School board tackles tight upgrade

At the best of times, large-scale upgrades are a difficult task. But when there is just one window of opportunity, the process becomes more difficult and invariably more stressful.

Over the past Christmas holidays Brenda Boychuk faced this when she lead a team of Edmonton School Board IT specialists through the task of upgrading the board’s Oracle financial applications.

The Edmonton School Board oversees 210 schools, 2,400 non-teaching staff, 4,400 teachers and 82,000 students.

Since the late 1990s the board had been running Version 10.7 of Oracle Corp.’s business applications. However, in June the first level of what has euphemistically been called de-support starts, so the clock is ticking on 10.7. The board decided it was time to upgrade to the 11i E-Business Suite.

“We like to ensure that we have supported software, that if we do have a problem, we can get a fix for it,” said Boychuk, a database administrator with the board.

Though lack of future support was the primary factor, it was not the only factor. The latest version of Oracle’s financial suite also offers some improved functionality. “We are hoping that there will be gains in productivity with the upgrades,” she said.

Although the window of opportunity to do the actual upgrade was, in part, dictated by the school holiday season, the decision to upgrade was two years in the making. The school board had been running accounts payable, the purchasing system, fixed assets, cash management and the general ledger on 10.7 since 1997. Though the time was at hand to upgrade, the process of finding a proper match was slow, Boychuk said.

“We looked at some of the earlier versions (of 11i)…and just found that they weren’t at the level that we were expecting for a production application,” she said.

Version 11.5.2 didn’t meet the board’s needs, so it originally decided to go live this past summer with version 11.5.5. “But it didn’t work out,” Boychuk explained. Since September is the busiest time of year for administrators, a decision was made not to place the additional burden of learning an upgraded application on their plate. The board chose instead to wait until Christmas and upgrade to the most recent version – 11.5.7.

Although not absolutely essential, upgrading the systems during a period when staff use was at it lowest was preferable. But this summer was deemed to be too late.

Boychuk’s pre-upgrade team included a Unix administrator, three system administrators working on the application side and about eight end users involved with testing the system functionality and stability. Boychuk handled most of the actual upgrade herself.

smooth running – almost

“The upgrade went really smoothly,” Boychuk said, one hard drive and a few production system failures notwithstanding.

“We had gone through the upgrade process on the test database three times prior to doing it on the production database,” she explained. “So we felt fairly confident by the time we did the upgrade.”

The upgrade was completed in six days. But then, as is often the case, Murphy’s law took over.

First, Boychuk faced a hard drive failure, the first one in years, she said. It was replaced and fixed within hours. “It really wasn’t a big deal, it was just the timing – [we] had just gone live with the new release.”

The other failures were on the user end, and were ones Boychuk didn’t want elaborate on. “The rest of the stuff was just a bunch of little things going on, it is just that things seem to always escalate,” she explained.

With 11.5.7 running smoothly it was time to focus on the upside of the new implementation. “In the long run we are hoping that [the upgrade] will justify itself,” said Bob Maksymic, the school board’s computer centre manager. “[Though] I don’t think you save a lot of money by doing this.”

Boychuk said 11.5.7 is more standardized than the previous version, and since it is more intuitive to use, she’s looking for a reduction in training time.

“They have made their Web-based applications more user friendly,” she said.

Some of the newer functionality is a lot easier and less time-consuming to use. With the newer version of the software, getting approval from a manager is a more streamlined process. “So instead of carrying around a piece of paper and going to your manager for a signature, more of it can be automated through e-mail,” she said. When applications requiring approval are entered into the system, managers are automatically notified by e-mail.

The systems are running on Sun Solaris 8 on the following platforms: Sun Sparc SunFire 3800, Sun Enterprise 450 and Sun Enterprise 250. All of the systems are running on Oracle’s database Version

Upgrading this to 9i is the next task on Boychuk’s to-do list.