A Virtual Desktop Administrative Environment
A Virtual Desktop Administrative Environment" The Technology Source, April 1997. Available online at http://ts.mivu.org/default.asp?show=article&id=1034. The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.
By using Microsoft?Ã‡Â¬Ã† BackOffice family products and Web tools to build a dynamic Web site, the University of Minnesota stands to save millions of dollars while dramatically reducing the time and effort required to access vital financial information.
Profile. The four-campus University of Minnesota System is one of the largest comprehensive universities in the country and ranks among the top 20 universities in the United States. It is both the state land-grant university, with a strong tradition of education and public service, and a major research institution with scholars of national and international reputation. The University has set a goal of becoming one of the top public institutions in the country.
Situation. The continuing decline in the percentage of public funding for higher education is forcing institutions like the University of Minnesota to place greater reliance on tuition revenue, the creation of new revenue streams, cost containment, and productivity improvements to survive. With all of the University's operating data residing on multiple legacy transaction systems, the absence of management information and expertise to support decentralized operating and planning decisions became a critical issue. In addition, the institutional strategy to drive decision-making to the lowest possible level in the organization required easily understood management information to be delivered to the same levels.
Solution. The University's situation required both a business and technical solution. The business solution focused on identifying the critical information needed to support the business and planning needs of university administrators. The technical solution centered on recruiting a small team of highly motivated staff with both departmental and technical backgrounds to aggressively leverage existing and emerging technology. Due to the breadth of tightly integrated products including Microsoft Windows?Ã‡Â¬Ã†, Windows NT?Ã‡Â¬Ã† Server, Microsoft SQL Server?Ã‡Â¬Ã†, and Microsoft Active Server, Microsoft was a clear choice as the technology provider to create a Web-based virtual desktop work environment.
In an institution the size of the University of Minnesota, the benefits of this project could total millions of dollars. Large savings are already being realized in terms of dramatically lower development costs. Delivering new applications that use Microsoft Office tools already familiar to the end-users also minimizes training and implementation costs. Even larger savings will result from significant productivity increases and better utilization of existing resources by delivering management information to the desktops of decision-makers.
The University of Minnesota has set a goal of becoming one of the top public institutions in the country. According to the 1993 Gourman Report, the University is well on its way to attaining that goal. The report ranked the University's undergraduate program seventh among all U.S. public universities and 22nd among all U.S. public and private universities. Its graduate programs ranked sixth among U.S. public universities and 14th among all U.S. public and private universities. Six undergraduate programs and eight graduate programs ranked number one, and all six of the health sciences professional schools on the Twin Cities campus were ranked in the top ten among U.S. public universities.
Maintaining and enhancing these standings requires that people throughout the University make informed financial and operational decisions on a daily basis. Yet delivering critical operating information to thousands of decision-makers in a decentralized organization with a long tradition of departmental autonomy presents unique challenges.
Paradoxically, the current demands for better financial and administrative systems and improved accountability and productivity in higher education are increasing at the same time that the competition for resources becomes more intense. The challenge is how to meet these rising expectations with the same or fewer resources. "If our administrators and staff are going to be held accountable for management decisions they need better management information that is both easily accessible and understood," says Susan Grotevant, Associate Provost for Budget and Planning in the University's Office of the Provost for Arts, Sciences and Engineering.
Believing that "... decisions are only as good as the information used to make them...", Grotevant initiated a project to enhance management decision-making and administrative functions for academic departments within Arts, Sciences, and Engineering. With the enthusiastic support of W. Phillips Shively, Provost for Arts, Sciences and Engineering, the result of this effort was Clarity©, a virtual desktop work environment for university administrators.
The success already realized from Clarity has created recognition of the potential of this concept elsewhere in the University. The scalability provided by the use of Microsoft Windows NT Server, SQL Server, Active Server Pages, and other Microsoft Web-based tools will support the expansion of this system to an enterprise leveleven in a $2 billion organization.
