Saturn serves students

SYLVAIN COMEAU | No more standing in jostling crowds anxiously scanning long lists of exam results. Armed with a PIN number and a little courage, students can find out their marks by calling up a new McGill web page and get the bad  or good  news from the comfort of home.

SATURN (Student Access To University Records on the Net), launched only a few weeks ago, is already attracting accolades and operating very smoothly.

The system is an extension of OASIS, which also provides access to student records, but only through terminals on campus. With SATURN, any computer with Internet access can plug students into McGill's mainframe and give them information on their grades, fees as well as personal information, such as their address and phone number, which they can correct or update. The system also provides a rapid link to other McGill web sites, such as the registrar's office, student accounts, student services and admissions.

Both OASIS and SATURN were created by Information Systems Resources (ISR), the department responsible for developing and maintaining administrative computer systems at McGill.

"It was quite a technical feat for our department," says SATURN project manager Ajab Kalar. "This is a new website giving students access to McGill's student records system on the mainframe, which was set up in the 1970s. We are constantly updating the system, but there's only so much you can do. You can't turn an old VW into a Ferrari!"

Other features students are asking for include registration for courses and the ability to drop courses, library information including fees for late books, and a function for paying tuition and service fees, although that one faces some hurdles.

"Ideally, we would like to allow payment over the Web. We have industry-standard encryption systems to ensure security," says Kalar. "The impediment right now is that we don't currently accept credit cards, because of transaction fees. We are looking at alternatives like E-Cash or a 'cyber wallet,' or hooking up to Interac over the web, but these forms of electronic commerce are either proprietary or just cyber ideas."

Currently, SATURN is available Monday to Friday from 6 am to 7 pm, Saturday from 6 am to 10 pm, and Sunday from 10 am to 10 pm at During peak periods, such as registration, SATURN can be accessed from 6 am to 10 pm daily. And the system has been designed to avoid electronic bottlenecks during those busy times.

"We conducted 'stress tests' in which we simulated 50 people asking for their marks simultaneously, and SATURN was able to handle it. Also, if demand suddenly shoots up, we have backup plans. We can create separate data streams to and from the mainframe to handle the additional traffic."

Kalar says that feedback from students has been very positive, at least partially due to SATURN's user-friendly, point-and-click format.

"We designed it with the customer  our students  in mind. Students don't have to figure out which department or section they have to enter in order to see their marks, for example. They just point at the icon labelled 'Marks.' This is the cyber equivalent of one-stop shopping."