Saving time by sharing data
When Commerce Department officials overhauled their entire
financial system in
the mid-1990s, they brought 11 of its 13 bureaus under the Commerce Administrative Management System (CAMS). But when it came time a couple of years ago to automate the department's procurement activities, they realized their financial work had only just begun.
The Commerce Standard Acquisition Reporting System (CSTARS), a centralized enterprisewide procurement system built by CACI International Inc., could streamline everything from buying supplies to contracting for business services, which for Commerce represents about $1.5 billion in annual expenditures.
Getting CAMS and CSTARS to share data would be essential to effectively manage the $6 billion agency. "The key to
any financial system is the procurement system," said Jim Taylor, Commerce's deputy chief financial officer. "It's the
leading edge of any of your financial transactions."
In the past, Commerce officials would have unleashed its information technology staff to write custom software code that would hardwire the two systems together, an approach taken countless times governmentwide.
But this method would have only resulted in an inflexible interface vulnerable to rewrites as the applications and related business processes evolved. "We were getting tired of the wasted resources involved in doing custom interfaces for every administrative system that came along,"
said Tom Cochran, CSTARS' program manager.
But Commerce officials have discovered a way to turn an integration nightmare into an IT opportunity. Today, CAMS and CSTARS effectively share information, and their cozy relationship is providing a technology road map for future integration projects.
With the integrated systems, Commerce is saving IT resources, eliminating inefficiencies in the procurement process and reducing data-entry errors. "The business process is working faster than when we had two separate systems to deal with," said Mike Sade, Commerce's director for acquisition management and procurement executive.
Procurement is king for financial management at large agencies such as Commerce because it opens the door to commitment accounting — the ability to track funds when they're earmarked but before the check is written. "It's a better planning tool," Taylor said.
But commitment accounting can only happen if data flows smoothly between the procurement and financial systems through a software interface that both applications can understand. This time, before they wrote a custom interface, Commerce officials "stepped back to see if there were more-scalable options available," said Thomas Greiner, a partner in the finance and performance management division of Accenture, the primary systems integrator on the project.
"We looked at what would be required in terms of business functions, messaging, security and the whole set of activities needed to make the systems talk in real time," Sade said. When they determined that a custom CSTARS-to-CAMS interface would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to create, Commerce officials began comparing the costs of another alternative — enterprise application integration technology, which is used by large commercial businesses.
EAI technology acts as a middleware layer between enterprise systems to provide common data definitions and reusable application-to-application interfaces.
"The business case was pretty solid because if we bought a tool that had these [integration] capabilities, we wouldn't have to repeat this process every time Commerce wanted to plug a new enterprise
application into the financial system," Taylor said. "So we approached this project not just from the standpoint of integrating CSTARS and CAMS, but with the idea that this would become a model for how we would interface any future administration system into the core financial
Commerce invited all the major EAI vendors to submit proposals, Sade said. After comparing features and capabilities, officials then requested that a short list of
companies participate in a technology face-off at their test center in Gaithersburg, Md.
"They had to install their software and show us a connection between two servers acting as enterprise systems, and then show us how the systems sent messages to each other," said Robert Bair, CAMS program manager. Based on its success in this head-to-head competition, Tibco BusinessWorks from Tibco Software Inc., based in Palo Alto, Calif., became Commerce's EAI platform of choice.
Pilot project takes off
Started last spring, the Tibco installation went live in October at Commerce's National Institute of Standards and Technology. NIST acted as the EAI guinea pig by running CSTARS in a stand-alone mode rather then sharing a central version of it, as some other bureaus do. Consequently, Commerce's IT staff could concentrate solely on CSTARS-to-CAMS integration without the added security concerns associated with sending data outside NIST's firewalls.
At the core of Tibco's application-to-application communications capabilities is a repository that provides a common model for key data elements. This allows all applications connected to BusinessWorks to use similar definitions for items such as purchase orders.
"You need a common definition of a purchase order that you can map to specific definitions in each application," said Hector Alicea, Tibco's chief architect for the Commerce project. "Transformation tools within the middleware convert the data in real time from one system to the common model then back into [another format for] another system."
A second round of conversions from the common model to an application-specific format occurs if the business process sends the information to a third system. An information-broker engine within BusinessWorks handles the traffic cop chore of managing data as it moves among the middleware and various applications.
Before the middleware worked properly, Commerce officials had to address some technology issues. First, NIST is Commerce's only bureau to run AIX, IBM Corp.'s variant of the Unix operating system, and the IT staff had to confirm that BusinessWorks worked on this platform.
"They had a unique way of doing things over there, which is not going to be replicated at other bureaus," Bair said. Secondly, Commerce officials had to standardize the data that comes into CAMS from the various feeder systems, including bureau programs that managed travel or grants expenditures. To accomplish the integration, officials created a standard output file that each of the feeders could use.
"We put files in a standard format so Tibco didn't care which system it was getting a message from," Bair said. "It just picks the message up and moves it to the financial system."
Finally, Commerce had to fine-tune the middleware's messaging activities. BusinessWorks periodically polls applications to see if there are any messages waiting to be sent from one system to another. "You can set the parameters that control how often that polling happens to make sure the messages are recognized as quickly as possible and that the receiving system is ready to pick them up," Sade said.
The NIST pilot project cost about$100,000 for BusinessWorks, plus another $20,000 for associated hardware, software and consulting services. Tibco-led training added about $10,000 to the bill. The entire contract to bring all of Commerce's bureaus into the fold — including software, training and consulting — will be approximately $950,000.
In return, NIST's procurement agents know within seconds if funds are available for a new purchase order, if the vendor being requested in the order is an approved source and if the internal account number to be charged for the purchase is a valid one, Cochran said.
Previously, data entered into CSTARS had gone into a batch-file queue and wouldn't be posted to the old financial system until the following day. In the meantime, users sometimes revised the data, which caused disparities between the procurement and financial systems. "We've eliminated the multiple entry points of data," Taylor said.
Commerce officials will gradually bring its other bureaus into the EAI fold. They haven't decided which one will be next, but they expect the project to be trickier than NIST's integration. Data will travel through the government's intranet, bringing new security complexities, including the need to create digital certificates for authentication.
Although it was simpler, the NIST project will act as a model for future installations. "We were successful at NIST because we focused all of our technical resources on it" until all the pieces were working smoothly together, Bair said. "We'll
make sure everything is working at the next site and then just replicate what we did at ensuing bureaus."
Joch is a business and technology writer based in New England.
He can be reached at email@example.com.
What integration will cost
Pilot project (completed):
$100,000 for the enterprise application integration software.
$20,000 for associated hardware, software and consulting services.
$10,000 for training.
Total cost for departmentwide integration: $950,000.
How the department will benefit:
Better financial planning through commitment accounting.
Immediate verification of purchase-order acceptance or rejection.
Fewer data synchronization errors.
Less duplication of data.