Case study: The ups and downs of revamping IT architecture

At Nassau County, New York's Department of Health & Human Services, IT was becoming a tangled mess. At the same time, elected officials had promised improved services to the county's residents, without any increase in the IT budget.

Donald Rodgers, the county's HHS systems manager for IT, knew he had a big challenge on his hands. For one thing, the county, which is situated on the western half of New York's Long Island, was currently running on multiple platforms, anchored by a Wang environment with custom-built Cobol applications.

"We were running an antiquated environment that we had been looking at overhauling since Y2k," Rodgers says. "Because we were running so many systems on different platforms, maintaining the environment had become next to impossible."

Rodgers was looking for an industry-standard platform that would support a move to .Net-based Web services, which would create better continuity and efficiency among the eight departments that HHS encompassed. But he didn't want to be tied to a scale-out architecture in which industry standard servers are added as needs demand.

"We wanted to avoid creating a server farm. We're a fairly small shop from a support standpoint, so I didn't want to get involved in an environment that we had to upgrade, upgrade, upgrade and also maintain ongoing. It just wasn't going to be possible, we weren't going to be able to do it," he says.

At a Microsoft conference in 2005, Rodgers found what he was looking for: the Intel Xeon-based ES7000 from Unisys. The machine, which can scale to as many as 32 processors, provided a flexible platform that would enable Nassau County to scale up as needed, all within a single box to manage, Rodgers says.

"When I saw the ES7000, I said, 'This is the machine we need,'" he says. "It represented the best of both worlds: It was a mainframe that was going to run Windows."

Moving to the ES7000 wasn't going to be simple, however. The eight departments within HHS were each running isolated applications, most written in Cobol for the Wang VS8460. But other platforms, such as a mainframe, had to be accessed as well, leading to a multitude of desktop devices that had to be managed to give HHS staffers access to the applications they needed.

The idea behind the overhaul was not just to move off the old Wang to a more up-to-date, flexible platform, but also to create an IT foundation that would integrate data from all eight departments within HHS. The goal was to let staff access data from a single device, and also access relevant data from other departments, Rodgers says.

The first step toward reaching that goal was to begin migrating some 2 million lines of Cobol code off the Wang and onto the new ES7000, a process that began about 18 months ago. Rodgers and his team worked with Unicon Conversion Technologies Inc. to convert the Cobol code to AccuCobol, a version of Cobol that is supported by Windows.

The county spent about $1.2 million to re-engineer the legacy applications, but it saved about $5 million by going that route rather than rewriting them for the new platform, Rodgers says. Today, all of the HHS applications run on a 16-processor ES7000 that also supports the county's SQL database. A second 16-processor ES7000 runs the database for the county's digital images, a county-mandated move that has enabled HHS to significantly reduce space demands.

"We have consolidated eight health and human services departments under one roof, we have consolidated four distinct e-mail systems into one, we now have one desktop device for each staff, we've imaged over 30 million documents and replaced a significant amount of paper with an imaging environment that runs on the second ES7000," Rodgers says.

Rodgers couldn't say exactly how much the county is saving with the entire overhaul, but he says the savings in desktop management costs alone is about $2.4 million.

"Our computer room staff is three people," he says. "We would have needed six or eight people to manage our environment if we hadn't gone through the consolidation."

HHS is using just about 30% of the capacity on the ES700s, shifting workloads among partitions to make the most efficient use of the compute resources and creating a platform that is geared for expansion, Rodgers says.

"Resources are allocated interactively; we're moving into the whole automated data center idea," he says.

In addition to cutting costs and management demands, HHS also has significantly improved services with the ES7000. The .Net applications on the ES7000 are part of the county's new "No Wrong Door" initiative, which relies on an integrated case management system to make sure citizens get the services they need as quickly as possible.

"We have seen an increase of about 30% in traffic coming into the building on a daily basis, but we've reduced lines and wait time to get people into the system," Rodgers says. "That's important when you're dealing with people in need of human services."

This story, "Case study: The ups and downs of revamping IT architecture" was originally published by Network World.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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