How Texas A&M moved their university services to the Web

When Texas A&M decided to push a series of mainframe applications to the Web, they turned to XML because of its versatility. Here's how they built a scalable, platform-neutral solution.

By Jill E. Vaile

When Texas A&M University decided to move its student information from a mainframe to a Web-based system, it faced several challenges. The task of building a Web-based system, allowing access to information maintained in a legacy Adabas DBMS system on an IBM3090-class mainframe, was the starting point. From there, the project would integrate different applications into a Web-based scalable solution. Dr. Timothy Chester, the project manager for distributed software applications, was charged with the complex task of ensuring that the choices in systems development would be platform- and object-model-neutral for use in future development of online services.

Technology choices
Chester’s team evaluated numerous technology options. Throughout, they kept coming back to the versatility of XML and how it can be used to integrate future applications. One of the key benefits of XML is that data can be easily exchanged cross-platform.

Once the team settled on XML, they had to choose an integration tool. For a number of reasons, they gravitated toward AG Software's EntireX. An XML integration tool, EntireX is a high-performance communication broker that acts as middleware by combining message queuing capabilities, built-in support for synchronous request/reply, and conversational communication. Texas A&M could utilize the various communication models, synchronous or asynchronous, conversational or stateless, request/reply or peer-to-peer, for their current and future needs.

Chester explained, "If I'm writing a Web application using Visual Basic, all I have to do is generate an XML stream data and send it to EntireX, which decodes the information and translates it into the proper format I need and hands it back to me in XML." Figure A shows how EntireX works.

Figure A
The EntireX broker acts as middleware.

"It's basically a middleman," Chester said. "We have a diverse campus where some people like to write in Con UNIX, some in Java, some in Visual Basic on a Microsoft platform, and others in Perl on Linux. With an XML-based technology like EntireX, it doesn't matter what platform or language or application server you are comfortable with. It works with all of them interchangeably.”

Employing the EntireX middleware package opens the system to any number of new applications. It also allows for communicating with the existing widespread and unconnected servers, operating systems, and software already in use in a variety of locations and hardware.

For example, in the old system, student records existed in a separate, isolated system. On their own, they contained necessary information, but since they couldn’t be connected to anything else, their use was limited. However, the value of student records increases dramatically if they can be connected to the rest of the system by XML. They become useful to course registration, accounting, and even to the teacher's grading system. The entire system is connected and workable.

Test 1: Going online with student applications status
The team decided to test the EntireX broker before committing to a full rollout. Their first test project was to establish a place on the Web site for students to check the status of their applications. Approximately 25,000 students vie annually for admission to the university, so if the test succeeded, it would be a great win for the XML-based system. In addition, it would provide statistics on real-world functionality, and it would significantly reduce the number of redundant tasks the current system required, freeing up staff members for other duties. And indeed, once the site was in place, the levels of telephone calls and e-mails concerning status dropped significantly.

Test 2: Creating a gateway to existing information
The university’s admissions department faced a constant labor-intensive process in responding to requests from prospective students. Developing a means to fulfill these information requests with an online system posed another functional and useful test for the EntireX gateway.

Chester’s team developed an EntireX-based system that automatically deposited the data into an Adabas table and generated the entire packet, right down to the mailing labels, to be sent off to the prospective student.

This test, like the applications-status test, proved successful. The benefits included:
  • Increased student registration efficiency. The new system can serve thousands of students simultaneously.
  • Significant decreases in time-consuming tasks for university administrators. Phone calls and e-mails have now been more or less eliminated with this application, allowing the staff to become more productive.
  • The ability for university staff to access critical student information through a Web interface.

The tests also convinced Chester that EntireX would let his team work far more efficiently. "It would take us twice as long to develop applications without EntireX," he said.

Chester's positive experiences with EntireX led him to choose it as the middleware broker in the larger system. The results from the smaller projects were so positive, there was no doubt the EntireX would support the team in their future integration endeavors.

Future developments
It will not be difficult to implement any number of uses now that the XML broker is in place. Plans to eventually have a system for Palm Pilots and similar wireless devices are no longer just a pipe dream; they will be a reality in the not-too-distant future.

EntireX has provided a cost-effective solution for Texas A&M, one that requires only some small coding changes and uses all existing hardware and software in a productive and comprehensive manner.

Shed the integration blues
Does XML live up to its hype? Has it solved your application integration blues? Let us know what you think. Drop us a note or post a comment below.


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