University College London (UCL) is renowned for education and research the world over. It is the number one research university in London and is recognised for its academic excellence and global impact. With an impressive history of nearly 200 years, today UCL has over 42,000 students and 13,000 staff. All of these staff and students need digital services for their day-to-day educational activities, and over the last few years UCL has been transforming how it delivers these services to ensure it maintains a world class reputation. To this end, WSO2 has been working with UCL’s IT team on a number of initiatives. Our open source full lifecycle API management solution, WSO2 API Manager, as well as WSO2 Enterprise Integrator and WSO2 Identity Server have all played an important role in the changes taking place at UCL.
Overcoming historical technical debt
The Information Service Division (ISD) represents the IT department at UCL. It is well established and has a long history, in fact, UCL was one of the original participants in SATNET in the 1970s, a precursor to the modern internet. Given that UCL has been a part of the internet for decades and has supported many institutions, as well as been a part of several mergers, this means there is a lot of technical debt and many legacy or heritage systems. Change has come about in the last few years with UCL adopting agile - but this journey is a continuous one that will take UCL into the future.
Given the scale of the IT systems at UCL, as you can imagine, changes introduced over the years have been numerous. In addition to agile, it has also introduced DevOps and hybrid cloud. UCL has many backend relationship database management systems with a considerable amount of stored data, comprising Oracle, SQL servers, and MySQL along with applications such as JAVA and PHP. This was quite a complex environment and UCL wanted to standardise code, as well as introduce some level of version control, and automate deployment wherever possible. Furthermore, UCL wanted to create an all-important API layer to integrate the various components in this new architecture, develop an access point where consuming apps could call APIs, translate data, create a data model, convert terminology of backend systems to be more business-friendly, introduce database connectors, create an API marketplace, and implement better and more secure API authentication.
After overcoming a number of challenges such as: firewalls that inhibited connections; various versions of Puppet for different services; thousands of servers; and two identity services, UCL completed the implementation of the first phase of the API platform. The newly introduced API marketplace consists of an all-in-one API manager (based on WSO2 API Manager) that includes an API gateway, basic OAuth, an API store, and an API publisher. It also consisted of WSO2 Enterprise Integrator to connect databases, transmit data, and transform data to usable APIs. After the initial introduction, UCL wanted to extend the existing system to improve performance and resilience. Therefore, it moved from an all-in-one API gateway and marketplace to a separate gateway and marketplace. WSO2 Identity Server was introduced to improve access management and authentication and the existing WSO2 Enterprise Integrator was upgraded to a newer version.
Further challenges faced
However, when UCL tried to make further changes to the system, it encountered a number of hidden complexities due to its legacy systems. At this point, UCL approached the team here at WSO2, to gain a better understanding of the products used and to help implement the changes. A team from WSO2 was based on-site and enabled UCL to perform more troubleshooting and make the necessary modifications to the system, saving time in the process and preventing any communication gaps. We helped to solidify the in-house IT team’s understanding through the work we did around the early proof of concept for API development and we also fed into several of its policies and processes around OAuth and the implementation of guidelines and standards.
As a result, a new API store has been delivered. Now when users log in to the UCL website and access their online module catalogue, all the data there is presented through a real-time API. UCL was delighted when the initial project was launched successfully and today a new API decouplement project is underway. Together with WSO2, UCL has already formulated a roadmap and strategy for API-first integration. Furthermore, it is looking to deliver more value and adapt and extend its principles and policies as needed. Right now, UCL is still looking at how APIs fit into the wider ecosystem, integration patterns - where one API ends, and another starts - for example, and how these can be applied as the university continues to progress on its journey of transformation.