pcMAINFRAME customer profile: Berrien Intermediate School
The District is a regional educational service agency -- a kind of service bureau for schools of Berrien County. It is chartered by the state to provide a variety of services (data processing as well as others) to the school district.
"Like every other DP shop, we operate short-handed," says Will Townsley, the systems programmer and network administrator for the District. "pcMAINFRAME has allowed us to meet demand for DP services without having to add staff, and without incurring enormous backlog." That's important in a shop like Townsley's, which has under 10 people.
"I can usually turn requests for reports around very quickly -- we do that all the time," notes Townsley. "It's not unusual to get a call at the last minute requesting a download of some information from the mainframe ASAP. Because pcMAINFRAME is so easy to use, we can often satisfy those requests in the same day. That helps us satisfy our customers, which in turn makes our shop look good."
One example of the benefits Townsley and the District are deriving from pcMAINFRAME is a system for direct-depositing salaries into employee bank accounts. The District used to create a tape with that information and physically transport the tape to the bank. After the DP department gained experience with pcMAINFRAME, it realized that pcMAINFRAME would allow it to send payroll information to the bank directly, by modem, and bypass the tape-creation step.
Another way pcMAINFRAME has proven especially useful to the District is in creating new files by combining portions of existing (separate) mainframe files. In one case, for example, one of the District's users needed a file which would contain student and course information (such as student schedules), as well as demographic data -- all of which was spread across several files. "So we used pcMAINFRAME to create a file which is basically a flat file, containing all the information the user needed. If we had not had a facility to do that quickly, we would have had to write a mainframe program, which would have taken time to write and test. And by then, the need would have passed, and they'd be frustrated that we couldn't do what they needed, when we needed it."
In fact, notes Townsley, "it's not at all unusual for us to write a 'quick-and-dirty' user-exit routine to combine data from different files. Our experience has been that pcMAINFRAME is straight-forward to use, and over and over again, saves us from having to write elaborate routines."
And what about the fact that client-server systems are popular today? "pcMAINFRAME doesn't give us all of the features and functionality that a client-server architecture might give us, but it's a highly useful alternative," Townsley notes. "It provides a good portion of the functionality of client-server systems, but without having to uproot everything and change the way we operate. In a few cases, pcMAINFRAME provides the interface between our mainframe systems and some client-server systems which the schools use."
Another interesting way that the District uses pcMAINFRAME is in a student attendance system. The schools collect attendance sheets, which are scanned into a PC and then uploaded into mainframe files. Those files are updated, and some schools send Townsley's shop the results. Using pcMAINFRAME, the relevant data is extracted from the mainframe files and then sent to a PC. The PC then phones parents and lets them know, using voice synthesis, that the student was absent that day.
Although some school districts have a reputation for being stodgy -- in terms of staying abreast of technology -- that does not characterize the Berrien District. It has its own Home Page on the Web, and uses pcMAINFRAME to upload some data, such as titles of new media center materials, from its other computers to the Home Page.
"We're constantly coming up with new uses for pcMAINFRAME," Townsley notes, because new applications can be created without the overhead of a full cycle of writing and testing mainframe software. "That means we're able to make our own customers happy quickly, without creating a crushing backlog for ourselves."