.NET puts education admin on the Web

What do you get when you cross an education administration system with .NET? A scalable Web-based management solution applicable to an entire spectrum of educational institutions, Australian software developer MXL claims.

MXL’s eMinerva tool is a management solution designed for the education industry. It can not only automate and integrate information loaded into the administration database system, but also manage any third party data, such as non-academic student information, agent fees payments or performance measurements. Hosted by MXL’s ISP Macquarie Corporate Communications, the company’s clients access the eMinerva tool via a Web interface.

Originally offered as an active server page (ASP) solution, MXL decided to scale up the management tool and base the fourth generation of eMinerva on a .NET platform.

MXL IT director Paul McNamara says the benefit of using the .NET platform is its flexibility. In particular, providing the Web-based tool through an object-oriented .NET framework gives MXL the opportunity to offer a solution which combines all of the client’s systems into one fully integrated package.

“ASP is a simple system. It doesn’t have object-oriented facilities. It also doesn’t have C# functionality,” he said.

McNamara says using an object-oriented programming language such as C# means all aspects of a client’s administration system can be integrated into a single database, without having to replicate pieces of code. This is because it allows developers to create new functions or applications using the characteristics of existing applications or “modules”.

The result is that eMinerva can now offer multi-lingual support, as well as dual systems for different education segments, he said. Another version of eMinerva is available which caters for the business training market.

Additionally, the double byte character set in .NET allows support for simple and complex Chinese – a world first in the education industry, McNamara said.

This dual functionality also means the eMinerva tool can now handle different currencies within the same system.

McNamara said MXL initially looked into transferring eMinerva across to a .NET platform as a means of integrating seamlessly with Microsoft’s business software solutions through Great Plains.

While there are a variety of business software applications in the small to medium enterprise market, such as MYOB, MXL decided Microsoft’s Great Plains software solution would come to play an increasingly important role in the education sector, McNamara said.

“Several of our clients already use Great Plains software for all of their business needs, and have requested support for it,” he said.

In order to move eMinerva across to .NET, McNamara said MXL completely reverse engineered the tool, building it from the ground up. This was achieved in the space of just under six months, he said, starting in May and completed in November 2002.

The process was so quick because the company’s developers had already trialed the system and created a business model for .NET using the beta version of the framework. Once approval for .NET was granted in May 2002, the development team “hit the ground running”, McNamara said.

McNamara says the MXL tool is operated through three hosting boxes which sit with its ISP. The two main boxes consist of an Internet Information Server (IIS), and a secondary server based on Microsoft’s SQL 2000 database. The third server is dedicated to producing batch reports.

Since the company’s transition to .NET, server efficiency has improved by over 20 per cent, McNamara said. Utilising .NET also has financial benefits, because it allows the company to add in new modules and functions, make changes and test the product in half the time it took using the original method.

“It [eMinerva] is much easier to maintain, and we have a faster turnaround on releases of the tool using .NET,” he said.

All of MXL’s existing clients have been moved across to the .NET version of eMinerva. In excess of 100 new clients will also benefit from the capabilities of version 4 in the coming months, including MXL’s newest client Bond University, McNamara said.