A good quote from Phil Wainewright

Phil Wainewright is a consultant with Procullux Ventures and an advocate of "cloud computing" and the "Software as a Service" (SaaS) model.  We appreciate his (sometimes pugilistic) declamations on cloud computing, but we came across a paragraph of his this morning that we thought was worth quoting (with some emphasis added). You can find the original post (from November 15th, 2009) here.

Yet despite our understandable caution, it is far better to trust the cloud, where security and performance are continuously open to public scrutiny, where costs can be predictably mapped to actual value delivered and where the technology is constantly kept up-to-date for no extra cost or disruption to the customer. Provided the buyer makes proper due diligence and precautions, there is in my view no alternative form of computing that is more trustworthy.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year From Populi

Merry Christmas From Populi

As 2009 draws to a close, all of us here at Populi want to extend to all of our customers and users our sincerest thanks for your business— and your comments, questions, and requests. We built Populi to make your life easier, and your feedback has honed every part of our company so that we can more faithfully fulfill our vision. We really are grateful.

From December 24th through January 1st, we'll all be working from home, keeping an eye out for support requests or anything else that comes along. On Monday, January 4th, we'll be back in the office, digging in to the work we have ahead of us in 2010.

Again, thank you for choosing Populi, and all of us here sincerely wish you all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

New accounting features in Billing

Our Billing and Financial Aid users have probably noticed by now that we've re-jiggered Populi Billing a little bit. Here's a rundown of the new features.

  1. The new Chart of Accounts lets you define and manage all of your accounts directly, improving on our previous use of "external accounts" which reconciled Populi with your main accounting package.
  2. Piggybacking on that, by entering all your bank accounts as Asset accounts, you can record exactly where each student payment should be deposited.
  3. For deposit reconciliation, Populi's new General Ledger report lets you choose a custom timeframe and see the total debits and credits for that period. Assuming that payments have been recorded in the appropriate accounts, you can verify the amount of tuition/fees you're taking to the bank.
  4. Financial Aid awards are now linked to Liability accounts, allowing you to more accurately trace the flow of Financial Aid money from the source to the student.

Other, numerous improvements to Billing mean that Populi, used in concert with a good fund-based accounting package, will more fully manage your General Fund—in particular, your Accounts Receivable. And with the automation between Academics and Billing going even further, hopefully your day will be that much easier.

Lots of stuff, big and small, in the new Populi release

Our development guys put in a late night last night to push a number of updates live. This is a pretty far-reaching release, encompassing everything from minor interface-jiggering to substantial hardware updates. All in all, Populi is now more stable, quite a bit swifter, and more usable than it was the last time you logged in. We've got some of the higher-profile items listed after the jump, and a full list available for our users to read in our help system. Some of these updates trickled out over the past few weeks in response to customer needs, so maybe some of this is old news. Anyway, without further ado:

As mentioned before, we've adopted a Privacy Notice, Copyright Policy, and Terms of Service which govern the day-to-day use of Populi.

New servers: Our page hits have been doubling every month, and we’ve been experiencing some growing pains. So we've obtained a new server cluster which considerably improves our speed and stability, while also affording us some much-needed room to grow. These upgrades included a brand-new, dedicated Email server. Email is a storage and performance hog, and putting it on its own server substantially streamlines the workload for our other servers. Email's a lot snappier, and so is Populi as a whole.

Unicode Support: Need to write an email in, say, Hebrew? Now you can. We've added UTF-8/Unicode support to Email (and throughout Populi, for that matter).

We've beefed up course cloning so it better reflects and enables the kind of usage our customers need from this feature. Faculty can now clone courses right from the course instance page, with the ability to clone only specific items. Even bigger, Registrars can use the new Import Courses feature to clone some or all courses from one academic term to another. Populate an entire term with courses in a few clicks. You can even include course data (assignments, reading lists, etc. ... everything but faculty, students, and schedule) in the import.

Export your Gradebook to Excel, and import a .CSV database/spreadsheet into your gradebook. This means you can, among other things, import Scantron test scores straight into Populi.

Again, check the November 23, 2009 Release Notes in the help system for a complete list of updates.

Doing Business

If you're in the habit of scrolling all the way to the bottom of the website, you probably noticed three new pages: our Privacy Notice, Copyright Policy, and Terms of Service.

The Privacy Notice covers this website and Populi itself. It elaborates on this basic idea: "You have a right to keep Your personal information private and You may reasonably expect us to respect that right and use Your information responsibly." In other words, we're not gonna sell your email address or turn it over to spammers for any other reason, and the only information we gather from you (that you don't actively volunteer) is anonymous stuff like what pages you looked at.

