| Front Page | News Headlines | Technical Headlines | Planning Features | Advanced Search |
Click for Orbit Software Sponsor Page News Icon

August 2004

Perl moves PDF files onto 3000

School learns to substitute for its paper reports

A school district that’s relied on an HP 3000 for its business processing has learned new skills, giving the organization a low-cost solution for saving time and paper.

The newest application at the Great Falls, Mont. ISD runs on the HP 3000 using perl, the ubiquitous open source language that’s been ported to nearly every computer platform. The HP 3000 gained such a port several years ago, opening the door to applications first written for other computer systems.

HP took steps toward languages such as perl and Java for the HP 3000 when the vendor wanted to connect the platform with common open source software. The project at Great Falls Public Schools shows how even HP 3000s that are destined for migration can be extended using open source solutions and the support power of a seasoned community of IT managers.

Even though perl isn’t officially supported by HP on the 3000, the language is well-supported throughout the world. IT manager Bob McGregor at the school district said he got ample support from the 3000 community in order to implementing txt2pdf, a perl application from Sanface Software (www.sanface.com). The district wanted to reduce its paper consumption and eliminate archive issues associated with storing reports from the business system.

“We are very satisfied with how things are working,” McGregor said. “We are automatically moving PDF files to a Windows server, and e-mailing the requester that it’s available.”

Getting perl installed and working on his HP 3000 system turned out to be the first lesson for McGregor and his IT staff. “I got lots of help for that from the 3000-L [mailing list and newsgroup],” he said.

Great Falls downloaded perl from the Web site at bixby.org, operated by HP engineer Mark Bixby, who’s been working at the heart of the 3000 open source movement for years. Then he needed to modify a COBOL program he downloaded from beechglen.com, sf2html, which modifies the carriage control directives for converting the form feed to the proper size for page settings.

McGregor needed to make some changes to sf2html. “They sent me the COBOL source and I changed it to take out the HTML tags they embedded — and then had some more subtle changes for line feed controls that our software used. I also had an issue with form feeds on page one that did not work quite right for us.”

McGregor needed the Pro version of txt2pdf to set his top left margin on his reports. But even the more expensive version of the software for the HP 3000 only cost $990.

The school district’s overall process is controlled by a batch job that runs constantly to check a pseudo print device for items that need to be processed. The job runs items through McGregor’s modified sf2html process, then through txt2pdf Pro, then finally FTP’s them to a Windows server. The 3000 then e-mails the report’s requester that the file is available.

The spoolfiles are kept on the spooler so they can be print or re-sent during the day. After midnight, they are deleted after being written to that day’s backup tape.

While the PDF solution saves paper, McGregor said the chief benefit of the system is saving time.

“We would pull the paper off our printer and walk it to our business office,” he said. “Now our staffer doesn’t have to walk as much and spends more time on task. And we get the reports out a lot quicker.”

McGregor also updated an e-mail command file, “so we can e-mail a spoolfile that will convert it with to PDF and then e-mail it for the one-time reports. This was a bit tricky and took awhile. It would not send correctly until it was uuencoded as a bytestream file.”

Great Falls didn’t have much perl experience on its staff — and that didn’t matter. McGregor said he got help from Ken Hirsh, who’s been using perl on the 3000, and Terry Simpkins, over the 3000-L mailing list. And the vendor Sanface “knew what modules I needed, and Ken and Terry assisted in installing. To use txt2pdf Pro, I did not need to know perl, only get it loaded with appropriate add-ins.”

The HP 3000 has a finite future at Great Falls, but that didn’t prevent McGregor from improving the services from the Series 9x7 server. The PDFs even simulate green-bar 8.5 x 14 inch line printer paper for the reports, “so they can follow the lines on them a little easier.”

That 3000 arrived as a used system six years ago, and Great Falls Schools self-maintains with several extra 9x7 servers in reserve for parts, as well as spare disk drives. The district has begun software research for migrating to Windows solutions. The Student Information Systems and all business related software run on the 3000; McGregor said he plans to “transition to another SIS solution, and then take on the tasks of all business systems.

“The direction for our district is Windows-based, so we’ll look there for our solutions,” he said. “This overall migration we think will probably take the next five years to complete. We’ll get the SIS piece done and then tackle the business processes.”

In the meantime, the district’s HP 3000 is serving PDF files instead of large books of paper, all at a cost of less than $1,000 and a couple of days of coding and testing. By adding search capabilities for the 3000’s reports, and pulling stacks of paper off managers’ desks, “our folks have been thrilled with this solution. It’s always nice when you implement something new that they actually like.”


Copyright The 3000 NewsWire. All rights reserved.