Sheffield University's mission to create a new £30.4m student information management system – which saw its original design dropped last week after years of delay – stumbled on integrating corporate software running on an effectively out-of-support Oracle database.
According to information passed to The Register, the university's Corporate Information System (CIS) is running on Oracle 184.108.40.206.0, which went out of premium support on 31 January 2015 and extended support on 31 December 2020. Oracle provides "Sustaining Support" and support options are available from third-party partners. We have asked the university if it avails itself of one of these.
Observers will question the database's role in the controversial implementation of a new Student Lifecycle Project (SLP) which dates back to 2014, when the university said it aimed to implement a "world-class" system designed to "fix fundamental technology problems that, if allowed to deteriorate further, expose the university to unpalatable risk," according to Freedom of Information requests.
Last week, news broke that the institution had abandoned the original design of the project long after staff had warned that it was not possible to deliver the update.
In a statement to The Register, a spokesperson said at the time: "The University is changing its approach to the delivery of the Student Lifecycle Programme. As is the case in any significant transformation programme across a large and complex organisation of our size, we need to take an agile approach and adapt to the things we learn as the programme develops.
"It has become clear that it will not be possible to integrate the student record management system SITS with our current Corporate Information System (CIS) as initially planned, so we will need to deliver this work in a different way. The investment in the programme has already delivered new systems that previously did not exist at the University and our work to date will underpin the development of our future plans. We are keeping our staff updated and will support them as this work progresses."
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After getting the statement last week, The Register received information that the CIS runs on a Oracle 220.127.116.11.0 database, according to an insider "SELECT * FROM v$version" query.
Onlookers might question whether the plan was to upgrade the database as the Student Lifecycle Programme was being rolled out.
Oracle offers Premier support for the first five years of most products' life, followed by three years in Extended support. After that, there is the option of Sustaining Support from Oracle or third-party support.
With Sustaining Support, customers pay the same as they do for Premier Support, and get access to old fixes and the right to upgrade to the latest version. They do not get new bugs fixed or general and security updates, explained Martin Biggs, vice president and general manager of Spinnaker Support, which specialises in Oracle, SAP, and Salesforce installations.
"Even when common vulnerabilities are identified that impact this older software, Oracle only patches the newer versions," he said. "There is nothing wrong per se in running 18.104.22.168 – it's a stable and trusted version, but if something goes wrong, Oracle's response would be 'you must upgrade' – which is an incredibly expensive, risky and time-consuming activity with near-zero additional benefits unless Sheffield wants to use the new functionality of younger databases."
The university has been asked whether the effectively out-of-support database was behind problems with the SLP rollout. It was also asked if it is relying on support from Oracle or a third party to keep the database up and running, and when it plans to upgrade the system.
The Register has yet to receive a reply. ®