Late night musings on student information systems

We're moving rapidly into the last month before we go live on our new student information system. This migration has been a long time coming and is a welcome move from an antiquated and overly-complicated product.

We're moving rapidly into the last month before we go live on our new student information system. This migration has been a long time coming and is a welcome move from an antiquated and overly-complicated product. We searched pretty extensively and evaluated several options, both client-server and web-based, centralized and distributed, locally-managed and hosted.

Ultimately we decided on X2, a relative newcomer to student information systems. While other systems had impressive features, X2 had a particularly nice combination of price, usability, and customer service. They were also local, so on-site support (if needed) is rarely a problem to arrange. So far, the customer service has been extraordinary, with actual people answering the phone at all hours. While they have normal tech support during regular business hours, I've called on Sunday afternoons and late at night and have talked to a person within a couple rings who could actually help me with my problem. I finally managed to call at a time when someone wasn't there at 5:30 in the morning about a week ago. By 7:30, though, I had someone on the line and my problem was solved.

Better yet, they are hosting the whole application for us. They handle backups, security certificates, software updates, etc., yet most of the database is easily accessible via the web interface. The interface itself is also quite slick, using XML and AJAX in such a way as to speed transactions and create a really usable, user-customizable, tab-based set of screens. While it's still a bit clickier than client-server applications, it's light years ahead of our previous ASP/HTML-based system. It also works with every browser/OS combination I've thrown at it (except for OS 9.2/Internet Explorer 5, but I can let that one slide).

This really isn't meant to be an endorsement of X2 specifically, since I'm sure there are countless legal reasons that it shouldn't be. However, it does lead to a few recommendations for those of you looking at similar transitions this summer and in the year to come.

First of all, making this change at the end of the year, especially during scheduling season is a bad idea. That, of course, was our approach for a variety of administrative, political, and financial reasons, and it has been pretty painful. The migration to any new product is labor-intensive and difficult and requires your full attention; trial by fire during secondary-school scheduling just makes it that much more difficult.

Secondly, external hosting is good. Most companies can introduce such economies of scale by creating their own datacenters these days that this allows your data to be more secure for less money. No muss, no fuss, and one less server (or three or four) for you to take care of.

Third, we've been talking about Web 2.0 applications for years. It's about time that it came to student information systems. A slick implementation leveraging all that AJAX and Web 2.0 can offer makes a web-based system much more tolerable, especially if you have staff used to a client-server system already.

Finally, there's an old expression my dad always used: Fools rush in where angels dare to tread. That certainly applies here. Test systems, talk to people, run systems in parallel before you make the plunge, and make sure that whatever system you choose satisfies as many of your users' needs as possible. This is a mission-critical system with which you and your users must live for a long time. As we leave one snap decision behind, I can't stress enough the need for well-thought out migration and very serious testing and investigation before you make any moves.

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