Case study: Top of the class


1 Aug 2005

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For a project manager there can be few more pressured situations than developing an information system that becomes so popular it struggles to meet the demands of the thousands of users who have come to rely on it. This, in a nutshell, is the dilemma that Tom Farrell, director of the Qualifax national course database, was facing two years ago.

“By that time, it had completely outgrown the technology. It was very difficult to manage and because it was so popular we were under great pressure,” he recalls.

The Institute of Guidance Counsellors developed Qualifax in the Eighties, originally as a floppy disk and in recent years as a CD-Rom, with the support of universities and various other course providers. It is used by every school in the country and by students researching third level or other courses. It is currently being expanded to include all adult education courses available nationally.

The database was originally developed by Farrell, who was responsible for the data collection and management aspect, and a colleague, Brian Lennon, who did all the programming. While the database coped well initially, the whole process of updating it every year became increasingly unwieldy over time.

It was decided to bring in external help in the form of IT services firm Version 1 Software. Its remit was to review the workings of the existing system and to design and build a website (www.qualifax.ie) on top of a revamped database. Version 1, which has a strong pedigree in database development work, particularly in Oracle databases but also in Microsoft and open source technologies, began its work in January 2004.

“One of the things we found was the technology betrayed its roots as a part-time project. There was a real mish-mash of technologies and no technical manual we could look at to tell us how it was constructed. It was similar to peeling back the layers of an onion,” recalls Tom O’Connor, director of Version 1.

The project aimed to develop an automated mechanism using a secure intranet for the collection and verification of data, so that both Qualifax and its information providers could easily update information.

“Colleges can now directly edit their own course information online as it becomes available,” explains O’Connor. “This has been a huge change for the people working on the database. They can now spend their time getting new course information and building up the size of the database rather than just entering data.”

Version 1’s solution uses a combination of off-the-shelf and custom-written software. The use of open source software (OSS) including PHP, a scripting language used in web development, and MySQL, an open source relational database management system, eliminated the cost of software licences.

Meanwhile, the website is undergoing constant revision, with several new features due to be added in the coming months. The institute is also planning to expand further the number of courses on the site by including details of postgraduate courses and FÁS courses.

Farrell believes there’s simply no comparison between the Qualifax of two years ago and the system of today. It has been transformed from a cumbersome though useful information system into a slick and user-friendly website that’s primed for expansion. “Back then we were handling 1,500 courses with difficulty; now we are easily able to handle 10,000 courses. That’s what technology has done for us.”

Pictured at the launch of the new Qualifax.ie website were (from left): Brian Mooney, president, Institute of Guidance Counsellors; Mary Hanafin TD, Minister for Education and Science; and Tom O’Connor, director, Version 1 Software

By Brian Skelly