Although still early in its implementation, Clarity is proving its value by converting transactional data into intuitive management information anyone can easily access and analyze. Information can be downloaded into Microsoft Office applications for further analysis and customized reporting. And e-mail is used for sharing and communicating reports.
"We've created a single user interface to provide a virtual desktop for administrators and staff in the University's departments," says Grotevant. "Our goal is not only to provide customized functionality for our clients, but also to have Clarity serve as an interface to all of the mainframe systems and Web sites necessary to optimize performance."
Microsoft translates complex problems into simple solutions
Allie Gentry, Director of Information Management for the Provost's Office, and Daniel Boerner, the lead developer on this project, have built a leading edge system with no previous experience using the Microsoft BackOffice tools and only limited training from Microsoft Solution Providers. "We found the BackOffice family to be very intuitive," says Gentry. "Once we learned the overall concept, it was easy to figure out the tools. And they're all integrated, so we didn't have to tweak everything to get it to work."
According to Gentry, another strategic advantage provided by the technical solution they chose is the ability to start small and gradually expand as the system's scope, complexity, and size change. "It is rare to find a solution that works equally well with both large and small organizations," says Gentry. The project team now includes Gentry, two developers, a trainer and a database administrator. That contrasts dramatically with a comparable site at the University that does not utilize the full suite of Microsoft products and requires 16 programmers just to maintain the Web interface.
Gentry says she is often asked if Clarity could be packaged and sold. "My answer is that it already isby Microsoft," she says. "If you use/get? Microsoft products, you have the ability to create an application like Clarity. What we added is the vision and the ability to customize Microsoft products to meet specific business needs."
Potential cost savings expected to run into the millions.
Grotevant notes that in an institution the size of the University of Minnesota, the benefits of this project could total millions of dollars. "Large savings are already being realized in terms of dramatically lower development and operating costs," she says. "We also anticipate significant productivity gains will be realized by our colleges and departments through automating labor intensive functions and reducing duplication of effort and expertise within departments and across colleges."
Another source of savings should result from the University's efforts to reengineer existing administrative processes by incorporating "best practices" in its systems design. "Our goal is to achieve institutional objectives by making Clarity the easiest alternative," says Grotevant. Provost Shively points to the enthusiastic support by users as evidence of how administrative units can provide innovative and value-added solutions to the problems facing colleges and departments.
In addition to these savings, the University is seeing an increase in productivity and an empowering of individuals. "One user told us that Clarity has redefined half of her job because it saves her two weeks a month," says Gentry. "She used to spend every Saturday printing account balances by printing mainframe screens and then reentering the information into a PC spreadsheet. She now uses Clarity to do the same thing in two minutes." Others, such as deans and managers, are now better equipped to make decisions. "One manager said he no longer feels held hostage by his accountant," laughs Gentry. "Now he can go to Clarity anytime and get the information he needs."
Ease of use means the system gets used.
The worth of a system is the extent to which it is used and creates a positive outcome. Gentry believes Clarity's Web interface is key to the system's rapid adoption at the University. "People are familiar with the Web and they like using it," she says. "They're not as scared of it as they may be with a new database or other software program."
One way Clarity enhances ease of use is by providing users with their own personal workspace. "When a user logs in, Clarity tailors itself to him," explains Gentry. "Using SQL Server, we were able to build in the ability for users to create their own bookmarks that reside in Clarity."
The system also enables users to store frequently used queries for quick retrieval during subsequent sessions. "After a user has gone through the process of locating all of his accounts that are in deficit, Clarity can save it and enable the user to perform the same query with a click," says Gentry.
Because Clarity is a Web application, Gentry and her team have added to both its usefulness and ease of use by including links to other online resources that are relevant to Clarity's users. For instance, while working within Clarity, users can directly link to resources such as the University's general ledger, library, and student system Web sites; search engines for University students and staff; policies and procedures information; university and departmental home pages; and local newspapers, weather channel, hardware, and software resources.
