VOLUME 31, NUMBER 17 THURSDAY, January 27, 2000

Flawed software restricts access to data
Host On-Demand problem called most challenging technology crisis in IT history

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Reporter Assistant Editor

A fundamentally flawed new software package that is inhibiting staff members from accessing crucial data on the university's mainframe has UB facing what could be the most challenging technology crisis in its IT history.

Approximately 1,500 UB users, mostly professional staff, depend on a recently installed IBM software package, Host On-Demand (HOD), to conduct critical, day-to-day operations of the university. The product is designed to allow secure, Web-based access to the institution's core administrative applications, such as the Student Information System-which includes records and registration, student accounts and admissions data-as well as BARS (Buffalo Administrative Records System), the university's financial system that links to the Office of the University Controller in Albany.

But UB users, most of whom converted to the new system by Jan. 1, cannot consistently conduct necessary transactions or inquiries because the ability of the software to process login requests is seriously flawed, said Hinrich Martens, associate vice president for computing and information technology.

He said that CIT has been working with IBM to address the problem, and he anticipates a breakthrough within the next two weeks.

The problem at one point escalated to a "level of frustration that can't be described," said Martens, who explained that the program is restricting access because it isn't recognizing users. "Even if HOD does recognize the user when he or she attempts to log in, the process, which shouldn't take more than 10 seconds, is sometimes taking up to 10 minutes."

And while the system currently is stable, UB continues to "walk on thin ice," according to Martens. "We're in a mode of operation where we can survive, but it's being held together with band-aids and lots of crossed fingers," he admitted. "The system could crash in at any time. There are no guarantees that it won't."

HOD replaced the software packages that formerly were used because vendor support was no longer available and the packages were not Y2K-compliant. But the university also needed an effective link to enable access from today's networked, desktop computers to UB's older mainframe system-a system that uses applications that are more than 10 years old. Martens said such systems are considered "ancient" in the computing world because the applications are not compliant with new access technologies.

According to a press release issued by IBM in July 1999, the company's new product "helps companies quickly and easily bring new life to existing host applications and data with no additional programming."

HOD translates desktop-computer commands into language that UB's IBM mainframe can understand. Therefore, all of UB's major administrative applications require HOD to access the university's mainframe. Because HOD downloads from a Web server, it provides host access at each workstation without having to install software on every desktop.

But why didn't the university replace its major administrative applications instead of trying to implement a link sophisticated enough to accommodate its outdated system? According to Voldemar Innus, senior associate vice president for university services and chief information officer, the university probably would have to spend more than $20 million if it were to replace its core systems. UB paid $360,000 for the HOD package.

"In the spring, we will conduct a comprehensive review of these systems to determine whether we will be modifying, enhancing or replacing our current applications," said Innus. For now, he said, the university still has "12 or so open problems" with HOD that need to be addressed in the next several weeks. "There are still unresolved printing problems and the problem with recognition of valid user IDs."

Innus explained that a local, or unsecured, authentication process has been set up temporarily for about 600 of HOD's most common users. Although it allows these users to bypass the UB authentication process, Martens said it still is not immune from crashes.

The HOD software initially was tested at UB last spring and showed no significant glitches. Small problems began to surface in August when the product was tested in a realistic environment, but the software still performed reliably through November, according to Innus.

As more users switched over to the new system and the load increased, new bugs began to surface and by Jan. 3, the university had reached a crisis situation as complaints from staff members in Student Accounts, Records and Registration, Admissions and several human-resources departments flooded CIT.

"I certainly didn't anticipate these serious problems when we decided to implement this new system," said Innus. "But given the very difficult situation, I'm pleased with the devotion of resources from IBM," a commitment he said he believes is due to UB's partnership with the company.

But the length of time it took for IBM to appreciate the magnitude of the problems compounded the situation, explained Martens, who noted that "in a situation like this, we're at the mercy of the software vendor."

It was the second week in January before IBM recognized that UB was facing a crisis. Since then, two sets of IBM representatives have been on campus trying to develop long- and short-term solutions to the problems. The university now is working one-on-one with the individuals who actually develop the company's software.

Despite the serious problems with the product, the university is not considering other alternatives, said Martens, who added that UB is committed to upholding its partnership with IBM.

The university has formed a HOD task force of six representatives from CIT headed by Steven Heist, senior information technology architect, which is working full-time with IBM representatives to find solutions to the problems, as well as to keep the program up and running at UB with the help of about 35 technical-support liaisons around the university. Anyone experiencing HOD problems should continue to contact Heist at 645-7749 or heist@buffalo.edu.

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