Enterprise Applications and Solutions Integration (EASI) and Next Generation Student Information Services (NGSIS) have been working to modernize U of T’s student information system, ROSI. This project involves converting over 2 million lines of code and replacing the mainframe server to improve system performance and capacity and real-time integration with other applications.
Throughout October and November 2017, the EASI team met and consulted with 21 academic divisions and 6 administrative units. Here are the top five FAQs – visit www.sis.utoronto.ca/ngsis for the full list.
When is the NGSIS Platform Modernization being implemented?
The change from the mainframe server to the more efficient and robust server infrastructure, as well as the updated code, is tentatively scheduled for the holiday weekend in May, from May 19 to 21, 2018.
Which systems will be affected?
ROSI and ROSI Express (admin facing) – will be unavailable from May 19 to 21
• ACORN, associated applications and SWS (student-facing) – will be unavailable from May 19 to 21
• Other systems dependent on the mainframe and connecting to ROSI and ROSI data – will be unavailable from May 19 to 21:
• Degree Explorer
• Varsity Blues Registration System Note: The Learning Portal will not be affected.
After the cutover, will other student- and staff-facing systems be different? ACORN, Degree Explorer, and Course Finder will operate in exactly the same way, as will ROSI Express, eMarks, StarRes, and MyRes.
Will I be able to use the function (PF) keys?
Most of the function key actions will require the use of mouse clicks. You can still use the “enter” key for most enter functions, but many keyboard functions (like paging up and down with PF7 and PF8) will require a mouse click.
Can users still type direct commands to get from menu to menu?
Direct commands will still be the main way of navigating around ROSI. You will type menu selections, then use mouse clicks for paging, returning to a previous screen, etc.
GPAs – they can determine whether a student secures that next scholarship or gets into graduate school. Now a new application, called the GPA Calculator will help all U of T students easily calculate their grades and plan ahead for academic success.
“Through ongoing interviews and usability tests, we discovered the need for this calculator,” says Michael Clark, manager of User Experience and Process Design with U of T’s Enterprise Applications and Solutions Integration (EASI). “This tool allows students to easily type in their pre-existing GPA from ACORN and predict their future grades.”
The calculator is readily available to all students. Students can calculate their sessional, cumulative and annual GPAs, and the application also recommends resources, including academic advising, writing centres, workshops and career advising.
“We wanted to make the application as flexible as possible,” says Laura Klamot, a user experience designer with EASI. “We always try to help students with their next steps. If their GPA isn’t what they want it to be, they can find an academic advisor and writing workshops.”
Klamot worked with Adnan Bhuiyan, a co-op student, who joined EASI for the summer.
“I normally study back-end development, but for this application I worked on front-end development and user experience design,” says Bhuiyan, a third-year U of T Computer Science student. “The tool’s designed to be accessible via keyboard only, via screen readers, as well as other assistive technology. An additional amount of design, development, testing and refinement work went into making this tool mobile and desktop optimized.”
Beyond his co-op experience, Bhuiyan also plans to use the application.
“I’m close to graduating, and my GPA can potentially give me a competitive edge when applying for jobs. Also, if I ever plan to apply for graduate school, I now have a tool that can easily help me plan ahead.”
Fellow third-year student Ramana Trivedi, from the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathobiology, agrees. “In my first year I was lost when trying to track my GPA because I was using a spreadsheet – it was a huge waste of time. I’m currently applying to medical school, and my GPA is really important. Now I can finish my calculations in a matter of minutes.”
What’s next for the application?
“After launching the calculator, we’ll collect feedback and plan future enhancements,” says Clark. “We’re constantly focused on the student experience, and we want to make it easier for students to achieve academic success.”
Tuition is just the beginning. Housing, utilities, food, textbooks, transit and recreation costs all add up, and managing expenses can often become an overwhelming task for busy students. But the Financial Planning Calculator, now available to all U of T students, is helping them to easily and accurately predict their living costs for a year – setting them up for academic and future success.
