Banner upgrade represents major change for data system

Learn more about the Banner upgrade.

When alumni remember their college days, they usually think about friends, extracurricular activities, their first apartments, and, oh yes--classes. But much of what a university "remembers" about them are all the pieces of data it collects.

At UC Davis, student information--everything from recruitment to graduation--is collected in an Oracle database. Including historic and current enrollment, there are close to a million unique student records. Need to know how many students enrolled in 2005? It's in the database. How about 1970? It's there. Need to know what grade a particular student received in an introductory chemistry class in fall 1995? It's there as well.

The database also holds information for staff, faculty, and companies that do business with UC Davis. And because data is small compared to music, video, or image files, the entire database fits on a surprisingly compact 60-gigabyte hard drive. That's right: processor speed aside, the Banner database could fit on an iPod.

The data is managed by a software program, Banner, which is being upgraded over Veterans Day weekend (Nov. 10-12). Banner helps various departments and colleges enter, track, and use data. It also allows UC Davis to share required data with UC Office of the President and state and federal agencies.

Banner has been used at UC Davis since 1992
UC Davis began using Banner in 1992 when it transitioned from a flat database to a relational database. In the flat database, student data was essentially stored as individual records, much like individual cards in an old-fashioned library card catalog. In a relational database, the different data components (biographical, academic, recruitment, etc.) exist in different tables that can be linked, creating a much more powerful tool.

In 1998, a second generation of Banner took the relational database software from a character-based system (users actually worked directly on the server), to a more user-friendly version with a client server and a graphic interface that looked vaguely like a Windows 95 environment.

Although new functions and enhancements have been added Banner since 1998, the current upgrade represents a major change for the system. The basic forms and functions will still operate the same way (users are expected to be able to use the new system immediately), but Banner 7 is Web-based instead of client-server based. Banner users will be able to securely access UC Davis' data anywhere they have an Internet connection. Users will also immediately notice the significantly improved user interface.

Why Banner is being upgraded
One rather compelling reason to upgrade to Banner 7 this fall is a federal mandate related to financial aid. But Banner is also being upgraded for many of the usual reasons software gets upgraded--it's a better product with more capabilities and features. And, an upgrade will ensure continued support from the vendor. (Like many vendors, SunGard High Education, which produces Banner, requires customers to stay current with software versions for full product support, a prevalent practice throughout the software industry.)

But unlike simply installing the latest version of Microsoft Word on your machine, Banner is used by numerous departments and, as this writing, 989 users. In addition, numerous campus applications interface with the data from Banner. For example, students interact with Banner data when they are in SISWEB, and faculty interact with Banner data when they use the course management tools on MyUCDavis or submit final grades for their classes.

Because of the complexity of upgrading such an integrated system, the process for implementing the change has requir ed extensive coordination among the departments that form its core users: Office of the University Registrar, Financial Aid, Student Aid Accounting, Graduate Studies, and Undergraduate Admission. Many additional departments have had input as well.

Changing educational norms change underlying Banner architecture
The Banner upgrade also had to address changes in the underlying structure of the software, and accommodate how different departments need to use or receive the data. Some of the underlying structural changes made by the vendor involve what is called "concurrent curriculum." Today's educational climate is different than it was five or even ten years ago. A traditional student still might receive a four-year degree in four years, but then he or she may return to pursue a professional certificate, or simply take a few extension courses. The previous system wasn't designed to accommodate what is now considered "lifelong learning." The concurrent curriculum architecture in Banner 7 gives institutions the chance to track their "learners" (formerly "students"), through their entire educational career.

Another challenge was reconstructing UC Davis' approximately 200 unique forms. Although the vendor provides baseline forms for common university functions, many others had to be created. These local forms are used for everything from managing information about summer advising to finding a way to catch students who might have been entered in the database more than once. Many of the local forms pull together data that exists in different places so UC Davis users can get a consolidated view of a student. In order to make all the forms seamlessly integrated with the new Banner environment, UC Davis programmers had to create the same new look and feel (such as adding tabs, changing the fonts, and so on) while maintaining the forms' original functions.

In addition to upgrading Banner software, the underlying database has been upgraded as well. Oracle no longer supports client-server based forms and instead supports web-enabled forms. In developer vernacular, this change is referred to as "migrating from Oracle 6i to Oracle 10g," and, as with the software upgrade, it represents an industry-wide shift to supporting Web-based technologies and applications.

Protecting the data
In an era where universities need to be very concerned about possible identity theft, Banner software has two security layers to protect UC Davis' Student Information System: authentication and authorization. Although they sound fairly similar, they actually have two very different purposes. The first insures that you really are who you say you are; the second determines what you can do when you are in the system.

When Banner users log in to Banner, the authentication phase requires them to use their UCD LoginID and Kerberos password; it then requires users to again use their UCD LoginID plus a unique one-time password generated by a high-tech security gadget known as a hard-token. Once logged in to the system, Banner's authorization feature kicks in and restricts what users can do or view. A Financial Aid staff member can't view admissions information, and Admissions staff can't log in and view a student's financial aid information.

Backups and standby systems
Protecting data from unwanted viewing or access is just one aspect of keeping it safe. The campus also has to physically protect its data. When a student leaves campus, there is an expectation that their hard-earned transcripts--and all the related data--will be held inviolate and in perpetuity. But what if there is a fire? Or a flood?

Currently, the database--which is housed in a server on campus--is backed up daily and the files are sent to an undisclosed location outside of Davis. Although this ensures there are recent back-ups, the campus is in the process of pursuing a full-time, dedicated standby system. A recent contingency plan looked into how long UC Davis could go without the Banner system and the analysis revealed it could only continue to operate for two to three days. The future plan is to have a dedicated standby server housed at an off-campus location. Data could be synched as often as necessary, and if the system had to "fail over" (switch from the regular system to the standby), users could connect within hours.

Users will access Banner via the Internet
For most faculty and students, the Banner upgrade will be transparent. For students, SISWEB will look exactly the same. For faculty, course management tools will look exactly the same. The main difference will be for Banner users. Rather than logging into Banner through a client server using Citrix, beginning Nov. 13, Banner users will log in to the system using their Web browser at Instructions are being sent to Banner users and Technical Support Coordinators through mailings and email. Detailed information--including a handy upgrade checklist--is also posted on the Banner Web site:

For questions about Banner--upgrade or otherwise--the Banner Help Desk is, as always, available between 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. Call 530-757-3299 or email