When Yanking the Mainframe Isn't an Option

Minnesota's solution may have been cheap and inelegant, but it works just fine.

When ex-wrestler Gov. Jesse Ventura promised to shape up Minnesota's government, the state's Driver and Vehicle Services (DVS) division was taking as long as four months to renew a driver's license or issue car registrations and license plates. Complaining was useless because the 30-person call center couldn't answer the 1.5 million calls it received annually. The system was a joke.

"Courts would tell citizens to call DVS to find out when their driver's license was reinstated, for example, and citizens would just laugh because they knew it was impossible to get through on the phones," recalls Judith Franklin, manager of enterprise technology support for DVS and the person charged with untangling the mess.

Or, more dangerously, police would stop drivers on the roads and have no way of knowing for sure whether a license was suspended or had been reinstated as motorists claimed.

As part of the totally paper-based system, various forms for licenses and registrations piled up at DVS in St. Paul and across an assortment of third-party companies that the state contracts to process DVS paperwork. Consequently, the information was keyed by about 30 data entry workers into an archaic, 1970s vintage mainframe database system known as Supra from Cincom Systems Inc. in Cincinnati. To generate and decipher reports from the data, DVS users needed dot-matrix printers, Cobol programmers and highlighter pens. The system was a mess.

That was three years ago. Today, citizens receive renewed driver's licenses in three to seven days by applying either via the Internet or at one of the hundreds of third-party driver's license contractor sites, the majority of which are connected via a sister Web system.

In the courts, 1,200 judges get immediate access to driving records, and police are beginning to download driver's license photos to car computers to aid in their work. Back in St. Paul, DVS operations and budgets are being revamped, and, as a result, the more than two-dozen data entry workers—many of whom were hired 20 to 30 years ago—are now asking what their new jobs are going to be. According to DVS, they're being reassigned to other jobs at a savings to DVS of about $72,000 a month.

But getting here wasn't easy.

Under New Management

"Our new management is very much into managing us as a business," says Franklin. "We needed to have a technology infrastructure that supported the business practices we wanted to change."

DVS chose Verastream Host Integrator software from Seattle-based software vendor WRQ Inc. and commodity servers running a Microsoft SQL Server database as a cost-effective solution. This intermediary server-based tier uses component technology to extract the valuable business-logic nuggets from the old code residing on the mainframe and to link the new Web-enabled front end to the green screens and IBM S/390 back end, which is still running under CICS in the state's Department of Administration.

As so many state governments now face huge budget shortfalls, this front-end approach is "fairly common because there are so many state back-end systems that require a complete overhaul," says Thom Rubel, program director for IT at the National Governors Association in Washington. "Most states are trying to do it this way because redesigning everything is too expensive. They're trying to create open architectures so they can create systems that don't require wholesale change on the back end."

A bonus for states is that adding self-service capabilities frees up employees for other jobs. "There are efficiencies to be gained, and many states are trying to identify still-manual processes that don't need to be there," says Rubel. "States don't always get rid of people, but they redeploy them to functions they haven't been able to do for lack of people funding."

Avoiding Back-End Overhauls

For Franklin, who was brought in to give DVS its own computing capability, make the agency more accountable and dramatically improve customer service, redesigning the mainframe system wasn't an option.

"I've talked with other states which dropped such projects after two years because they bit off too much in wanting to change the whole back end," she says. "They spent multiple millions of dollars, but after several years, they dropped the project. ... Everyone had lost interest because there was no deliverable." Ultimately, Franklin adds, DVS wants a new back-end database, but that's a long-term project.

For now, Franklin emphasizes delivering functionality fast. "You have to go ahead and make some moves. You can't wait until you've designed everything—the business will have changed in the two years it took you to redo everything," she says.

Because the Supra system was a closed, proprietary product with little application documentation, there was no way to hook in application programming interfaces or other connections used by current technologies. "If it had been IBM's DB2 or Oracle's database, there would have been all sorts of tools we could use," she explains. The other issue: Franklin had only three programmers, none of whom had worked with Web systems or databases before.