“When we interviewed students before developing this application, we discovered that they didn’t know how to budget, how much to budget or didn’t have effective tools, aside from calculating everything manually using a spreadsheet,” says Laura Klamot, a user experience designer with U of T’s Enterprise Applications and Solutions Integration department (EASI). “Now students have a simple, customizable tool they can use each year to plan ahead.”
Since its launch in February 2016, the calculator has helped over 14,152 undergraduate students. Now the application is available to all graduate and second-entry students.
“It’s hard to predict what everything will cost – especially food and recreation,” says Yanna Ding, a first-year Faculty of Arts & Science student. “When I graduate I don’t want to have a lot of debt, so I want to manage my finances closely. I’ll also need to develop economic independence, and a tool like this could really help in my future planning.”
The tool helps students quickly predict how much it will cost to live in Toronto, an often difficult task for those who are unfamiliar with the area. It is also highly customizable for each individual depending on their program, year of study, residency status and campus. The application will suggest specific resources for awards and financial aid to help them save money and manage expenses.
“If you’re spending more money on meals, compared to your peers, then the application will notify you and offer resources such as U of T’s Food Services, and there’s also information about cooking for yourself,” says Michael Clark, manager of User Experience and Process Design at EASI.
The team is planning to solicit feedback and make improvements for future releases.
“I’m happy we’re providing this tool to students as it will help them make informed decisions about their finances,” says Clark. “We’re focused on improving the student experience, and this tool is an example of how we can approach that objective from a different direction and offer value to our community.”
It’s a project that will convert 2 million lines of code, replace a 1,014 kg mainframe server and will modernize U of T’s registrarial system, ROSI, for years to come. Set to launch in spring 2018, the Next Generation Student Information Services (NGSIS) has been updating the system’s code and hardware to enhance services for staff and students.
Led by U of T’s Enterprise Applications and Solutions Integration department (EASI), the NGSIS Platform Modernization project is focused on improving system performance and capacity, and real-time integration with other applications.
Frank Boshoff, Enterprise Architect at U of T and one of the project leaders, explains how the conversion will evolve, how it will affect users and what’s planned for the future.
Why is EASI replacing ROSI’s platform and how will this happen? The university implemented ROSI in 1996 as a solution to the Y2K bug – the pre-existing system used two-digit dates and needed to be replaced before 2000. ROSI uses Natural code and runs off of a mainframe, which is a large server. While this technology served us for 21 years, it’s now time to update it.
In 2015, we started working with an IBM business partner to convert over 2 million lines of Natural code into Java – a more flexible and common code that could run off of smaller, web application servers. U of T’s Information Technology Services has created a private cloud with 48 servers. Six of these servers, also known as blades, are equivalent to the current mainframe and are much more cost effective. If one blade fails, then the servers will transfer the load to another one.
What are the overall benefits of the new system? If you look at general systems theory, the more flexible a system is the more resilient it will be. The new platform will provide a foundation for future interoperability and “boundaryless information flow.” In the past the university has had many silos, and now we’ll be able to get the right information to the right people at the right time.
What are the direct benefits to users? The system will be able to handle much more volume. In the past, it could handle 700 concurrent users during enrolment. Soon it will be able to handle up to 15,000 concurrent users, which is equivalent to all first-year enrolments and enrolments at UTM and UTSC.
IT professionals around the university will be able to securely integrate the system into their divisions because Java is a common computer language. As a result, it will have more longevity, and longevity is key for the university’s administrative systems that need to run for decades.
The new system will be entirely web based, with single sign-on using UTORid, and for the first time the system is compatible with Mac computers.
How has IT architecture evolved at U of T over the years? I was an architect at IBM for 14 years in global services and in business consulting services. One of my colleagues summed my role up beautifully – architects compellingly trivialize the complex. Being an architect is a multi-layered function and, depending on the organization’s needs, they can work at the project or strategy level, or both at the same time. Since I started working at U of T 10 years ago, this role has become more important – linking the university’s mission and strategy to the IT strategy.
