketing approach based on outreach learning. Off the shelf systems can’t be adapted easily. Debarthe said his advice for such entrepreneurial organizations would be to stick with in-house code.

“If you already have a home-grown system that’s working reasonably well, beef up your staff and make it work,” he said. “You’ll be ahead in the long run.”


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