University prepares to replace 43-year-old IT system


Server room

Josh Newell

Some people can’t go two years without getting a new smartphone, but Iowa State’s informational technology has made do with what they’ve had for almost 50 years.

The university has maintained its mainframe architecture, with only minor tweaking and changes over the decades.

However, sometime in March, the university will make a decision on which vendor it will choose to build a completely new system. This system will manage everything from class registration to employee payroll to campus housing.

“The systems we have today have served us extremely well, but we have been on essentially the same architecture since 1972,” said Jim Kurtenbach, chief information officer.

Currently, the university’s IT services, be they class registration, housing assignments or employee payroll, are all run off of mainframe computers and housed both on and off campus.

A mainframe computer is a machine that looks like a large wall cabinet stuffed with a number of wires, circuit boards and flashing LED lights to indicate all sorts of functions and processes.

Back in the ’70s, when Iowa State first migrated to a mainframe based system, the machines, depending on their performance, may have taken up entire rooms. Today, they are much smaller, about the size of a dorm room closet.

If a student or faculty member were to walk into any of the rooms that house the hardware that runs the university’s IT infrastructure today, he or she would be hard-pressed to find clues that anything inside is more than 40 years old. The large, metal racks holding row upon row of blinking lights attached via a tangled web of cables to circuit boards look just as futuristic and complex as any other modern data center in the country.

While the hardware may look high tech, the software the university uses to run its day-to-day operations is where the system starts to show its age.

The class registration software used by faculty and staff is a prime example that shows how old the software is. The green text on a black background looks more like it belongs to a computer that programed the original Pac-Man than one operated by one of the top land-grant universities in the country.

Despite the ancient looking user interfaces, ISU students seem to not have too much trouble accessing the system.

“I have no problems with the system,” said Patrick Lamar, sophomore  in pre-business. “I mean, if it’s not broke, don’t fix it. But at the same time, you have to stay up to date with current software. I have no problems right now, but if they want to make it better, no complaints here.”

Even though the antiquated software means that the university is stuck with ancient user interfaces, one of the real advantages of having such an old but working system is that it has saved the university large amounts of money over the years, thus allowing Iowa State to be in a position financially to be able to now afford a new system, according to Mike Lohrbach, director of infrastructure and shared services.

“Our system and our services have served us quite well over the years, to the point where we’ve been able to take advantage of a lot of these newer features like the mobility and the truly cloud-based services,” Lohrbach said. “We’ve been able to skip over some of these implementation that require large investments, not just in the system and the software, but in the infrastructure and the management that we would be doing on a local implementation of such a thing.”

These savings are now being put to good use, as the university is currently in the market for an entirely new IT system to help manage Iowa State.

“[The system has] actually been very beneficial to the people of Iowa,” Kurtenbach said. “It’s been very cost-effective, and it’s permitted us to not invest in other things that have not lasted as long.”

The university put out a request for proposal, otherwise known as an RFP, on Nov. 11 for a system that will replace the current architecture in place at Iowa State.

An RFP gives potential vendors an outline of what kind of capabilities and features the university would like to have in the system. It functions very much like an assignment guideline one might be given in class.

A set of general requirements is included in the RFP that the university will need vendors to meet in order to be chosen for the contract to build, test and implement a campus-wide IT system that will serve more than 42,000 students, faculty and staff.

The biggest goal laid out as a requirement for the new system is that it be incredibly mobile friendly. The goal of this new mobile-first push is to, in the words of the RFP, “empower individuals at all levels of the university to readily manage more of their information at their convenience in a secure online environment.”

The new system will be designed and constructed under a “mobile first” philosophy, Lohrbach said.

“It’s designed with mobile devices in mind,” Lohrbach said. “It’s much easier to design it that way from the front end, then trying to take something that’s designed for a desktop format and browser and trying to retrofit that into the display, such as a smartphone.”

Access Plus, the main software that allows students to register for classes, view their transcripts and even purchase a parking pass, currently does not work well when viewed on anything other than a desktop or laptop computer. When viewed on a mobile device such as a smartphone, the user interface is the exact same as the desktop version, much harder on a screen that fits in your hand.

“The areas we are looking forward to in new products are greater access to information, mobile access to information and providing users more control over their own personal data and information,” Kurtenbach said.

In addition to the enhanced user interface and simplified accessibility concerns, the university is also looking toward consolidating and flattening the hierarchical organization of Iowa State’s system.

As it stands, for students alone, the information that students need to access is currently scattered across multiple platforms. Email is just one example, with ISU students using a customized version of Gmail, owned and operated by Google, while faculty use a service called Exchange, which is administered by Microsoft.

When it comes to classes, it becomes even more complex, with some professors using Blackboard, others using services run through the class’s textbook publishers and some even using their own custom websites built by the professor. It is common for students to run into courses that involve a combination of all three.

Kurtenbach and the rest of his team envision with the new system, students will no longer have to deal with the hassle of having multiple homes for different kinds of information related to Iowa State.

Everything they could possibly need will be housed in one place. Instead of the vertical hierarchy of information that exists now, the new system will instead have a much more flat organizational structure.

“Moving toward software as a service permits much easier viewing and much easier access for all the end users,” Kurtenbach said.

Another one of the big changes that will come with the new system is the transition to cloud-based computing.

In computer terms, the cloud, sometimes known as on-demand computing, is an Internet-based service that hosts data and programs on servers that are connected via the Internet to user locations all over the globe. Because all of the data and programs are housed on computers that are distributed throughout the country and/or globe, the cloud can react much more quickly to demands.

An example of cloud-based computing would be the popular file sharing and storage service Dropbox, where users upload their files or programs to Dropbox’s servers, and then they or anyone they designate can access that data without having to be in the same room as the computer where that data was initially created.

Iowa State’s IT infrastructure will no longer be stored on mainframes owned by the university and housed on campus. Instead, the data will be stored on servers owned and run by the vendor that Iowa State selects to implement the new system, which could be anywhere in the world.

The specific model of system that the university listed in the RFP is called “software as a service,” or SaaS for short.

“Having it designed up front, via SaaS, for mobile within the cloud, it really provides a much better experience, and the vendors have really thought about that on the front end,” Lohrbach said.

While the final drafts of the RFP from vendors are due Dec. 21, and the announcement of who the university will choose to move forward with will happen in late March, Kurtenbach expects it will take three to five years for students to see the new system in action.

“One of the biggest things that I’m looking forward to, from my point of view on the infrastructure side, is having that customer service experience,” Lohrbach said. “We’ll be able to provide a more current user interface that has students, faculty and staff have access to data right at their fingertips without having a manual in front of them.”