On the back end, Clarity utilizes the power of the Microsoft BackOffice server family. Microsoft SQL Server 6.5 is used to store and deliver Clarity's data, which is transferred from the University's data warehouse on a regular basis. In the financial area alone, this data amounts to over a million transactions each year, distributed to more than 8,500 separate accounts totaling approximately $250 million.
Boerner notes that the performance of SQL Server allows the majority of the calculations and cross-referencing to be done on the fly, without impacting performance. "When we first set out to build Clarity, our intent was to build a lot of summarized tables. After configuring and using SQL for a short time, we realized that many summarized reports could be delivered right from the transactions in very efficient ways," he says.
Clarity's back end consists of two Windows NT-based servers, each equipped with four 4GB hard drives, 196 MB of RAM, and two Pentium 133 processors. Gentry says she's impressed with the reliability of the Windows NT-based system. "We've had our servers up and running for 18 months and we've never had a crash," she says. "The only reason the system has ever been shut down was for upgrading."
On the front end, Microsoft Internet Explorer provides Windows 3.x, Windows 95, and Macintosh Clarity users with the same interface.
Microsoft Internet Information Server 3.0 (IIS) and Active Server Pages have allowed Clarity's development to become truly cross-platform. "We started to build Clarity as a traditional client-server application, but quickly saw IIS evolve into a powerful development environment in itself, " comments Boerner.
Active Server Pages allow the staff to take advantage of its training in the Visual Basic?Ã‡Â¬Ã† programming system and deliver these applications cross platform. "The Web lets us deliver everything we do in the same way," notes Boerner. "We also realized that deploying an application on the Web was a much better strategy than delivering a new installation program to our users every time our code changed."
Integrating IIS with SQL made it easy to deliver the application. "Because of integrated security and the dynamic possibilities of the Active Server, we can be working on a thread of functionality, call a potential user on the phone, allow them to see our work live, get their feedback, and then lock them out and continue the development," says Boerner. "Previously, we would have had to make a bunch of disks and knock on a lot of doors."
While Clarity requires only that a user have a Web browser, the University is guiding its users towards Microsoft Internet Explorer and Microsoft Office applications. "By targeting the Active Desktop, we can significantly increase the user's ease of use and interaction with Clarity." For example, all financial screens include a button for a one-click transfer of data to Microsoft Excel when further analysis is called for. Code can be written to take advantage of higher browser functionality without preventing users with older browsers from access.
Gentry was pleased that remote dial-in capabilities are part of Windows NT Server. "It would have cost us $30,000 to set up dial-in to a single modem with Novell," she says. "Because Remote Access Services are built into Windows NT Server, we were able to set up a seven-modem pool for $6,000, just the cost of modems and cabling."
Having integrated Windows NT Server, Internet Information Server, and SQL Server, the University looks forward to taking further advantage of BackOffice, including incorporating Microsoft Exchange Server into Clarity. "Using Microsoft Exchange, we will be able to modify user to-do lists remotely to delegate tasks, provide reminders, and request information," explains Gentry. "It will also enable us to provide electronic signature authority for authentication and approval of interactive forms."
Microsoft's strategic vision had a lot to do with our decision to build Clarity around Microsoft technology. "Our previous experience had been limited to Novell and Netscape," she says. "But once we started understanding the difference in vision between Microsoft and the other companies, it was really easy to make the move."
Gentry notes, "We wanted to invest in a company pushing the edge of the technological envelope, with staying power in the marketplace and the ability to influence the direction of technology. Much of the functionality we hope to incorporate in Clarity depends on technological solutions not currently available, and our current development strategy anticipates innovations and products scheduled for release in the next one to two years.
"We continue to be confident that Microsoft's significant investment in research and development will yield the tools we need to maintain our strategic advantage. Bill Gates' goal to provide information at your fingertips' reflects the vision we had for our users."
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