A highly touted solution that lets K-12 software programs from different manufacturers share student data without any retyping launched its long-awaited compliance program April 25. Supporters of the initiative say having a certification process in place will speed the solution’s adoption by schools.

The Schools Interoperability Framework (SIF) is an open-standard specification that lets different K-12 software programs—such as student information systems and library automation software—connect through a central server and share information in a common computer language.

Software companies now can certify that their software applications conform to the SIF Implementation Specification Version 1.1. Once the certification is complete, they can advertise their products as “SIF Compliant,” so education customers will know they truly work with other SIF-enabled products.

“There’s always been this bar that we have to cross before we can say we are SIF-compliant. Now, with this process in place, we can finally say it,” said Mark Reichert, senior programmer at Mandarin Library Automation. Reichert was actively involved in developing the SIF Compliance Program.

Driven by K-12 educational technology providers, SIF—formerly a division of the Software and Information Industry Association—aims to save educators from repeatedly entering and updating the same student information within various programs. The project’s goal is to enable diverse software applications to interact and share data efficiently, reliably, and securely in real time, regardless of their respective platforms.

The initiative officially has been under development since 1999. In August 2000, eSchool News reported that SIF Implementation Specification v1.0 had been released to software developers. In February 2002, a remote demonstration of SIF-compliant products proved the specification works.

But the lack of a clear certification process for SIF-compliant products was among the factors that has hindered the widespread adoption of the standard so far (see “eSN Analysis: Costs, complications slow SIF’s arrival in schools,” http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showstory.cfm?ArticleID=3817).

“Ever since SIF came into being, our customers have been asking for SIF compliance even though it didn’t exist yet,” Reichert said.

To be certified, companies must demonstrate that their software “interoperates” with other SIF-compliant applications by properly transmitting and receiving the specific set of standard messages, queries, and events defined by the SIF Specification, written in extensible markup language (XML) and sent using internet protocols.

The Open Group, a vendor- and technology-neutral consortium that specializes in compliance, will serve as the certification authority for the SIF Compliance Program. The Open Group will collect fees, process applications, and give the stamp of approval.

The Open Group “provides an online testing environment where a company can bring its product and run it through an online compliance test,” Reichert said.

Companies first must fill out a comprehensive application to indicate what data objects and elements their software will support. Example objects—meaning categories of data—include “student personal,” “staff personal,” “library patron status,” and “student meal.” The elements, or field names, in the object could include name, address, phone number, bar code, library fines, meal privilege, and grade level.

Then, a test is generated for each area the company claims is interoperable. SIF also provides a self-test, called the Agent Test Harness, that companies can try before the formal compliance process.

The Open Group will post a list of all SIF-compliant applications and the Conformance Statements of each qualifying product on its web site, and several companies are expected to begin certification in the coming weeks.

See these related links:

SIF Compliance Program
http://www.opengroup.org/sif/cert

Schools Interoperability Framework (SIF)
http://www.sifinfo.org

Open Group
http://www.opengroup.org