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Real-time data access pattern

Web services have the potential to introduce radical change in business models and business processes. One important driver of change is that Web services make it much easier to introduce real time data update and access, and involvement of the real owner of the data. This week, we look at an interesting case study that demonstrates the reality of this simple assertion.

Market Analysis

Real-time data access pattern
Every multi-user system you are involved with, either as a user, architect or designer is likely to be suboptimal because the information you are using is out of date. For years the IT industry has adopted practices that are based on replication, because it was the only practical data architecture. Whilst we have understood distributed systems theory for years, practical implementation has been restricted to very few instances. For example your brand new CRM system is comprised of information gathered from disparate sources and is by definition always out of date, because the information in the database is generally not maintained directly by the owner.

The NSC case study

This week I talked with the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC) a not for profit organization based in Virginia. The NSC has created a central registry of student records which was initially set up to provide verification information in support of the student loan process. The prime motivation was to allow student loan organizations to have independent information on whether and where a student was continuing informal education, and when they completed their education and became liable to commence repayment of the loan. More recently NSC has expanded its business model to provide a credential verification service. Evidently there is a significant incidence of job applicants providing false or inaccurate information on their resumes and NSC enables potential employers to quickly verify the records before making employment decisions.

Prior to the NSC services becoming available, both of these processes were completely manual, creating huge effort for the colleges and organizations involving fax and telephone. Initially NSC offered services by Web-based browser. Schools and universities submitted information in batch files mostly by FTP. Loan institutions and more recently potential employers were provided with online browser access. NSC is now in the process of upgrading its processes to use Web services, and it is very interesting to examine how the process is set to change yet again.

The evolving business model

There are three sets of participants in this business model, the providers (colleges and universities) the registry (NSC) and the consumers (loan organizations, businesses requiring verification and the individual students). The colleges supply enrollment status and degree information to the NSC three times each semester, and the consumers are provided with real time inquiry response. In moving to Web services, NSC is initially responding to the requirement of loan organizations to automate their processes, and they are providing their consumers with a proxy to establish a Web service endpoint that can be easily integrated into an existing process.

Whilst degree information is relatively static, enrollment data can be much more dynamic. NSC has therefore not surprisingly come under pressure to provide more up to date information, and is now moving to offer the educational institutions a generic framework that can implement a Web service providing a front end to the institution's own database(s). This will then provide a real time service for consumers for enrollment data, based on the latest information available to the educational institution. The registry starts to become a virtual registry, where information is provided from the best available source.

Web services create inherent flexibility

NSC recognizes the primary investment they have made is in establishing a channel between educational institutions and student loan and general business enterprises. Although their initial model was quite well defined, they were able to evolve the types of service offered because they had the relationships and technical infrastructures in place. These allowed not just additional data types, but different data currency to be introduced reasonably easily.

This is already a significant network. There are currently 2700 educational institutions involved representing a large proportion of the higher educational market. Current volumes are running at 100m transactions a year, and are set to increase substantially because the degree verification services are only now being ramped up. But beyond this NSC sees considerable opportunity to extend the business model to include new domains and data types such as professional qualifications certification, past employment certification etc. Further the same business model is potentially applicable to a much wider business audience, and the technical infrastructure is eminently scalable.

NSC has implemented the Web service architecture with support from Flamenco Networks. Flamenco provide a hybrid P2P based environment, with central control over coordination and peer based messaging. Security, an important aspect of this sensitive data, is implemented using conventional PKI techniques with third party authentication.

In this model each participant in the network is appropriately motivated. The colleges avoid considerable administrative effort and cost. The consumers have access to information that allows them to make informed decisions. Interestingly the costs to the educational institutions are borne by the commercial usage of the information.

Web service reality

With new concepts it is often difficult to sort out the hype from reality because of the media blitz. We maintain our early stance on Web services that the concept has the potential to enable radical improvement in information accuracy and currency and to profoundly change existing business processes. In our Pattern Catalog published earlier this year, we identified real time data access as one of the critical patterns that Web services enable. Simply put Web services makes distribution of critical and dynamic data viable, with responsibility placed on the real owner.


National Student Clearinghouse (NSC)

CBDI Special Report - Web Service Pattern Catalog
Report available to Gold members at: CBDi Report

CBDI Journal Report - December 2000
Will Web Services Revolutionize Data Distribution?
Report available to Silver and Gold members CBDi Report

Flamenco Networks

Please let us have your feedback and comment. If you have interesting case studies that demonstrate new ideas and concepts we are interested to hear from you. Send feedback to

Copyright CBDi Forum Limited 2002. The CBDi Forum is an analysis firm and think tank, providing insight on component and Web service technologies, processes and practices for the software industry and its customers. To register for the weekly newswire click here .

Copyright CBDi Forum Limited 2002. The CBDi Forum is an analysis firm and think tank, providing insight on component and web service technologies, processes and practices for the software industry and its customers. To register for the weekly newswire click here.

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