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The Schools Interoperability Framework, Systems Interoperability Framework(UK), or SIF, is a data sharing open specification for academic institutions from kindergarten through twelfth grade (K-12). Until recently, it has been used primarily in the United States alone; however, it is increasingly being implemented in Australia, the UK, India and elsewhere.

The specification is composed of two parts: an XML specification for modeling educational data, and a Service-Oriented Architecture specification for sharing that data between institutions.

SIF is not a product, but an industry initiative that enables diverse applications to interact and share data. As of March 2007, SIF is estimated to have been used in more than 48 states and 6 countries, supporting five million students.

The specification is actively maintained by its specification body, the Schools Interoperability Framework Association.

History and Background

Traditionally, the standalone applications used by public school districts have the limitation of data isolation; that is, it is difficult to access and share their data. This often results in redundant data entry, data integrity problems, and inefficient or incomplete reporting. In such cases, a student's information can appear in multiple places but may not be identical, for example, or decision makers may be working with incomplete or inaccurate information. Many district and site technology coordinators also experience an increase in technical support problems from maintaining numerous proprietary systems. SIF was created to solve these issues.

The Schools Interoperability Framework (SIF) began as an initiative chiefly championed initially by Microsoft to create "a blueprint for educational software interoperability and data access." It was designed to be an initiative drawing upon the strengths of the leading vendors in the K-12 market to enable schools IT professionals to build, manage and upgrade their systems. It was endorsed by close to 20 leading K-12 vendors of student information, library, transportation, food service applications and more. The first pilot sites began in the summer of 1999, and the first SIF-based products began to show up in 2000.

In the beginning it was not clear which approach would become the national standard in the United Statesmarker. Both SIF and EDI were vying for the position in 2000 but SIF began taking the lead in 2002 or so.. In 2000, the National School Boards Association held a panel discussion during its annual meeting on the topic of SIF.

In 2007 in the United Kingdom Becta has championed the adoption of SIF as a national standard for schools data interchange. .

In 2008 it was announced that in the UK the standard will become known as the "Systems Interoperability Framework" . This reflects the intention in the UK to develop SIF to be used in other organizations beyond just schools.

Strengths and Criticisms

Strengths of SIF

Some features of SIF that make it well-suited for data interoperability are:
  • It is an XML standard that exists built entirely and specifically for the exchange of K-12 education-related information;
  • Case studies show significant dollar savings for schools and districts;
  • Many school districts require that K-12 data vendors use SIF, and some states are even legislating its use;
  • Many vendors in the K-12 space already have SIF agents and are capable of interacting with a SIF Zone, thus reducing the price of interoperability.

Criticisms of SIF

SIF has all the pains and challenges that come with any SOA specification and data model. When building specifications via consensus not everyone is always happy and sometimes the end product isn't perfect. Also given all the moving parts in modeling the entire k12's enterprise the specification has many points of possible failure. This is not particular to SIF but to any record-level, automated system moving standardized data from one source to another in a heterogeneous environment. Out-of-the-box interoperability and ease of use and implementation are part of a 12-18 month focus from 2007 and through 2009.

How SIF works

Rather than have each application vendor try to set up a separate connection to every other application, SIF has defined the set of rules and definitions to share data within a "SIF Zone"—a logical grouping of applications in which software application agents communicate with each other through a central communication point. Zones are managed by a piece of software called a Zone Integration Server (ZIS). A single ZIS can manage multiple Zones.

Data travels between applications as a series of standardized messages, queries, and events written in XML and sent using Internet protocols. The SIF specification defines such events and the "choreography" that allows data to move back and forth between the applications.

SIF Agents are pieces of software that exist either internal to an application or installed next to it. The SIF Agents function as extensions of each application and serve as the intermediary between the software application and the SIF Zone. The ZIS keeps track of the Agents registered in the Zone and manages transactions between Agents, enabling them to provide data and respond to requests. The ZIS controls all access, routing, and security within the system. Standardization of the behavior of the Agents and ZIS means that SIF can add standard functionality to a Zone by simply adding SIF-enabled applications over time.

Vertical interoperability

"Vertical interoperability" is a situation in which SIF agents at different levels of an organization communicate using a SIF Zone. Vertical interoperability involves data collection from multiple agents (upward) or publishing of information to multiple agents (downward). For example, a state-level data warehouse may listen for changes in district-level data warehouses and update its database accordingly. Or a state entity may wish to publish teacher certification data to districts. The three pieces of the SIF specification that deal directly with vertical interoperability are the Student Locator object, the Vertical Reporting object, and the Data Warehouse object.

SIF in relation to other standards

SIF was designed before SOAP, namespaces, and web service standards were as mature as they are today. As a result it has a robust SOA that is more vetted than the current SOAP specifications but does not use the SOAP or WS standards. The 2.0 SIF Web Services specification begins the process of joining these two worlds.

The 2.0 Web Services specification allows for more generalized XML messaging structures typically found in enterprise messaging systems that use the concept of an enterprise service bus. Web service standards are also designed to support secure public interfaces and XML appliances can make the setup and configuration easier. The SIF 2.0 Web Services specification allows for the use of Web Services to communicate in and out of the Zone.

SIFA is also working closely with the Post-Secondary Education Standards Council (PESC), SCORM, and other standards organizations.

Future versions of SIF may integrate more standards and multiple namespaces.

Versions of SIF

The version 2.3 specification is the latest version of SIF. It is expected that 2.x application environments will arise in the near future as vendors start designing, developing, and implementing 2.x agents, and states, districts, and schools start adopting them. Most of the SIF Zone Integration Server vendors are currently or will be putting 1.5r1 to 2.x migration functionality in place for their clients.

A future major version of SIF is being worked on right now, code-named "Columbus". Its emphasis will be on ease of use and implementation.


See also

External links

- OpenZIS - an Open Source Zone Integration Server (version 2.0)
- Openzis - an Open Source SIF agents and servers discussion list.
- OFSZIS Zone Integration Server (Push and Pull)
- TinyZIS - Open source ZIS (Pull only)
- Uva Core - an Open Source SIF toolkit for agent development
- wye - an Open Source ZIS that is the successor to tinyzis (Pull only)

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