What is the future of ROSI? We will be rolling out the new system to users in spring 2018, and they will notice that it is very similar to what they’ve used before. Now that we have a more flexible platform, we can build on this in the future and will continue to improve the system, and integrate more easily with other systems – in the divisions and in the cloud.
It was a fast four months, but the ten co-op students who joined Enterprise Applications and Solutions Integration (EASI) this past summer gained a wealth of experience – from developing applications to analyzing data and improving user experience.
“We have a lot of projects on the go and really needed the extra help over the summer,” says Cathy Eberts, Director of U of T’s Enterprise Applications and Solutions Integration. “Implementing a co-op program boosted our capacity while directing this need to those who could benefit most – students looking for that much-needed job experience.”
The program, sponsored by Next Generation Student Information Services (NGSIS), included students from Seneca College, George Brown College, Ryerson University and the University of Toronto. From May to August, the recruits made major contributions to IT at the institution.
“I learned a lot! At school you learn things blindly and you don’t really participate in large projects,” says Saba Karamsoltani, who studies computer science at Ryerson University. “But working at U of T gave me a better sense of how to work with others.”
Karamsoltani worked on a large, multi-year project called the NGSIS Platform Modernization project – a project that will migrate the student system of record (ROSI) from an IBM mainframe to a distributed Linux platform. Five others – Nariman Saftarli, Nancy Mai, Thomas Marmer, Balkar Rana and Joshua Longhi – were also part of this vital effort.
Beyond application development, the co-op experience also extended Business Intelligence with Valerie Gilchrist and Mark Franciscus, and to User Experience and Process Design.
“In Computer Science at U of T, I study back-end development. While I’m still focused on back-end development, I’ve gained an appreciation for front-end design,” says Adnan Bhuiyan. “I didn’t realize how important it is to test different application prototypes and how rigorous the process should be.”
Bhuiyan used HTML and CSS to build an application that students can use to calculate their current as well as cumulative GPAs. He then worked with EASI’s User Experience and Process Design team to test designs with different users.
From an analytical standpoint, fellow co-op student Jason Sparks captured the Return on Investment (ROI) of the wide variety of current enterprise application projects.
“I hit the ground running and it was a great experience,” says Sparks, a Marketing Management and Financial Services student at George Brown College. “I analyzed 13 different projects and it was amazing to see the cost savings. Kronos, a time management system, saved U of T $14,622 in material costs in the past year after moving from a paper to a computer-based system.”
The program was so successful that Eberts plans to continue it next year.
“We had an outstanding group of students this summer. Staff are already asking me how we can make this happen again next year – I think most of us feel very fortunate to work at U of T and it’s our way of giving back to the community. Given enough physical space – expect the EASI co-op program to return again next year!”
New friends, new activities and a new school year were all part of UTSU’s Street Festival orientation 2017. And on September 12, students also voted on ACORN’s newest feature – helping to determine the future of the application that serves more than 75,000 users.
This year, over 10,000 students from U of T’s three campuses descended on the St. George campus, and 941 voted on how to improve the online academics, finance and student life service. With the sun shining and music pumping, the energetic ACORN team from Enterprise Applications and Solutions Integration (EASI) encouraged students to place a sticker on one of five potential features.
“I chose for the Next Steps Planner because it could notify me about important dates and deadlines and how they affect my schedule,” said Ezra Fleisch, an Arts & Science student. “I found ROSI, the old system, really slow and cumbersome. ACORN is much easier to use with drop down menus, and searching for courses has become a streamlined process.”
And the winning feature? With a rainbow of 444 multi-colored stickers, the Auto Enrol Via Cart won by a landslide. This function would attempt to enrol students in course sections that they pre-select in their enrolment cart. It was by far the most complex idea up for discussion and is now an intriguing option to consider.
Other features included live chat help, a next steps planner, U of T map integration and an improved invoicing system.
