By consolidating multiple education portals into a single customisable system, the London Business School (LBS) is building a platform in which Web services could be used to deliver premium course material at a later date.
The hub of the system is a Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP) directory, which contains information about people taking courses at LBS. Built on Sun's iPlanet server, the directory provides access to a single portal for all the information LBS has access to including course material, digital books and archived business news feeds.
The project replaces multiple portals with a single portal and is due to be completed by the end of the year. Once this base architecture has been completed LBS is looking at incorporating XML data within the portal, along with other Web services technologies. This will enable course material to be created on the fly. For instance, relevant information within digitised business literature contained in an XML database from publisher Bloomsbury could be incorporated automatically into course material.
"This technique could be used in e-commerce where users pay for such information on a consumption basis rather than an annual fee," says Russell Altendorff, director of the information systems division at LBS. The overall vision is to make LBS a broker for digital books, business news feeds and other paid-for information services.
The business driver is that custom portals containing such information feeds could be sold on to businesses. For this to succeed, Altendorff believes LBS needs to act as a syndication partner for information providers. He believes that using Web services technologies like Soap and UDDI will allow LBS to pass on XML-based micro-transactions between the desktop computers of business executives and the back-end systems at the information providers.
The project began in 2000 when LBS was looking for a way to simplify portal development. "For the last 18 months we have had a massive IT restructuring, looking to integrate all our portals into one system," says Altendorff. His approach was to take common portal components like premium information feeds and repackage them in a way suitable for people on university courses. Previously his team was tied up building custom portals - an inefficient process. "We needed to be serial developers of extranets," he says.
The system is based on an Oracle database and runs on two Sun E5500 servers running Solaris 2.6. Altendorff says of the five companies that tendered for the contract, Sun was the only Unix solution: the others were based on Microsoft .net technologies. Since the information providers used by LBS were running Unix themselves, Altendorff felt the technical teams at the various organisations would be more comfortable exchanging LDAP data than using Microsoft's alternative Active Directory technology.
He also expressed concern over the level of Microsoft's commitment to maintaining open standards. While many components of .net have been submitted to standards bodies "Microsoft has enhanced open standards in the past as this is how it makes money," Altendorff says. He does not want to be in a position where standardising on a particular technology - like Active Directory - would have an impact in the future on the database he could choose.