NC Takes Back Big Project

Who needs IBM? State ITers promise savings and better performance from in-house project

May 31, 2006

4 Min Read
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IT staff at the State of North Carolina have successfully brought a major project back in house after an $80 million contract with IBM ended acrimoniously.

The initiative, called the North Carolina Window of Information on Student Education (NC WISE), is a Web-based system for collating and analyzing student data, such as report cards and transcripts. It was originally conceived as a data repository for one million students.

But the project, which was designed to replace an antiquated 20-year-old software program called the Student Information Management System (SIMS), was fraught with delays and performance issues, finally dissolving in a war of words between the state and IBM earlier this year. (See North Carolina, IBM Lock Horns.)

Mike Veckenstedt, CTO of the state's Department of Public Instruction (DPI), tells Byte and Switch that the four-month transfer from IBM was officially completed last week, although this was not without its headaches.

"One of the biggest challenges was getting the required skills and staff," he explains, adding that the other big challenge is working with the state's 100-plus school districts and winning their trust.According to Veckenstedt, there are currently around 25 DPI staff working on NC WISE, although he plans to increase this number to 53 by the end of 2006. "It has not been easy for any of the DPI's staff," he says. "You can go past the DPI building at eight or nine o'clock and there are people working on problems, trying to get things done."

North Carolina, according to the exec, has also created a dedicated five-person data management team to tackle data access issues and requests from schools. Around one third of the state's 2,500 schools are currently hooked up to NC WISE.

Veckenstedt explains that the state also broke the NC WISE project down into smaller chunks in an attempt to make debugging and problem solving easier. "We're basically taking the whole system and cutting it into pieces, rather than having one large system."

Breaking NC WISE up into a series of smaller projects, adds the exec, has paved the way for North Carolina to add Oracle's Real Application Cluster (RAC) technology to the system. RAC is essentially a cluster database with a shared cache architecture that Oracle peddles to organizations that need high availability.

As well as a $3 million deal with Oracle, Veckenstedt says that North Carolina has also signed a $1 million contract with SAS to provide reporting tools for NC WISE, although he will not confirm the identities of the other vendors that have joined the contract post-IBM. "We have about about five contracts with various vendors," he says, adding that recent enhancements have made the system three to four times faster than it was before.Veckenstedt, however, says that the NC WISE overhaul should also shave some money off the project's bottom line, which is estimated to be around $204 million. "There are multimillion-dollar savings," he explains, mostly from eliminating the cost of "expensive" software testing. "It's much more efficient."

There are three main components to NC WISE. Those are: an Electronic Student Information System (eSIS), which lets schools manage student information; an Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) for sending transcripts and records; and a Uniform Education Reporting System (UERS) that transfers information to DPI officials.

Veckenstedt adds that North Carolina has not had to rethink its storage strategy following its fallout with IBM. "There's no impact on back-end storage because it is hosted by the state's Information Technology Service (ITS). The application was never hosted by IBM."

The state, according to the exec, is also taking an extremely cautious approach to the software package at the heart of NC WISE. North Carolina, he says, is staying with an early version of the software from Aal in order to avoid any bugs that may be in new releases.

The NC WISE contract was originally awarded to PricewaterhouseCoopers in 1999. IBM took over the deal when it acquired part of PWC in 2002. State officials claim that the project, thanks to the problems of the last few years, is slated for completion in the fiscal year of 2009, as opposed to the previous deadline of fiscal 2008.As for the dispute between North Carolina and IBM, it is, says Veckenstedt, "in the hands of the attorneys."

James Rogers, Senior Editor, Byte and Switch

Organizations mentioned in this article:

  • aal

  • IBM Corp. (NYSE: IBM)

  • Oracle Corp. (Nasdaq: ORCL)

  • SAS Institute Inc.

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