Datatel Colleague Review (Spoiler: It's Not That Great)

Posted over 5 years ago, on 12/22/2008 at 02:46 PM

(Added paragraph breaks, corrected one speling error. —Editor)

Original article here.

I work at a place that recently threw away a perfectly functional in-house-built student system so that upper management could spend millions of dollars on Datatel Colleague. The reason for buying it: none was ever given. We assume it was so they can say they run the same software as bigger universities and colleges. Similar to how you buy the Nike shoes because all the cool kids are wearing them.

For anyone who's at buying a student system or ERP it is very difficult to find any sort of review of Colleague without it being an advertisement from Datatel. My opinion about it is naturally biased (I believe it is completely and utter crap), but I'd like to share with you some things I've learned about it: It Runs on Microsoft SQL Server. What they don't tell you, though, is that they simply use it as a flat file storage system converted from their Unix environment.

It's over 4000 tables (most of which are empty), with few indexes, not one foreign key constraint, and random naming conventions. Since their programmers don't seem to understand the concept of collision-checking, they merely lock any data that the user accesses through the front-end, causing frequent database blocks.

It Runs in Microsoft Windows. False. It runs over telnet. It is the same dumb-terminal telnet app that it was originally written as in the 70's or 80's. They used an IBM scripting application called WINTegrate to overlay the 8024 screen with windows controls (textboxes or comboboxes... nothing else). The telnet server is some weird listener app that goes down frequently (which could be due to the fact that the people put in charge of implementing it here have no idea what they're doing).

For those who care, the database is treated as a flat file system, which is read and written to by some layer that makes the environment believe that SQL Server is a file system, which in turn is controlled by a listener/server application which emulates the Envision environment, where clients connect via telnet which is then skinned as a Windows app using an interpreted IBM scripting language.

And yes, you can edit the scripts on your local machine and screw up the interface quite nicely. Easy to Use. Remember back in the 80's when you had to know key combinations and mnemonics for every "screen" you wanted to access? Welcome to Colleague, where the past never dies. Having to detail into several screens just to get some information is a major pain and slows down workers.

It has a Web Interface. Web Advisor runs a java applet which creates a telnet connection back to the listener, which simply emulates the dumb terminal but somehow forces the stateless web browser to function with it. Your students are guaranteed to be annoyed with it which I've seen here as well as read on a few other blogs. The out-of-the-box look resembles the websites of 1998, but you can use CSS to make it look better if your Nazi Datatel administrator will let you near the server.

By the way, Instant Enrollment should be called "Instant Duplicate". Have fun cleaning up the mess that it creates for you. It's Completely Customizable. Yeah, in Envision, a weird UniBasic-offshoot language that will make one long for punch cards. Customizations you make are built into the flat file system (er, database tables). Any new patches released by Datatel could screw up your customizations (and they release a lot of patches). Better hire some programmers to write all the peripheral systems you'll need for Colleague to function.

Interestingly, despite all the patches, their source code has comments referring to bugs that have been known since the 1980s but still remain unfixed. Ask Datatel complicated questions (i.e. doing more than changing the text on a label) about customizing and you won't get a response, but they'll gladly let you pay for them to create customizations for you (in some cases even they can't make it work).

Oh, and one last gem; up until recently, editing or creating your own "screens" in Colleague was done in a telnet window. Object-oriented, anyone? It Comes with Several Out-of-the-Box Reports... that you'll never use because they're crap. Datatel will recommend using Crystal Reports (with a BOE Server) for reporting and that your users should write their own reports. With 4000 non-relational tables in a database that the application frequently locks, that just sounds like a wonderful idea. You'd better start hiring report writers.

I suspect someone in our management was on the take or just stupid, or both. Either way, they swallowed the Datatel vendor's story that Colleague is the be all and end all, when in fact it is merely a poorly-written and bloated program from the 1970's (no exaggeration here, by the way) that costs a lot of money and runs like garbage. Since management is infallible and so much money has been spent on it, no one here is allowed to criticize it. While management pats themselves on the back for a job well done, very quietly large portions of Colleague are being abandoned and replaced by in-house techies who aren't too happy about having to re-invent what they had before Colleague came in.

Don't make the same mistake my management did. Save yourself 3 or 4 million dollars and invest that money in some programming staff to write the student system you need. Your local economy could probably use the boost. At the very least, look at everything that's being presented to you very carefully; the vendors lie. They don't have your institution's best interest in mind.

And for the post-secondary education institutions that already run Colleague, my condolences. A few universities, like Jacksonville are actually taking Datatel to court because the software didn't deliver what the vendors promised. If only one person/organization stumbles across this post and thinks twice before getting into bed with Datatel then this is worth the writing.

And if Datatel is upset that I've revealed information about their precious product then screw you. Hopefully this will embarrass you into spending some of that not-so-hard-earned cash into writing a system for the 21st century. Your product is outdated and is a joke and you should be ashamed at taking so much money for something you stopped developing 20 years ago.

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