UK: MANAGING IT - SYSTEMS FOR A WORLD LEADER - THE OPEN UNIVERSITY. - It was to be a PC network for student administration until other areas of the OU's business saw its wider potential.

by Jane Bird.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

It was to be a PC network for student administration until other areas of the OU's business saw its wider potential.

When Alan Yates first put forward his plan to update the Open University (OU) student administration computer system in 1991, the cost of his proposal was around £5 million. Yates, the OU's director of management services, wanted to abandon the old centralised mainframe in favour of a distributed network of desktop PCs which would soon pay for themselves by being cheaper to run. But by the time his plan had been thoroughly reviewed by the OU's administrative users, academic staff and a team of management consultants, its scope had been hugely extended and its budget had doubled to £10 million.

At the OU it is not enough that systems should be justifiable in economic and technical terms, says Yates. They also have to satisfy user requirements by making the lives of staff easier or by increasing the range of tasks that can be accomplished. Moreover, the proposed systems must be acceptable to computer experts on the academic side who require high performance and system flexibility. 'It is entirely appropriate in a democratic institution like the OU that we should make our strategic purchasing decisions by a process of discussion and debate,' says Yates.

Computers are key to the OU's position as the world's leading supplier of distance learning. Without a vast investment in hardware and software the OU could not possibly run its 250 courses and organise the administration of its 220,000 registered students. Virtually every member of staff has a desktop PC linked to the OU network which connects the 13 regional centres with the main campus in Milton Keynes. Staff use the network to share files, access data, and transmit 8,000 electronic messages a day. The annual IT budget for hardware, software and staff tops £10 million, making the OU one of the UK's biggest university spenders.

Yates has been moving towards PC-based systems since 1986. The first applications to be transferred from the old Unisys mainframe were finance, admissions and the handling of enquiries from new students. These now run on the PC network under the control of powerful medium-scale machines known as hosts. There are currently 10 hosts on the campus plus one in each regional centre. Most of the hosts come from Sun Microsystems, a US manufacturer. However, Yates has kept the old mainframe running as the central repository for student data. It is still used for a wide range of student services including registration, correspondence, course work monitoring, computer marking, exam results, and the arranging of graduation and awards ceremonies. The mainframe also schedules regional tutorials and residential courses, and deals with general student enquiries.

When Yates put forward his proposal in 1991, he argued that the £5 million price tag would be offset by annual savings of £1.2 million in computer and administration costs, because of the lower maintenance requirements of distributed PC networks. But when the academic staff saw his plans, they felt this was the ideal opportunity to gain many other benefits. The project went back to the drawing board, and during 1992 Ernst and Young, the management consultancy, was called in to advise on how the new technology might be further exploited. The result was a decision to combine the new student administration systems with other fast-growing areas of the OU's business such as marketing and the development of corporate customers - commercial organisations are increasingly using the OU to provide staff education and training.

The expanded proposal, dubbed Circe (Corporate and Individual Records for Customers and Enquirers), went through the standard OU approval procedure. Finally, it was put to the Strategic Planning Resources Committee, chaired by Professor Dick Housden, the OU's pro vice-chancellor with responsibility for IT, which gave it the go-ahead in September 1993.

Procurement for the Circe hosts is unlikely to begin until 1995, but the incipient plans have long influenced the choice of desktop PCs which are continually being replaced at the OU. In theory, they are meant to last around five years, but in practice they become outdated at three and a half years because of their inability to run the latest generations of software. This is just one example of the deplorable way the computer industry treats its customers, in the view of Jim Burrows, director of the OU's academic computing service which operates in parallel with the 150-strong management services department. Burrows has a team of 60 computer experts who look after the IT needs of teaching staff. 'Imagine a car whose engine had to be upgraded every two years or so to keep it on the road,' he says. 'No motor manufacturer would get away with that, yet it is exactly how the computer industry treats its customers.'

The PC procurement process is now somewhat lengthy because new EC regulations require that all procurements valued at more than around £150,000 must be advertised in a range of journals, giving any European supplier the opportunity to bid. Unsuccessful contenders are entitled to a full explanation as to why they were not selected. However, making the final choice is relatively simple.

Buying PCs is much the same as any other commodity, says Burrows. 'So long as machines can do the job, the main consideration is price. The OU is not particularly bothered about whether suppliers will still be here in three years' time.' 'All we're really concerned about is that the organisation can satisfy our demand,' says Yates.

Former suppliers include IBM and Digital Equipment. There are also a large number of Apple Macintosh computers in use by academic staff as well as various Unix-based machines for research. The current batch of 400 replacement machines has been selected from UK manufacturers Opus and Pericom. At their heart is the the Intel 80486 microprocessor with a memory expandable to at least 32 mbytes. They also have the ability to upgrade to the next generation of micro-processor chip in the future, the Pentium. By the time Circe is implemented, all OU's PCs will be of this minimum specification.

Software is in many ways more difficult to choose than hardware. The trick, according to Yates, is to work out the long-term goals of suppliers and identify those which match your own. In 1988, for example, he needed an operating system that would allow users to switch between different applications, say, a word-processor and a spreadsheet. There was also a need to access databases on the host computers.

