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Medical academy implements data integration software in a hurry

Ultimate Medical Academy's CIO tells how the health care training school used new integration tools to quickly link Oracle and SQL Server systems.

The secret to successfully implementing data integration software on a tight deadline is avoiding unnecessary frills and enlisting outside expertise when necessary, according to the chief information officer of Ultimate Medical Academy (UMA).

Based in Tampa, Fla., UMA is a for-profit company that provides online and classroom-based training to about 9,000 students worldwide. UMA trains students to become nursing assistants, medical billing and coding specialists, medical office managers, patient care technicians, radiology technicians and more.

Gartner reveals pros and cons of Pervasive Software

Pervasive Software Inc. in Austin, Texas, does a good job of offering attractively priced data integration tools that support both batch and near-real-time data delivery methods, but the vendor does have some room for improvement, according to a recent Magic Quadrant report from IT analyst group Gartner Inc., based in Stamford, Conn.

The Gartner Magic Quadrant for Data Integration Tools, which was released in October, found that in addition to solid price performance, Pervasive offers highly scalable products that offer strong mapping and transformation capabilities.

But some Pervasive customers cite frequent bugs with the software and complain that they usually have to wait for a new release to get fixes, according to Gartner. Pervasive also does not provide support for data federation functions. 

"Other weaknesses, as cited by customer references, include [Pervasive's] metadata and modeling functionality and relatively limited (compared with larger competitors) availability of skills," the report reads. "However, Pervasive's release of Version 10 resolved some previously reported issues with administrative capabilities."

UMA CIO Sam Collier said the school maintained a very narrow project scope and enlisted some serious vendor support last year when it needed to rapidly purchase and launch a data integration software platform. The school needed the data integration tools to combine information from a new learning management system with on-premises applications -- and thanks to a tight, self-imposed deadline, the team had about a month to get the job done.

"We have been continually investing in increasing our capabilities to increase our support of students and improve student outcomes," Collier said. "Getting this data in a more timely basis integrated with our internal applications was a key component."

The learning management application, which powers the school’s online training courses, is provided by Blackboard Inc. The school chose the hosted version of Blackboard, which  runs on Oracle Database. UMA’s student information system and other on-premises systems run on Microsoft SQL Server.  

UMA’s IT team had some experience with Pervasive Software Inc.’s data integration platform and quickly decided that it could handle the job of getting Oracle and Microsoft to play nicely together.

“To be honest, we didn’t spend much time looking at different products after we saw that the Pervasive product would do what we needed it to do,” Collier said. “We did a quick pilot and it seemed like it would meet our needs.”

The Pervasive product had several potentially useful “options” to choose from, but time was short and Collier didn’t want the project to grow beyond control. The team decided to focus only on the features and functionality necessary to complete basic integrations between Blackboard and in-house applications.

The team also enlisted implementation help from Pervasive Software’s support crew -- much of which occurred on the phone or in a virtual chat room. Collier said it took about 10 days to examine and purchase the Pervasive product and another two weeks to get it tested, launched and running in production.

“We didn’t attempt to do anything but a fairly narrow data transformation from one set of Oracle tables to one set of SQL server tables, and so having that narrow focus eliminated any scope creep,” Collier said. “We also engaged professional services from Pervasive to essentially accelerate the implementation and perform the initial integration for us.”

Large data sets create implementation concerns
While the data integration software implementation at UMA was completed relatively quickly, it was not without its glitches. One of the problems the team faced when launching the software centered on the large data sets that UMA planned to pull down from the Blackboard application.

In addition to providing a platform on which to host virtual classrooms, the Blackboard application keeps track of many data points related to student learning activity, Collier explained. For example, the system maintains a record of every time a student checks into an online course or completes a specific course-related task. Teachers and staff at UMA use this information to track students’ progress and figure out which ones might need some extra attention.

But during the implementation process it became clear that the data sets being pulled down from Blackboard were gargantuan and taking too long to process. Collier and his team had to work out a solution with Pervasive or overall system performance would continue to degrade.

“We had to spend a couple of days with the Pervasive engineers and have them look at the data and work with us on this,” Collier said. “The largest issue was actually getting queries developed that would efficiently return the results.”

In addition, Collier’s team worked closely with Blackboard staff to perfect the queries and get them running efficiently.

“We had to spend some time with Blackboard to get them to provide the necessary server configuration changes and optimizations to get the queries performing properly on their side,” he said.  “[That allowed us] to get the data in a reasonable period of time.”

For more on implementing data integration software

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Data integration software project produces results
Since launching the new hosted Blackboard application and the Pervasive data integration platform, Collier said UMA’s IT team has been able to marry Oracle data and its SQL Server infrastructure without becoming a group of Oracle experts

The system is also providing the student services team with greater flexibility because student activity data from the Blackboard application is being delivered faster than ever before. Under the previous learning management system, student activity data was sent over as a flat file several times a day -- a process that was messy and difficult to manage, according to Collier.

Today, Pervasive software allows data from Blackboard’s Oracle database to be replicated into a UMA-operated Microsoft SQL Server implementation in near real time. As a result, the data is much more up to date than in the past and school staff can easily link to it for reporting purposes.

“It’s allowing us to capture student participation information with a higher degree of fidelity then we could before and with much less latency,” Collier said. “One of the outcomes from a business perspective is that we have been able to improve our student success.”

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