Know Your Industry: Databases in Academia

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For the third time in fewer than as many years, Northwestern University reported a security breach involving sensitive data. In June, a computer was exposed that contained the Social Security numbers of 4,000 people who had applied to or attend one of the university’s graduate programs.



At the University of Virginia, hackers were found to be breaking into a database that included Social Security numbers and other personal information about faculty members for more than two years.



And students and faculty associated with the University of Iowa’s molecular and cellular biology program were recently notified about a Web site security breach.



The use of database services in higher education is massive.



“There’s a number of different components to the business of academia,” said Brian Vink, vice president of product marketing at Sybase in Dublin, Calif.



These include fund raising, federal grant management, course communications and organizational operations



“At the core of it is data,” he said. “Given that databases came out of academia [Sybase’s own database came out of a UC Berkeley project], databases as part of academia have been around a long time. In the IT department, on the business side, they have been around a long time, as well, because a lot were born out of the computer science department for the other academic departments.”



Additionally, many vendors gave software and hardware to the academic community, said Clive Longbottom, service director of business process analysis at Quocirca Ltd.



“They realized that students were the next workers and that by getting them used to their software, the students would want to use the same stuff at work,” Longbottom said.



Now, universities don’t need to create databases, unless they require a disruptive innovation such as an online body of courses, tests and student-to-student interaction.



Each database requires its own access rules, security and applications. Successful use means not only release of information assets to appropriate groups through sensible devices (the Web, hand-held devices, networked university hardware, approved third-party systems, etc.) but an assurance of the security and integrity regarding data, Vink said.



“I definitely see people take alumni databases and the security of them very seriously,” he said. “If there’s one area of trust that universities do not want to breach, it’s that. Universities can put a lifetime value on those customers, and if that trust is broken, it has a significant impact on the organization.”



Also highly important to colleges and universities is data analysis, Vink said.



“A lot of information as relates to revenue or receipts coming in is based on the makeup of the student body,” he said. “Universities have to be able to take a lot of data and analyze it quickly.”



Sybase and other vendors that serve academic institutions with database services emphasize analysis but also security and encryption.



“In the old days, data all used to be in the walls of the ivory tower,” Vink said.



Now, access through the Web, mobile devices and laptops requires data synchronization so that assets created externally are stored to databases and security inside and out of the physical campus.



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