He plumped for Microsoft's Windows operating system at a time when many still thought the odds were in favour of OS/2, IBM's proprietary offering. 'OS/2 was trying to do too much too quickly and it was too expensive,' says Yates. 'Windows gave us the right evolutionary path and is the basis of our future plans in the form of Windows NT.' Microsoft applications packages - such as Word for word-processing and Excel for spreadsheets - are also used.

Another early decision that has stood the test of time was the choice, in 1986, of the Ingres relational database. Yates had narrowed the options down to Ingres, Informix or Oracle. Informix lacked functionality at that time and Oracle was investing heavily in marketing - something that always makes Yates suspicious and also made Oracle expensive, although it has since become the world leader for relational databases. 'Ingres was the right choice for us then because having been developed by the University of California at Berkeley it was heavily discounted for academic users.'

In choosing IT systems, one of the main criteria for the OU is connectivity - new computers have to be compatible with those already installed. Burrows finds this issue particularly worrying. 'What has disappointed me most during the past 25 years has been our inability to impose standards.' Incompatibility between different machines greatly restricts the choice for academic users, he says.

There is a general acceptance among academic users that some compromise is essential in the interests of communication, says Burrows. But he is worried that as the networks become more tightly controlled, the options for the academic staff will be narrowed. 'However, connectivity is becoming such an important issue that suppliers who don't offer it may in future simply find themselves squeezed out.'

Around one third of Burrows' staff are involved in helping to develop and support educational software. The most frustrating aspect of using IT to design courses, he says, is that staff expect them to last, like text books, six to eight years. This may be acceptable for the content, but it does not work well when you are using computers to present and deliver course work. 'Sometimes technical solutions do not look very fresh after six years.'

The next phase in the OU's computer plans is to involve the students in the PC network from their homes. 'At some stage nearly all students will have computers and it will be possible to link them to the university service electronically,' says Yates. For example, they could pay their fees by direct transfer and submit their assignments by electronic mail. The OU wants to move in this direction because of the considerable finanical savings. But, as Yates points out, students would have to make a considerable financial investment with little benefit. 'It is rather like the situation with home-banking which has a lot to offer the banks but which so far has not proved very attractive to customers.'

The OU cannot be in the business of trying to find clever technical solutions, says Burrows. It has to stay in the mainstream. 'We are asking our students to pick up the bill for whatever IT equipment they need, so we have to be very realistic about the cost of technology.' More sophisticated systems might be capable of impressive functionality but at too high a price. 'We have to think of what systems our students already have available.'

For example, if the OU wanted to start using PC-based multimedia for small parts of its courses, the best way to provide this would be during residential sessions. It would not be a worthwhile investment for people at home. On the other hand, homes in future might have multimedia devices developed from the TV or telephone rather than conventional office PCs. Although such machines would primarily be intended for entertainment, they might also be the ideal vehicle for OU courses. In the meantime, the OU has decided that by 1997 all IT students should have access to a modem for electronic communications, but there are no plans to make this mandatory for other disciplines. Yates and Burrows are aware that they must keep open as many technological options as possible.

And they are determined to resist the blandishments of computer suppliers. Yates believes that marketing and sales campaigns from the IT industry are, at best, confusing for the customer, and at worst, downright misleading. Take open systems, for example. These are computers designed so that they can speak to, and exchange data with, machines made by other manufacturers. At present, every self-respecting computer supplier has an open systems on offer. But in practice, 'true open systems are not going to happen. They are not in the interests of suppliers and manufacturers whose profits would be eroded if the technology went too far,' reckons Yates.

He also criticises the hype surrounding Computer Aided Systems Engineering - software tools to help design and build applications programs. 'Very few of the products have come up to our expectation, but this can be very difficult to detect in advance even for quite experienced customers. The only way to find out what products are capable of is to ask for review copies and try them out.'

Yates recommends testing to check alleged performance ratios between different manufacturers' machines. The measuring of various computers against supposed industry standards has become big business for many companies and they are sometimes unscrupulous in how the tests are applied, he says. 'For example, it is not uncommon to see a new machine compared favourably with an outdated model from another supplier.You have to look at the figures very carefully.'

Industry buzz words such as downsizing, benchmarking and total quality management (TQM) are also thinly disguised sales tools, he says. 'Downsizing is nothing new; I was doing it in 1986. And good managers have always used benchmarking and TQM methods. These phrases are just being used by consultants and suppliers to repackage ideas and try to persuade customers there is something new and essential for success in which they should invest.'

These sales techniques, along with the fragmentation of the market, have made the procurement process much harder over the years, according to Burrows. 'There is a price to be paid for not being able to deal with suppliers of complete solutions any more.' In the old days, the OU would go to a company like a Digital Equipment for all its central systems and its terminals. The fact that it was a dominant supplier meant that it was difficult to come across a problem that somebody hadn't encountered before. 'There was always a solution waiting for you,' says Burrows. 'The world isn't like that any more.'

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime