Faith Educational Ministries takes their applications to the cloud with OutSystems Platform and Amazon EC2
Founded in 1987 as a private Christian school, Faith Academy has evolved into a year-round academic institution, offering educational aid to high school students needing extra help with their studies. Encompassing five campuses and an online school, Faith Academy takes a “non-traditional” approach to student learning, placing particular emphasis on students’ ability to work independently.
While a combined physical and virtual approach to learning appeals to parents and students, it causes unique challenges when it comes to information technology. A key piece of any learning institution’s IT mix is a student information system (SIS) that combines student grades, transcripts and other background data into a single, streamlined solution. Due to the remote nature of many of the Academy’s students and teachers, off-the-shelf SIS solutions simply were not up to the task.
Dan Stueck, Faith Academy’s vice president of IT faced the prospect of trying to replace the Academy’s aging SIS. The SIS was comprised of a mish-mash of Excel spreadsheets, ad-hoc databases and an inflexible SaaS based SIS package that required a large amount of manual processing from the Academy’s staff and IT department.
Faith needed to either find a more open and flexible SIS package that could easily adapt to meet the Academy’s business needs or build a SIS from scratch. Given a limited budget, it was determined that the best course of action was to try and build a complete SIS from scratch, using tools already available.
Faith’s approach, however, bogged down after a few months. It had created a first cut of the new SIS in Microsoft Access in November 2009, but the newly created system was difficult to move out of the database environment and required a huge amount of additional coding in ASP and Visual Studio.
Restarting their search, it became obvious to Faith’s IT team that they needed a development solution tailored to their needs, specifically:
Easy-to-use, but still robust enough to create powerful applications;
Swifter time to production;
Streamlined application maintenance and management.
After testing several other vendors, the Faith team finally came across OutSystems Platform from OutSystems.
OutSystems Platform impressed the Faith IT team from the start, despite the fact that they had only run some basic tests in the environment.
Intrigued by OutSystems Platform’s potential, the team started to conduct due diligence around the product, ensuring that it was right for their needs.
To get up to speed, team members completed the first series of training exercises for OutSystems Platform, building a simple application to better familiarize themselves with the Platform’s features and capabilities. Along the way, they also took advantage of OutSystems’ Agile Network, the development community built around the solution, asking questions of current users.
The final evaluation proved that OutSystems Platform more than met their needs and they found that the Agile Network and the OutSystems’ team were very helpful, timely and direct in answering questions. OutSystems Platform looked to be a perfect fit for Faith Academy and they quickly put it to work.
Faith team also realized that to support the full student body they would need to leverage the cloud for their runtime infrastructure. After investigating several alternatives they chose Amazon’s EC2. The Amazon brand gave Faith the confidence they needed to get started in the cloud and OutSystems Platform was tested and proven in EC2.
The first OutSystems Platform project was to build a cloud-based SIS for Faith Academy’s online school only, which was slated to open in fall 2010. Faith IT had budgeted six months for the project, but thanks to the speed of OutSystems Platform and the support of the OutSystems’ team, the initial development took only six weeks.
Faith was so pleased with how OutSystems Platform performed during the development of the SIS for the online school that plans were made to phase out the separate SIS used for Faith Academy’s brick-and-mortar schools and move everything to a new, cloud-based SIS built using OutSystems Platform. The existing mix of spread sheets custom databases and SaaS Student Information System supported 25,000 students. The SaaS package came with a stiff annual fee and still did not meet all of Faith’s needs.
Pressing ahead with phasing out the brick-and-mortar SIS, it became painfully obvious that Faith’s IT team lacked the resources to do the full development in the short timeframe they desired. Thus they reached out to OutSystems’ Services Delivery Team for support in developing the SIS replacement application.
With only one developer and a part-time engagement manager, the team approached the development using OutSystems Agile method, developing components of the system in one-week sprints. Even as users changed their minds about features during the development process, the team was able to easily address these problems without impacting development time or delivery.
Faith also needed more computing resources than they had available locally, so they turned to OutSystems in the cloud. Using OutSystems Platform’s availability on Amazon EC2, the team was able to easily acquire the needed bandwidth for development and it made cloning/backing up the various development servers extremely simple.
The new SIS fully met all of Faith Academy’s needs for both their virtual and physical students. A custom-designed interface allowed teachers and administrators to easily import and export student data, from attendance records and grades to billing and teacher-specific notes, and could even automatically grade tests input into the system. It is estimated that administrative tasks like new student enrollment will have their cycle times reduced by 80%. What used to take a week can be done in one day or less with the new system.
In only seven, one week sprints, Faith and the OutSystems’ team were able to deliver a custom-built student information system that better met the needs of Faith Academy’s educators and students than any packaged solution. Even more importantly, the new SIS was owned by the Academy; they were no longer renting a solution on a year-to-year basis and had no lock-in worries.
About Faith Educational Ministries:
From simple beginnings as a private Christian school in 1987, Faith Academy has evolved into a year-round educational institution with multiple physical locations and virtual academy. The school’s purpose is to provide extra help to high school students experiencing academic difficulties, particularly those needing to catch up on certain credits.
More info at: http://www.faithaca.org