“I’m definitely voting for the auto enrol feature – it would save time and would be so convenient,” said Maria Vo, another Arts and Science student. “I already like the system because it easily shows my schedule and potential conflicts, but it’s great to try to improve it further.”
Gaining insight into the student experience was exactly what the ACORN and Next Generation Student Information Services team wanted.
“The UTSU Street Fest is a great opportunity to have face-to-face discussions with students, so we can learn what they like, dislike and what they’d like to see happen in the future,” said Mike Clark, manager of User Experience and Process Design at EASI. “The day was a whirlwind, and I want to thank the team – they brought great energy to the day and the level of engagement with students really helps us plan future areas to explore.”
What’s next for ACORN?
“We’re going to continue to improve the performance of ACORN on peak load days, include more personalization and create better integration with other services. And we’ll definitely be at Street Fest next year to gather even more student input!”
Thanks to this year’s UTSU Street Fest team:
Miki Harmath utters these words at 8:54 AM, August 4th in the EASI war room. The room is lit up with projections of ACORN log-on stats and server usage. There is a box of untouched doughnuts and muffins on the table but no one has much of an appetite. All eyes are glued to the screens indicating the load balance of the four servers and the steadily increasing number of users attempting to access the system.
Laurel Williams, IT Analyst and Java Build Coordinator, nurses her coffee and murmurs:
“I told the barista that it was a big day for enrolment. He asked if I was a registrar. “No, I’m in IT” I said. He gave me this coffee for free.”
At 9:00 am, registration opens to the 4th year students. The number of active users starts to leap upwards, jumping up into the thousands in a matter of seconds.
This is Black Friday, the first Friday in August which is the “priority drop” enrolment period for all Faculty of Arts & Sciences (FAS) students. The day has become infamous among IT and Enrolment staff because for the past two years (2015, 2016) the massive volume of log-ins (33,000 anticipated but as many as 60,000 possible) to the ACORN and SWS site has overloaded servers and crashed the site.
A reddit thread from the r/UofT subreddit records the frustration of last year’s meltdown.
“RIP ACORN” posted user BenZion last year, “Couldn’t even make it to the login page”
“There is no hope.” wrote back user SoupDoge (also back in 2016)
Late in the afternoon in 2016, a representative from the ACORN project team replied to the chorus of acrimony with the following response:
We built ACORN to improve the student user experience. This takes into account not only features and interactions on the app itself but the entire experience of using it. Today we clearly failed big time. For those impacted we apologize sincerely. There’s not much to say that will change or help what happened this morning. The idea that this is an inevitable occurrence each year is not in line with our goals for ACORN or our values as a team. It’s obviously something we need to change and improve upon so this doesn’t happen again.
-ACORN Project Team
It was a contrite and heartfelt apology and sincere in that the ACORN and IT systems teams were determined not to allow this to happen next year.
* * *
“Well, it’s 9:11 so I think we’ll make it….” murmurs Miki Harmath, his knuckle tapping superstitiously on the wooden table. Up on the screen, the number of active users is dropping and the rush is coming to an end.
But the worst is yet to come. This was just the 4th Year registration. In less than an hour, the third years will log-on at 10:00 am, then the second years at 11:00 am.
“But the real tsunami wave comes at noon,” cautions Marilee Keogh, Manager for Technical Services.
“That’s when the first years come online.”
* * *
Over the course of the last six months, a number of initiatives have been undertaken to prepare for the Black Friday slam; some short term and some long term.
In the short term, the EASI/NGSIS team has developed Peak Load Mode ACORN (PLM ACORN) that disables some non-essential functionality (Notifications, Invoice, Financial Awards & Aid information and multiple degree invitations) to improve performance. This new lightweight landing web page presented to students on heavy registration days that has less overhead on the system resources than the regular ACORN dashboard and thus loads faster.
A specialized team within EASI and ITS has also improved load balancing on the ACORN application servers, ensuring the server performance is better shared amongst the multiple servers. Furthermore, they’ve streamlined the login process that speeds up the communications between the different systems involved in authenticating and authorizing a student when accessing ACORN and made a number of important technical changes that improve overall performance in ACORN’s backend systems.