Franklin turned to WRQ, with which she had worked in the past, to connect sundry desktop systems to mainframes. Verastream was installed in September 2001, and by November the small team had the driver's license renewal process online. The initial Verastream software and server hardware cost about $25,000, but the system is now up to five servers, representing an investment of about $100,000.

Many systems designers today may find such a solution inelegant. But it reflects the wider reality that employees, partners and customers want access to information on demand. They don't want to wait months or years to get the capability. Yet, existing legacy systems weren't designed for such flexibility, and IT budgets are tight. That leaves many IT managers trapped between legacy systems and the "expectations of the Web generation," notes WRQ President Shaun Wolfe.

Another big plus for DVS is that Verastream's component technology allowed DVS to reuse chunks of code containing the business logic for a specific application, such as computing the tax on a car based on its age.

"I didn't want to rewrite all that; if it's already written, why can't I reuse it and Web-enable it?" says Franklin, who in previous jobs re-engineered mainframe-based systems for 3M Co., the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota, and St. Paul's schools.

Verastream also includes data auditing tools, which enable DVS to collect, store and manage new information from the Web transactions. Also, because Verastream uses models to build applications, those models can be reused as needed. Internal users appreciate that new applications are turned around in one to two months and that they perform consistently, Franklin says.

Improved Access

Currently at www.mndriveinfo.org, citizens can renew their licenses or plate registrations, change their addresses, check car tax information and ascertain their driver's license status.

At www.dps.state.mn.us/esupport, the state's hundreds of judicial and law enforcement agents and business partners, such as car dealers and private license-processing businesses, can get password access to conduct their business. Courts and the police can read and update driver's license records. The business partners can renew or duplicate driver's licenses, schedule driver exams and renew registrations. Some pilot sites are even issuing duplicate titles. These private agents now conduct more than 50% of vehicle renewals and 10% of driver's license renewals online.

At these third-party business sites, distributing the data entry via the Web to where the citizen is submitting the application dramatically improves accuracy. If the eye exam is missing from the application, the processing stops, rather than the error being caught three weeks later in St. Paul. Such errors would require that the third party chase down the citizen for a re-exam, which is just one of the horror stories from the previous process, Franklin reports.

Indeed, reworking the DVS systems to serve citizens has shaken out many rat's nests and inequities. Currently, private companies are able to buy the state's DVS information—at no profit to the state—and resell it back to the citizens. Now, says Franklin, "our goal is to distribute the information to the citizens whose information it is," eventually eliminating the middleman companies that now sell it back to citizens for a fee.

In 2002, Ventura didn't seek re-election as governor, but the accountability gauntlet he threw down to state agencies remains. His successor, Republican Tim Pawlenty, has already asked the DVS, "How are you going to integrate this with the rest of the state?" Franklin is talking with Minnesota's Department of Finance and the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.

Minnesota's experience is mirrored across the nation. States have been the last holdouts for the hierarchical mainframe-based systems of the 1960s and 1970s, says the National Governors Association's Rubel. That situation has endured because of constitutional and statutory requirements, but the organization's best-practices group is seeing a surge in new systems-migration strategies.

"States are ideally headed toward the practice of 'capture the data once and use it many times,' so that citizens and businesses aren't constantly re-entering data," says Rubel. "But you can still find some strange things out there."

Winkler, a former New York bureau chief for Computerworld, writes about technology management from Seattle. Contact her at winklerconnie@yahoo.com.

Fast Functionality on the Cheap

To make data and logic housed in its legacy central mainframe application available to Web-based users, Minnesota’s Department of Vehicle Services deployed an intermediary server-based computing tier. It’s here that WRQ’s component technology is used to extract valuable business logic nuggets from old code on the mainframe and link them to new Web-enabled front-end systems. Also, green-screen terminals can still tap into the mainframe system.

Total cost: about $100,000.
Fast Functionality on the Cheap

Copyright © 2003 IDG Communications, Inc.

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