The Copyright Policy is in place in the event that a copyright owner discovers that a Populi user has infringed upon the copyright inside the program somewhere and wants to complain to us about it. It describes the process such a one must go through, who to contact, and what information is required of the complainant. To sum it up, send us an email with the details, and we'll see what we can do.

The Terms of Service are probably the most important of the three new pages. If you're a college wondering what signing up with Populi gets you into, just read them. If you're a Populi user curious about our relationship, have a look—the Terms define it pretty clearly. Some of the language is stentorian and scary-looking (some parts, apparently,  are legally required to be in ALL CAPS), but all it does is codify the arrangement between us and the people we serve. We were not frowning at any point during the writing of the Terms.

If good fences make good neighbors, then good agreements make for good business. Agreements spell out protections, describe who does what, when and how it should be done, demarcate responsibilities, and limit liabilities (among other things). In case of a dispute or disagreement, they provide a basis for appeal and give the wronged party recourse before the law. Almost every company we can think of has Terms on their website: 37signals, Zendesk, Freshbooks—even the Starbucks website, which just tells you where you can buy their stuff.

And again, it bears repeating that the Terms don't introduce anything substantively new to our existing customers and users (to whom these apply). They just put into words things that are, by and large, understood and accepted already.

If you have any comments or questions about any of these pages, feel free to get a hold of us.

Security: Technology Can Only Go So Far

When it comes to security, we would happily agree with the 37signals team’s recently-adopted dictum, "Perfect security is a moving target." Any company that thinks and says otherwise has another thing coming—and so do their customers, unfortunately.

The first page of this Campus Technology article describes what’s at stake: colleges collect “more sensitive data about students than a Fortune 500 company does about customers.” The article goes on to describe why this is such a problem at the University of Nebraska:

"Unfortunately, confidential information at many institutions routinely leaves the campus in a steady stream, not because of hackers, but through accidental e-mail exposure by users, most of whom are ignorant of good data security policies. [F]aculty and staff . . . were routinely sending e-mails with confidential data including Social Security numbers, spreadsheets with credit card numbers, and other sensitive items."

Later in the article we learn that even outside vendors were doing the same thing.

The University bought software from Symantec to help their IT staff zero in on problem users, and it brought all sorts of lapses and breaches to light. Nonetheless, late in the article we read that, even with the software in place, a user still wrote an email to a staff member, saying, “’I was a little bit hesitant to include Social Security numbers in an e-mail, . . . but as long as you delete this message when you are done, we should be fine.’”

Why is perfect security a moving target? Because of people. People do things like fall for phishing scams, write malicious code, tape their login info to their monitors, design an SIS using SSNs as identifiers... sometimes people even do something like "misplace information for over 103,000 students". Security technology can ameliorate some of these problems, but as the University of Nebraska learned, people will work around it as soon as they figure out how—whether it's users coping with a new software hassle, or intruders having a look through an otherwise unseen security hole.

Software security requires three basic disciplines. The first is a vigilant and proactive posture against software intruders. This is a necessarily defensive position; hackers seek out weaknesses and then invent ways to exploit them, and developers can't really pre-empt attacks that haven't been invented—or tried—yet. When a threat emerges, good developers stay nimble, locating the holes in their code and releasing security updates, pronto. That, incidentally, is one of web-based software's chief strengths: turnaround time on updates is far swifter, more effective, and less burdensome to users, than for any kind of locally-hosted software (whether a local server or a desktop).

The second is designing software so it incorporates good, basic security practices wherever possible. Part of this effort goes towards coaxing users into good habits—like requiring complex passwords. And the rest of it guards against common problems, attacks, and disasters—things like modern browser support, SSL encryption, regular backups, active monitoring, password-hashing. These measures are written into Populi's DNA, as it were, but you'd be amazed how much enterprise software ignores some of these basic things.

The third, and most important—because it can undo all of a developer's work in a matter of seconds—is for users to develop good habits themselves. A developer can require a complex password, encrypt the transmission, and run it through a hashing algorithm... but if a user goes and sticks their password to their monitor, well, why bother with secure passwords? If someone leaves for a lunch break with their account open on a public computer, why restrict access to login info? If someone sends sensitive spreadsheets to their personal email to work on them from home, why build a web-based application?

The University of Nebraska's experience underscores that security technology, while certainly useful and worth the investment, almost pales in importance to how much your people's software habits matter. That seems to be the one constant in software security, and there's no sign of that changing. We like to think that we run a realistic, open-eyed company here. We’reivacy of the sensitive data we help you manage will still rise and fall on the vigilance and habits of our users.