Agencies take a RAD approach to development

RAD consists of tools, techniques and methodologies designed to speed application development. RAD reduces paper-based documentation, automates code generation and facilitates user participation in design and development activities. The technology, in some cases, can allow a small development team to create a software prototype in a matter of days. The ultimate goal is to accelerate the systems-building process so that applications can go into production when they are most critically needed.

"In the old days, development took 18 months to three years," said Jack Littley, a vice president of BTG Inc., which uses a number of RAD tools in developing federal systems. "Now people want things ready to roll in three months."

Speed is particularly important for agencies eager to reap the benefits of newly re-engineered business processes. "One of the things we stress is the need to go from [business process re-engineering] to a system that actually implements the re-engineering," said Renato DiPentima, chief information officer of Systems Research & Applications Corp. and former deputy commissioner for systems management at the Social Security Administration. "RAD is a perfect match for that."

Organizations have a range of RAD solutions from which to choose. Systems integrators are promoting various RAD methodologies, and numerous applications development tools have sprung up amid the RAD movement. Microsoft Corp.'s Visual Basic and Sybase Inc.'s PowerBuilder are among the more popular tools in the federal sector.

In addition, such database vendors as Computer Associates International Inc., Informix Software Inc. and Oracle Corp. market fourth-generation languages (4GLs) and other products targeting the RAD market. Tools from such traditional computer-aided software engineering vendors as Texas Instruments Inc. and Sterling Software Inc. are also being deployed as RAD products (see sidebar).

Indeed, every software development tool claims to be RAD, observed Don DePalma, senior analyst at the Software Strategies Service of Forrester Research. Forrester's best estimate for the 1996 market is about $1.2 billion for "iterative application development tools" in the client/server arena.

Software experts, however, cautioned that RAD approaches should not be used in every software development circumstance. In general, they said, RAD is best-suited for decision support and other management information systems and less well-suited for high-volume transaction applications.

Gaining Prominence

Industry and government executives said they believe RAD approaches are seeing wider use in the federal sector.

Steve Lichtman, a senior principal at integrator American Management Systems Inc. (AMS) , said the current federal procurement environment is conducive to RAD. He said the trend is toward generating software deliverables in shorter time frames rather than "taking years to specify a system and then doing design and programming."

Accordingly, RAD tools have begun to flourish in the federal market.

PowerBuilder, a RAD tool from Sybase's Powersoft subsidiary, is popular in the federal sector. An average of 75 evaluation copies are out at any given moment, 95 percent of which are bought within 90 days, said Marty Weber, federal regional manager of Powersoft.

PowerBuilder is available on contracts such as the Army's Small Multiuser Computer II and the Justice Department's Justice Consolidated Office Network.

Microsoft's Visual Basic, meanwhile, has achieved a high degree of federal penetration as well. The product is available on such contracts as the Air Force's Non-Appropriated Funds pact and is also carried by several General Services Administration resellers. The U.S. Postal Service is one federal organization that has tapped Visual Basic as a RAD environment.

And Borland's Delphi is carried by such federal resellers as ASAP Software Express Inc. and Government Technology Services Inc.

But the range of products deployed in agencies is quite diverse.

The Coast Guard, for example, used Ingres 4GL—the predecessor to CA's Open Road 4GL—to develop an Aviation Computerized Maintenance System. The Coast Guard used the language to redesign the servicewide application in nine months, according to Jeff Berry, Coast Guard program manager. A key benefit was a reduction in the number of lines of code required to build the application.

The Naval Surface Warfare Center, Crane, Ind., also tapped CA's 4GL to build a similar maintenance application.

The 4GL is easy to use, said Steve Bryant, a Navy electronics engineer. Adding telephone number information to the application's SQL database, for example, requires a few operations in Ingres 4GL and a few SQL commands.

The Labor Department's Job Corps used Informix's NewEra 4GL tool to rapidly develop a system that tracks training program participants, test scores and housing requirements, according to Dave Nahmias, federal product marketing manager.

NewEra also won a face-off with PowerBuilder at Labor's Employment Standards Administration, Nahmias said. This nationwide application automates payments for on-the-job injury claims by federal civilian employees and postal workers.

Technology Trends: Web Development

The most striking trend in RAD technology may be the rush to the World Wide Web, Forrester's DePalma said.

Developers are building Web applications using RAD approaches and off-the-shelf tools. Government Systems Inc. (GSI) , a Fairfax, Va., integrator, used WebBase by ExperTelligence for an application to display and access the latest network configuration status information for an agencywide, 14-site network the company built for the Federal Aviation Administration.

Part of the FAA application was also developed using TCSI Corp.'s Object Services Package, which is used to develop custom applications, said Paul Brewster, director of special projects at GSI.

RAD tools are also evolving toward greater ease of use. Gentium, by Planning Sciences Inc., for example, delivers an "object palette" with a number of prebuilt objects that can be pulled down and interconnected by drawing lines between them, explained Garfield Cross, vice president of sales for Forte Systems Inc., Gentium's federal reseller. This approach requires less coding than traditional 4GLs, he said.

The Air Force's Wright Laboratory is using the software to consolidate existing decision support/executive information programs.

ILOG, a developer of C++ software component libraries, offers data visualization and prefabricated components that are aimed at specific application areas such as decision support.

Lockheed Martin Corp. used several ILOG products to construct resource allocation and other applications relating to manufacturing the C-130J aircraft.

A similar tool from Robbins-Gioia Inc. stresses the automation of management processes "for big, hairy and ugly" projects, said Jim Karwel, vice president. The company's Control and Analysis Tool, a 4GL toolbox, is being used on the Air Force's Program Management Support System contract to develop program management and scheduling solutions for military depots.

SAS Institute Inc. is offering RAD technology geared toward decision support applications under the Army's Sustaining Base Information Services program. The SAS Executive Information System's RAD environment boasts a library of 40 objects, said Jeff Mudd, federal business development manager.

Caveat Emptor

Despite the promise of RAD, using the technology is not as simple as it sounds, software experts said.

AMS' Lichtman said RAD approaches are not appropriate for every software development project. He said complex applications with stringent performance requirements and multiple interfaces with external systems are better left to other development methods.

Scalability is another issue.

"RAD today is not necessarily scalable to high-transaction volumes," said Gary Lord, partner in charge of client/server computing with KPMG Peat Marwick in Palo Alto, Calif. RAD tools "represent the future," Lord said, but they're not there yet.


Adams is a free-lance writer based in Alexandria, Va.


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