Catering to customers who know Posix and perl, or those who just use COBOL and MPE/iX, HP 3000s are making the grade at universities across North America. A pair of colleges have put the 3000 to work marketing books and administering grades and accounts, powered by information from TurboIMAGE databases.
The web servers driving the applications, and the methods used to get the sites up and serving data, vary widely. At Queens College in Canada, the Open Market WebServer shows off catalog data and interactive book exchange information, the result of work performed by the college information systems staff and HP e-commerce integrator IRIS Computer Planning, Ltd. (905.238.5695).
Across the continent at Idaho State University (ISU), the QWEBS server from Quintessential School Systems (415.306.1608) puts students in touch with grades, class schedules and course availability; delivers accounting information to faculty, staff and students, and puts transcripts, report cards, fees and outstanding charges online. Server security is controlled by IS staff and built around familiar MPE programming. ISU installed QWEBS and created an intranet using its own staff.
Online bookstore aces users' tests
Queen's University at Kingston Ontario is home to some 13,000 students. The Campus Bookstore, owned by students since 1909, has depended upon an HP 3000 for over 10 years to manage its 56,000-item database, accounting, point of sale and inventory. Last year it purchased a Series 928 dedicated to Internet service, running Open Market WebServer software.
Programmed by IRIS Computer Planning, Carleton Technologies and the bookstore webmaster, the search engines allow students to access the bookstore database to confirm the availability of course textbooks. Students can enter relevant information and generate a list of all the texts for all courses in which they are enrolled. The system details ISBN, title, professor, whether the text is required or recommended, the number of copies available and the price. Phase one allows the student to check availability and the professors to order texts.
Phase Two will enable students to order online with interactive and secure financial transactions. In addition to course texts, the site offers clothing and gifts, used texts, general books, a Health Sciences store, sales and events, supplies and an exclusive faculty and staff page.
University bookstores are currently facing challenges and strong competition. Many bookstores and publishers are now online and customers, students and alumni are expecting Internet service. Wiring of university residences and building is now the rule, rather than the exception.
Bookstore general manager Chris Tabor said the high online population of the college has made the 3000's services a big hit at the school. "The implementation of the net software on the HP 3000 has been very well accepted by students, alumni, faculty and staff," he said. "We are attracting a lot of attention and we know we have been visited by someone from every inhabited continent on the earth. As for Queen's, all the residences are wired, and our customer base is very sophisticated in terms of the Internet"
The college is measuring the effectiveness of the system in two ways: its ability to generate sales and how much it reduces costs. "Traditionally in September, the phones light up with requests for course information, text requirements, cost and availability," Tabor said. "With over 13,000 students, this was a very resource-intense task. Now every time a student hits the search area of the site, it saves us an inquiring phone call. The student can print out their course requirements in real time and have that information with them when they visit the store. The systems' accuracy and timeliness are important."
Reaching out to distant learners and alumni is also critical to the growth of the Queens Campus Bookstore. "We have over 5,000 distance learning accounts and over 75,000 alumni that rarely walk through our doors," Tabor said. "We are utilizing previously idle capital by having the HP 3000 run all the time."
Queens put its four-color merchandise catalog on the server to create "tremendous savings. This year we have overlapped some catalogue production, but next year I don't believe we will produce any hard copies,"Tabor said. "Most of our catalog sales are driven by recent graduates, all technologically literate, who have an expectation for continued online service from the bookstore."
Tabor was pleased with the support provided by IRIS Computer Planning and Carleton Technologies. "We needed a well-engineered information solution for our customers to use," he said. "Users tend to care little about the engineering and a great deal about the delivery and appearance of the information. IRIS and Carleton appreciated this reality, as well as providing excellent time-to-market."
Tabor said one of the challenges the university had to overcome was finding implementation expertise that would leverage Queens' investment in its HP 3000. "The HP 3000 technology is very important to us here, and we probably would never have considered beginning this adventure if we were not working in the HP 3000 environment," he said. With a very modest MIS staff, Queens required a dependable Web platform. "We need the mission critical, dependable, rock-solid equipment and performance we are accustomed to from the HP 3000," Tabor said. "If the web site goes down, we are certain of one thing -- it's not the fault of the HP 3000."
Serving a low-cost Web without Posix
Idaho State University's systems analyst Tony Lovgren said his shop was searching for a PowerHouse and COBOL-compatible, non-Posix Web solution for its HP 3000s when it found QWEBS. "At the time we weren't really too much in the Posix world, and we didn't feel very confident using a freeware server," Lovgren said. Installed on a Series 969/200, the $495 QWEBS web server is fully HTTP compliant. Lovgren said it handles all IP security required on a document-by-document basis.
Security is essential to the system, which can't be accessed outside of the ISU campus network. Even inside the campus, users must enter their social security number and password to get at information as sensitive as each staff member's current month's accounting statement. Users can also change their passwords. A degree audit lets a user look up a current transcript and reports what the student still lacks to complete a degree program. Lovgren said the information gets fed from an existing HP 3000 character based application into the Web interface.
A CGI program runs Quiz applications, which deliver the information from the school's administrative computers. The QWEBS server ships with sample CGI scripts that Lovgren said he and his staff easily modified to match up with existing programs.
System performance is brisk even with relatively heavy use, because making the information available via the Web took a load off the character-based, session-reliant application. "The performance is amazing on a 969/200," Lovgren said.
Getting the server configured and running was a breeze, he added. "It was really very easy to start using, because it was in the MPE world," Lovgren said. "There were virtually no changes required to our existing programs." Superior documentation and ample examples speeded the QWEBS installation.
The ISU administrative web site is also integrated with the external ISU web site, which is run on an HP 9000 server. The QWEBS site gets its graphics from the HP-UX server. "The only thing that we're serving from the HP 3000 is the data," Lovgren said. The server uses sockets to bring in the graphics from the Unix system. "It leaves production machine doing what it's supposed to be doing," he added, "maintaining our administrative applications. It's very low impact."
By next month, ISU's HP 3000 Web plans will be implemented completely. Admissions applications will be handled online. Report cards are already available online and are not mailed any more, although students can use the system to request a hard copy if they need one.
Access is heavy. Even though the server's availability wasa made known to the user base strictly by word of mouth, more than 8,000 requests were logged in a recent month. Looking to improve disk response, the university invested in a new Model 20 RAID device.
Lovgren was impressed and surprised by what ISU has accomplished without extensive training in Posix and how familiar and easy the implementation has been. Written in COBOL, the QWEBS server has felt 3000-native from the start.
"It sure seems like a pretty simple server," Lovgren said. "Within 15 seconds I had the IP security in the control file set up." The QWEBS control file also controls document access through its security database, the tightest form of security the server offers. Lovgen has run the server since August of 1996, and has been pleased with the HP 3000's success at delivering information to an intranet audience.
"I was skeptical at first about it, but then I was totally floored,"
he said. The best
part is when Unix managers at the school ask what kind of Unix system is
administrative data. When Lovgren tells them its an HP 3000, "They say,
you're not doing this under Unix?' Then I tell them it's not even under
Posix. Then I tell
them it's written in COBOL. You save that for last. They're already shocked
at the price,
and when you drop that in, it's even more of a 'No way!' "