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Verification service glows over Web services

Web services improved efficiency for the National Student Clearinghouse and users of its degree and enrollment verification services.

If you've graduated from college, taken out a student loan or have recently applied for a job, chances are the National Student Clearinghouse knows who you are.

The nonprofit organization turns 10 this year, and annually handles more than 100 million requests for degree and enrollment verification for employers, lending institutions, the government, colleges and universities and others. Those entities use the NSC's services, for example, to start payments on student loans or verify whether job candidates have graduated from a particular school, rather than calling the school in question.

The NSC's databases hold enrollment information on 91% of the country's students from more than 2,700 colleges. With requests coming from a dizzying number of directions and NSC's EDI system falling out of favor, the Herndon, Va. organization took the Web services plunge.

Mark Jones, vice president of marketing and business development, said making the business case for converting to a Web services architecture was not difficult. Benefits were plentiful for NSC and its customers.

"It was pretty obvious Web services were the way to go," Jones said.

NSC, already an AIX shop, used IBM Web services, which are based on the Eclipse IDE 2.1, to build the services its customers would tap into.

"Web services doubled utilization of our services," Jones said. "Revenue from each customer doubled, and the 500 or so telephone requests a month the schools were getting for verification information don't happen any more."

NSC has a small development staff of five writing basic Web services where a request for a service comes in, it's handled, sent to a database and a response is returned.

"We had them in test mode for a year, now we're starting to roll them out and we're about to open the floodgates," Jones said.

The Eclipse toolkits made life simple for NSC's developers, Jones said. One hurdle they had to overcome was developing useful schemas -- was pre-HRXML specification. Security was also a concern, in particular keeping its databases safe, as well as the data in transition.

For the Web services deployment to succeed, however, NSC needed its customers to implement them on their end. Jones said NSC solved those potential roadblocks by laying out separate presentations for business folks and for techies that included an implementation guide.

Jones said customers -- a "captive audience" as he put it -- were familiar enough with XML that they could quickly turn on the services and use them.

"Some of the smaller companies were ready in two days," Jones said. "With the toolkits, they were ready to use our WSDL."

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