Agora – the “new breed” of SIMS

Agora, launched a little over a year ago, is the Capita SIMS online payment solution for Schools – enabling parents to pay for school meals, trips, activities, uniforms and more. SIMS Agora allows Schools to provide a safe and secure method to make payments in a convenient way – always having access to what they have paid for whenever and wherever they like.

What really sets Agora apart from other the rest of the SIMS ecosystem is that it is the first “as a service” solution from Capita. There is no “product” in the traditional sense to buy – no “disks”, no installation or consultancy charges and no pesky system requirements.#

The system is cloud based, located in the secure and industry respected Microsoft Azure platform. This offers multiple benefits. Since Capita are essentially also a customer of an “as a service” solution here – the system is much more cost effective to run and develop. Capita do not have to buy in a physical infrastructure or maintain it. Instead – the “as a service” model allows the system to grow and contract as peaks or drops in demand dictate. It’s as simple as “flicking a switch” – turning on extra resources dynamically as needed. This is a really efficient way of doing things, and allows time to be spent by developers developing the actual system rather than the system under the system.

Even better than that, is that since it is a cloud system (and I will return to the cloud nature later) – it means that Agora can behave like a dashboard. Dashboards are the future of SIMS. The concept of accessing one system – and it presenting an amalgamation of all the data you need, based on who you are is the real message and point here. Agora is the first real steps into this arena for Capita. It started with SIMS Learning Gateway (SLG) – with the role based access, which is being expanded there. This will be the subject of a separate article in due course.

Agora screenshot 1So, now we have covered what the product is built on – lets dive back into what we have and what the future is. Agora is all about convenient, secure payments. Of course – we know payments can take two forms, those that pay up front – like a credit account, and those that pay off an existing debt. Convenience is about being able to use existing accounts you may have – like a Microsoft or Google account. And it isn’t just convenience for the user, the same applies to the School. Countless schools are “in need of a solution that can reduce the burden of processing payments for individual pupils, year groups or the whole School” according to Head of Product Strategy, Graham Cooper. “The cashless School office is becoming a reality – SIMS Agora will make a real difference to Schools and Parents alike”. The flexibility in the solution is that it can be used to collect any payment – not just the expected canteen payments. Schools can create their own storefront for trips (including setting a maximum number – wait lists might well be coming soon too) with single payments or by instalment, uniform, stationary, music tuition and other activities.

The first obvious point is that it is from Capita – and by nature, it automatically synchronises with the School SIMS data. Agora is fully integrated into SIMS, providing instant access to all the name and groups within SIMS – so no need to waste time repeating processes. Any changes are immediately reflected too – so you can be assured that information is current, particularly surrounding parental responsibilities. For Schools who use Dinner Money the seamless integration with Agora saves even more time. Partnerships with other Cashless Catering providers is coming – Cunninghams, Nationwide and others; and as has been mention this can be on a credit or balance basis. This gives the School certainty that the information is up to date, and kept in one place. While we are on the subject of certainty – the School also doesn’t need to complete PCI DSS Certification or apply for merchant status…or pay any additional fees. Capita are full authorised as a Service Provider and assure compliance on behalf of the School. As we are talking finance here – security is a key consideration. The Agora system uses integrated two-factor authentication – and can also federate with existing account provider systems. This means that Parents will be able to choose to use existing account information as their identification.

Agora screenshot 3The next point is that – as I opened with – Agora is the first in a “new breed”. The delivery of products is changing…you only have to look at the likes of Adobe, Google and Microsoft to see that. Creative Suite is now a Cloud Product; and there has been mass adoption of Cloud “App Platforms” like Google Apps and Mail or Office 365 with Sharepoint, Exchange and Office. Of course, using Cloud technology has many benefits when it comes to delivery of major or large services. In that sense, its not surprising that Capita have adopted it for the next piece in their SIMS jigsaw puzzle. There is a big push to make Capita SIMS “low touch” – ie easy to adopt, easy to install and deploy, and easy to manage and maintain. There is also a push to reduce the reliance on other products – like the rest of the Suite. Take your typical SIMS product, well that needs an SQL server – as does FMS. Then Discover also needs a database as well – and then there’s SLG with its Sharepoint and yes more databases too. InTouch, just for good measure also needs a VPN. Agora needs none of these things – just a simple “Connection Provider” – much like many of the SIMS partner applications require. The provider is the way forwards as Capita look to consolidate a lot of their services. I have it on good authority that the VPN in InTouch will be going very soon, replaced by…. Yes, the same provider solution that Agora uses. This will be built into the heart of the SIMS system – so no more add ons or installations needed.

Where has all this come from? A big body of work to evaluate SIMS, its “modules” and components – to see it as the gigantic solution it is – and to consolidate and improve efficiencies in operation and deployment. “Low touch”.you will be hearing this a lot in the coming months!

Agora screenshot 2You may remember from earlier articles about the change in practices to outsource and bring in specialists for various parts of future development. That has indeed been happening – look at the User Interface (UI) in the “new” SIMS applications. For this – lets clarify, Discover, Agora, the new bits of SLG -There has had to be a much greater focus on UI – particularly with these three, as the users are not your traditional users. Discover presents your SIMS data in a “pretty” graphical, easy to interpret way – for governors etc. SLG and Agora are both Parent – or should I say customer facing.

Future plans also include expanding the “deep SIMS” integration to Exams – for retakes billing, Lettings – for resources not in use, Extra Curricular activities and more. It will allow the Business Manager to run the School as a Business with FMS integration too. This represents the transformation in the core purpose of SIMS as an ecosystem, which is now “to add value, rather than be seen to be about installation and upgrades”. It is about what can be wrapped around the core software, building and maintaining the relationship with customers. There is an ever expanding User Group commitment, supported by a mantra where Product managers are responsible for “building the software for customer needs” not “company needs” – and there is a bigger focus on identifying and targeting the different user roles. Notice I said roles not types. The “new SIMS” is about a single interface, with different views depending what you do. The idea behind this being that you will have truly configurable software, rather than just permissions.

These are indeed exciting times, and Agora gives a glimpse into the future of this new age of development. Next up for review is SIMS Learning Gateway (SLG), and InTouch – two older products which are getting a makeover.
As ever, I’m grateful to the staff at Capita for sparing their time to talk to me – particularly Nick Finnemore – Product Manager for Agora.

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