School software interoperability takes huge step forward

School officials are one step closer to sharing student data between multiple software programs without any retyping, thanks to an industry-wide initiative that has been tested and found to work.

The Schools Interoperability Framework (SIF) is an open-standard specification that lets different software programs—such as student information systems and library automation software—connect through a central server and share information in a common computer language.

Driven by K-12 education technology providers, SIF—a division the Software and Information Industry Association—aims to save educators from repeatedly entering and updating student information. The goal is to enable diverse software applications to interact and share data efficiently, reliably, and securely in real time, regardless of their platform.

In August 2000, eSchool News reported that SIF Implementation Specification v1.0 had been released to software developers. Now, a remote demonstration of SIF-compliant products in early February has proven the specification works.

In the first-ever "Connect-a-thon," held Feb. 4 through 8, approximately a dozen companies were able to establish a connection over the internet through a zone integration server (ZIS) to share database information. The ZIS is the component where data from one piece of software communicate with data from another program.

In the experiment, the participating companies added new students to a student information system and then looked to see if the information was also added to the library software, the bus scheduling software, and so on.

Participants also tried changing student information to see if it would be updated on all the programs. And they queried for information to see if they could conduct a search of all the programs.

"Things just pretty much worked," said Eric Peterson, chief technology officer at Edustructures, a company that makes zone integration servers.

SIF is an open standard, so any company can add support for SIF to its software product. Currently, more than 120 companies are working to make SIF possible.

"The Connect-a-thon is significant because this is the first time vendors who have been building support for SIF into their systems found that it actually works," Peterson said.

SIF Director Tim Magner described the Connect-a-thon as a "milestone" for SIF, which has been in the works for nearly three years. "It means that SIF is real, that schools can begin to assess their own readiness to implement SIF, and that they should begin to explore how SIF can make a difference in their district," he said.

SIF is more than a technology solution, Magner said. It’s an infrastructure that links software systems in schools to software programs at the district level. "It’s not just about hardware and software, it’s also about data management and school administration," he said.

SIF is platform-independent and vendor-neutral and can be used anywhere schools would want to share data between systems.

"Usually when you enroll new students, you have to propagate that enrollment data to, like, 11 different programs, [often] by hand. This automates that whole process," Peterson said.

A list of SIF-enabled applications is available on the SIF web site. Schools interested in SIF can sign up on the initiative’s web site to become a beta-tester of SIF-compliant products, and the group also provides language on its web site for schools to include in their requests for proposals if they want to specify SIF-compliant software.

Participants in the Connect-a-thon included Pennsylvania’s Central Susquehanna Intermediate Unit, Computer Power Solutions of Illinois, Edustructures, Follett Software Co., Novell Inc., Parlant Technology, Sagebrush Corp., SIRS Mandarin, TetraData, SUNGARD Pentamation, and VersaTrans Solutions.

"Some of the challenges surrounding this first event were mostly logistical—for example, how to schedule tests and groupings across time zones, and facilitating communication between teams of companies as they tested their applications," Magner said. "Now that we’ve done it once, we’ve learned some things that will streamline these [processes] in the future."

Related links:
Schools Interoperability Framework

Software and Information Industry Association

eSchool News Staff

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