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Sun 20 May 2007 04:00 AM

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Intelligent Integration

Integration is the goal at the British University of Dubai. Colin Edwards finds out why.

|~|Bykov,-Nikolai---THE-BRITIS.gif|~|Bykov: The integration of data is an issue for the whole IT industry.|~|Integration is the goal at the British University of Dubai. Colin Edwards finds out why.

The British University in Dubai (BUiD) wants to have an environment that integrates its Dubai-developed web site, functions of Blackboard Learning System – its web based students education system – and mail system into a portal for staff and students with just one authentication needed.

But Nikolai Bykov, IT officer at BUiD is not focusing his efforts on integration for integration’s sake. He wants to achieve system integration because it will be helpful to users.

“Integration is the biggest achievement for all of IT. It’s not about just building an integrated system because you feel it is necessary and everyone else has done, or is doing it. No, the system must be integrated to help the users,” he says.

“It should be a tool. Only the highest integration will give us that. In order to have a reliable system and in order to have a system which is helpful to the users, the integration of data is a major issue for the whole IT industry,” he adds.

Bykov is turning to Microsoft Windows SharePoint Services to effect that integration vision. Currently, BUiD uses different types of software environments to support its record management system and university and student access portals, which is why he wants to tie them all together.

“We have received the SharePoint solution and I would like to set up a dedicated computer as a server and start learning how to use it. It will be a major benefit for us throughout the infrastructure,” he says.

“It will have a crucial and major impact on integrating the systems. That is what I am looking forward to seeing in the nearest future. We would like to integrate our mail system as well as the university web site and probably major functions of e-learning systems into one huge portal with just one, single authentication.

"At the same time I understand that it will be very difficult to do but not almost impossible. Microsoft Windows SharePoint Services is great technology,” he adds.

Apart from the Blackboard Learning System – which the university's students use to access course material, communicate with lecturers located anywhere in the world, and submit papers – BUiD is very much a Microsoft house for running its day-to-day operations and says it has a strong relationship with the software supplier locally.

Its mail is based on Microsoft solutions and it uses MS .NET for in-house development. Its web portal solutions also run on a Microsoft SQL Server.

“We’re strictly based on Microsoft Windows. We get huge support from Microsoft though we do run Linux-based systems as well. It is mostly used for research. It is not for running the University itself,” he says.

BUiD started its IT department from scratch three years ago when it laid out a detailed IT strategy which essentially focused on acquiring proven and sophisticated solutions rather than bleeding edge technology.

To follow the requirements from the UAE Ministry of Higher Education, the University decided to combine two separate environments – one developed locally for prospective students where individuals could lodge their applications, get information about BUiD institutes and one bought-in, which was the Blackboard Learning System.

“With the more specific site, Creative Sauce has done a web site for us creating the design and logos and the templates which we are currently using to publish the information on the web,” says Bykov.

Even though it outsourced the specialised portal development, it decided to create a web interface in the records management system, an associated application form, so that it could keep better control of the records and manage any changes or additions to them.

“We have been requested to develop templates for the portal and we can change the content very easily and internally when we want to. We don’t have to call outside and we didn’t have to customise the Blackboard Learning System,” he says.

Prior to implementation about two years ago, the university used spreadsheets for records. Since implementing the automatic system, it is much easier to manage information and update it.

Both portal systems run the Microsoft SQL Server as database background and use Internet Information Services and Apache HTTP Server as a web interface. This is said to be very reliable, robust, and delivers everything the university needs.

As part of its integration plans, BUiD is standardising on Microsoft SQL Server and has aimed all the portals to use the one data server to ensure data synchronisation between the different portals, which are both secured. It has also standardised on a backup facility to create a mirror server
at the university and for replicating data remotely.

It has two Intel-based servers on site, a main one and an identical backup server. The data stored on the backup system is periodically replicated to a remote storage device

“In the event of a disaster, we can acquire a new server and get the data from the remote source, put it back and start work again immediately. Using an outsourced back-up service could be a problem. It is always time-consuming to get all the data on board. That is why we built our own system. We have all the data with us permanently,” says Bykov.

BUiD uses two IBM single-processor 3.2Ghz servers with 1Gbyte of memory and 12 hard drives linked though RAID systems. At the moment it has around 100 desktops and laptops connected to its LAN. It has installed six wireless points throughout the campus to give its students wireless access.

As for the future, Bykov is constantly looking at new technologies and products on the market to implement, but sees his time being taken up with integrating everything under Microsoft Windows SharePoint Services for the foreseeable future.||**||

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