WebAdvisor troubles plague student registration

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By Billy Gedney

(Andrew Conrad)

By Billy Gedney

During the first two days of the fall semester, many students and staff members complained about the accessibility of WebAdvisor.

“On the first week of school, I got an e-mail about my financial award letter and I went to WebAdvisor to try and view it,” student Christine Tilson said. “I tried about every hour for around five hours until I finally gave up on it, and didn’t check it again until the next week.”

Many other students encountered the error.

“Here in the library we got to see firsthand the frustration students were facing; our computers were completely filled with students trying to sign up for classes or get their class schedules so they could get to class,” RCC Moreno Valley campus Public Services Librarian Diana Myers Hyatt said in a staff wide e-mail.

Of RCC students, 76 percent register via WebAdvisor, nine percent register via tiger talk and the remaining 15 percent register face to face according to Software Development Director Steve Herman, who oversees the group of Information Services that manages WebAdvisor.

WebAdvisor is a system that allows users to access data that is stored in a massive database system called Datatel, which Admissions and Records, Financial Aid and other departments use.

Some students and staff feel that WebAdvisor needs to be replaced.

“I say put the thing out of its misery,” Hyatt said in the e-mail.

In particular, one male student was calling and leaving disturbing and inappropriate voice mails after-hours in response to his WebAdvisor frustrations according to Associate Vice Chancellor of Information.Services Steve Gilson.

“When people say they want WebAdvisor gone, they don’t understand what they’re asking for,” Gilson said. “If we replaced WebAdvisor, we’d have to replace the whole Datatel system and instead of two days of problems it’d take years to rebuild a new system.”

There is a staff of four programmers, four user support coordinators who help design programs, two applications support technicians and one Systems Analyst who have spent the last 10 years making the Datatel package what it is today according to Herman.

“Datatel is worth millions to the college,” Gilson said.

To replace the Datatel system with something similar would cost over $5 million, not to mention throwing away millions in customization, according to Gilson.

On the first day of school when traffic started to build “the session errors students were receiving were essentially our traffic control lights not allowing students to overload the server,” Herman said.

At about 11 a.m. on Sept. 2, the WebAdvisor server had seen nearly 800,000 database transactions since 3 a.m. according to Herman.

A database transaction occurs when a user asks WebAdvisor for a copy of their schedule, or any other type of information, and WebAdvisor goes to the Datatel mainframe and requests and delivers that information back to the user.

The problems this semester were uncovered after last semester’s connectivity issues were fixed by replacing the Datatel mainframe.

Information.Services upgraded hardware and software to help keep WebAdvisor running.

“We’ve fixed the bottleneck, the old Datatel mainframe, and the new bottleneck, which affects fewer users prior to the upgrade, is the server that hosts the WebAdvisor Web site,” Gilson said.

Gilson says there are plans to replace the server that houses the WebAdvisor site “within 45-60 days.”

To prevent the same errors because of a slowing WebAdvisor server, the new server will be significantly faster.

“The new server is going to be about seven times faster than the current server,” Gilson said. “We’ll develop and test the new server offline and when it’s ready, it is just a matter of a few minutes downtime while we plug it in.”

While replacing the server is thought to be a solution for the problem, it may not solve the problem.

“One big problem is we cannot simulate a high traffic situation,” Herman said. “We need to use these intense periods of traffic to test our fixes on the system.”

Once the new server housing WebAdvisor is installed, the bottleneck will most likely move to the Datatel system between the Datatel mainframe and the Datatel database server although traffic might not make that bottleneck realized according to Gilson.

One of the reasons for the new software and hardware upgrade was to upgrade to a new version of Datatel that supports a more powerful database platform called Oracle.

“There is one college in California running Oracle instead of the IBM solution that Datatel runs on,” Gilson said.

Information.Services won’t be moving to the new database system right away.

“We want to wait for Datatel to release more versions of the software before making that change,” Gilson said. “Making that change when the software isn’t ready is risking the stability of the whole district.”

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