ITS has also set its eyes on the bigger ‘backend’ issue, which is the Mainframe. The University is badly in need of new infrastructure to support the student database. Efforts to replace this back-end system are well underway but such a massive effort in a single year was not even a remote possibility.
* * *
It is 11:35 am. Fourth, Third and Second Year students have all been granted access to their enrolment cart. There are 1728 active users on the ACORN site and beginning to descend.
Frank Boshoff, Data Architect and Client Services Manager, glances at an infographic indicating that 20% of users are registering for their courses on a mobile device.
“If I was a student, I wouldn’t be doing something so important on my mobile phone.”
“They’re totally different people than us, Frank.” answers Laurel Williams, taking a wistful sip of coffee.
“It’s a new age.”
Silence falls over the team as the clock hits 11:50 am.
The fact that there are still 1600 active users with ten minutes to go before the first years come online is making the team nervous. The Google Analytics page is showing that first year students are already starting to appear online by the hundreds and encounter the staggered enrolment page.
“They’re at the gates.” says Haroon Rafique, Technical Lead for SIS.
“What are they saying on social media?” asks Laurel Williams anxiously.
“It’s pretty quiet for the most part,” replies Mike Clark, EASI UX Manager.
“There’s a small thread going on the U of T subreddit comparing the load speed of SWS and ACORN.”
Up on the screens, it is obvious why SWS is running slightly faster than ACORN at the present moment. ACORN has 1700 live users compared to just 500 on the SWS. Power users accustomed to rapidly typing in course codes heavily favour SWS for its speed and familiarity.
At 11:58 a message comes in to Mike from a student asking if ACORN is down. The third year student says that they should have been able to access the service at 11:00. Mike needs more information to assist and writes a response to the student with a small flurry of questions.
“Something is going on with IDP,” says Andre Kalamandeen, an ACORN development team leader.
“Well, if they can just fix that in the next minute, that’d be great.” says Mike wryly as he shoots a second email out to registrars. His soldierly calm in the face of potential disaster is impressive to say the least.
It is now 12:00 pm.
The number of users online ticks up to 2,300 and keeps rising. A world map infographic shows that users are logging in from as far away as Beiijing and Siberia. If this were the olden days of lining up to enroll at the Registrar’s office, it would be akin to two thousand students coming in through the windows, doors, floorboards and ventilation pipes to simultaneously ask to be registered.
“They can’t get in. There’s a bottleneck at IDP.” says Andre Kalamandeen, a hint of anxiousness in his voice.
The pipes in the wall creak and groan sympathetically, the building itself manifesting the strain on the four servers.
The team watches helplessly as the number of users stuck on the IDP authentication page climbs into the thousands. The minutes tick by and there is a noticeable slowdown in service. The four servers are being hammered from all over the world.
This is the moment. All the preparations and tests and meetings have led to this moment. If ACORN is going to explode, it is going to happen right now.
But it doesn’t explode. And the number trapped on the IDP page start to drop. First year students are getting onto the site and registering for courses.
The service is working. There was a bit of slowdown, but it is still working.
* * *
A few hours later, the team has gone out for a celebratory lunch. The consensus is that there is still much more to be done but that huge strides have been made. Accolades have been pouring in from students and from the registrars’ offices.
“”I just wanted to say thank you to you and the team for managing a really complicated challenge today. Great job!”
“Congratulations! I did see the improvement on ACORN. This year I spent less time on loading in ACORN than last year. From 30 mins to 15 mins. Good job!”
“I really appreciate all the hard work your team put into preparations for today, and how communicative you’ve been with the registrarial community this morning. It’s made a big difference for our staff and our students”
“Good job guys, and thank you for the updates, they were very useful.”
Best of all, there is a rumour has they have even come up with a new name for the first Friday in August.
