IT Project Reports on Life After IBM

After ditching IBM, North Carolina reports progress in its schools' IT overhaul

October 4, 2006

4 Min Read
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The State of North Carolina's ambitious attempt to overhaul its schools' IT infrastructure is well on track, just a few months after it ended an $80 million contract with IBM and brought the project back in-house.

Officials, however, say that they have learned from past mistakes as they prepare to roll out the next phase of the $204 million North Carolina Window of Information on Student Education (NC WISE) project.

The state, for example, has had to seriously rethink its approach to project management. Since the departure of IBM, officials have had to deal with five separate vendors supplying pieces of NC WISE.

Tellingly, North Carolina raided the private sector to find the vendor management skills it needed, recently appointing former Northrup Grumman exec John Wetsch as NC WISE program manager. "I am used to working with multiple vendors -- it gives you a lot more flexibility," Wetsch told Byte and Switch, adding that he has already appointed "contract chiefs" to deal with vendors and ensure that performance levels are met.

Officials say they are also getting closer to their end-users. "I think we're taking much more of the individual Local Education Authority (LEA) requirements into consideration,"explains Mike Veckenstedt, CTO of the state's Department of Public Instruction (DPI). "Before, it was very much, 'Here is the [deployment] schedule, take it or leave it.' "There is also a much greater emphasis on face-to-face-training than was previously the case, when the state relied heavily on Web-based training for NC WISE end-users. "The majority of end-users said that they found hands-on training to be more productive," explains Wetsch.

As a result, the state has set up "getting started" workshops for school and LEA officials, as well as "post conversion" workshops to iron out any problems after NC WISE is deployed. "It's kind of new for us," adds Wetsch.

NC WISE is a Web-based system for collating and analyzing student data, which replaces an antiquated 20-year-old software program called the Student Information Management System (SIMS). North Carolina in-sourced the project, which was fraught with problems, after the IBM deal ended acrimoniously. (See NC Takes Back Big Project and North Carolina, IBM Lock Horns.)

The NC WISE contract was originally awarded to PricewaterhouseCoopers in 1999. IBM took over the deal when it acquired part of PWC in 2002. The project is slated for completion in fiscal year 2009.

A third of the state's 2,500 schools are already on NC WISE, and officials are planning the next phase of the roll-out, which will cover another 260-plus schools by mid-2007. This will also involve a new SAP-based feature enabling schools to produce ad-hoc reports, and an Oracle Real Application Cluster (RAC). (See Oracle Unveils Architecture, GridApp Advances Oracle, and Oracle Gains With Grids.)With all this development work, extensive in-house testing on dedicated servers is also planned. "Before, there were none," explains Wetsch, adding that he is now trying to get two servers from the state, purely for testing purposes. "We're looking at load and capacity-type testing, as well as regular functional testing."

The state is also looking to deploy an additional SAN to support NC Wise. At the moment, the system, which generates around 15 Tbytes of data, is supported by a single EMC Clariion-based SAN, hosted in the state's Information Technology Service (ITS).

"We identified that we may need more than one SAN," explains Veckenstedt, adding that this will also be based on EMC Clariion hardware. "The secondary SAN will support the existing production environment, as well as the ad-hoc reporting component and whatever else comes up."

But it has not been all plain sailing for NC WISE, and officials have already had to call on educational software vendor Aal to resolve deployment problems. A software glitch in late August, for example, caused student scheduling problems in some schools.

Aal, according to Veckenstedt, quickly issued a temporary patch for that problem, and the CTO expects to receive an "official patch" on November first. "No software is bug-free," he admits. "The question is, is the vendor, after you have discovered the bugs, fast enough to provide a response?"Sorting out glitches, however, looks set to be an ongoing problem. A data manager from a high-school in the center of the state, who asked not to be named, told Byte and Switch that information on students enrolled at two schools doesn't show up on certain reports. Other than that, however, she is generally pleased with NC Wise.

The manager explains that, unlike the old system, NC WISE lets her enter email addresses to send student information to parents. "That has been a great benefit in communicating with them," she said.

James Rogers, Senior Editor, Byte and Switch

  • aal

  • EMC Corp. (NYSE: EMC)

  • IBM Corp. (NYSE: IBM)

  • Oracle Corp. (Nasdaq: ORCL)

  • PricewaterhouseCoopers International

  • SAP AG

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