“I mark the hours, every one,
Nor have I yet outrun the Sun.
My use and value, unto you,
Are gauged by what you have to do.”
These words are etched into the magical “time turner” featured in author J.K Rowling’s best selling children’s book Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. The “time turner” allows character Hermione Granger to attend more classes in her third year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry than time would normally allow.
This summer, NGSIS has given students at UTSC the next best thing to a “time turner”- only there’s no magic involved.
It’s called the Timetable Builder, an application that allows students to rapidly build an optimized course schedule. The tool builds a timetable algorithmically with the click of a button, based on the courses that students need (and want) to take. Students can then efficiently generate an optimal timetable according to their preferences, then explore custom variations as desired.
Timetable Builder co-creator Michael Clark, manager of the NGSIS User Experience (UX) team, says that the tool was inspired by students:
“Basically, [TTB] is for anyone who has previously found planning their course enrolment a cumbersome process. You wouldn’t believe the multitude of permutations that can result from the various class activities of all a students’ desired courses.”
Students who enrol in courses with multiple lecture, lab, tutorial or practical sections can have tens of thousands of potential options for their course timetable. It is a daunting task to build an ideal timetable especially for first and second year students. With the Timetable Builder, students are able to block off certain times from being booked in order to protect time in the day they would prefer to keep regularly reserved for practice, rehearsal, gym time, club meetings, power naps, etc.
It should be noted that Timetable Builder is currently just a pilot and available only at the University of Toronto Scarborough, where it has already made a favourable impression.
Anyone interested in learning more can watch the overview video of Timetable Builder and then try out the application at https://ttb.utoronto.ca.
Congratulations to the Timetable Builder team on this feat of technical wizardry.
Technological demands are changing at the University of Toronto (and, if you’ve been paying attention, have been changing for some time). Staff are being asked to take enormously complex systems (SAP, ROSI) and make them appear simple to users. The ease with which students and staff can interact with U of T’s technology systems (SAP, ROSI) needs to mask not only the complexity of these systems, but also an intricate web of institutional relationships and business processes.
In order for to deliver this ‘vital simplicity’, strong functional partnerships exist must across the institution.
In other words: we, as staff, must prepare ourselves to work across traditional departmental and divisional lines.
EASI Director Cathy Eberts had the following advice for a group of staff who assembled last week for a Career Spotlight session:
“The future of IT at the University of Toronto will require master architects, negotiators, and technical staff who are able to work with an array of vendors and complex technical components and can articulate how this will all fit together.”
Cathy hinted that training in business analysis will be a vital part of this future. A business analyst is someone who can translate requirements for developers, think critically about organizational objectives and ultimately ensure the value of U of T’s investment in a project.
As part of a wider effort to spread these skills to the institution, EASI/NGSIS is offering a 2-day course in key techniques and competencies of Business Analysis, with both lectures and hands-on group work. It is a practical course covering all aspects of the Business Analyst role – from requirements gathering to QA support. The emphasis of the course is on learning practical tools and techniques that can immediately be put to use in project work and in interactions with stakeholders, whether it be local to the Division or in partnership with EASI/ITS initiatives.
The workshop, to be held at 215 Huron St, 6th Floor, ODLC on August 18 -19, 2016, filled almost immediately, but interested staff can still join the waiting list (if there is enough demand, perhaps we can schedule another course). The cost of the workshop is $1000.
“Before enlightenment chop wood and carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood and carry water.” – Wu Li
If something isn’t necessary, you can probably live without it. And so to live simply is to rid your life of as many of the unnecessary and unessential things as you can, to make room for the essential. With the new NGSIS website, we’ve done just that.
The new site is set to go live on June 21st, 2016. The site aspires to be an easy to use resource for staff, students and stakeholders seeking to learn more about the status of the NGSIS program and its projects.
Our blog will continue regular updates on program activities, a regular series of post contributors and invite guests to provide their take on NGSIS related matters. If you’re interested, subscribe to receive updates when a new post is up.
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