Cross-Talk

Would-be fishermen who walk into the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission

for a license have been pleasantly surprised in recent months to find the

lack of paperwork involved. If they have a valid driver's permit, they need

to offer only two or three bits of personal data — name, date of birth or

address — and the application form is automatically filled in with all other

relevant information, thanks to a quick computerized call to the driver's

license records at the Department of Transportation.

The key to this is a new set of technologies known as Enterprise Application

Integration (EAI), or what Emilie Schmidt, North Carolina's chief technology

officer, calls "middleware for middleware."

Middleware is software that translates commands or data between different

software programs. EAI improves on existing middleware by adding a message

broker, which manages communications among applications, business process

modeling tools and workflow software and management tools.

The technologies behind EAI are not new, but taken together, they promise

to ease the flow of information between applications within disparate systems

without the need for custom-built links.

"Rather than just having a "dumb pipe' that takes information from one

end and delivers it to another, you've now got message-oriented middleware,"

said Steve Craggs, vice president of the EAI business unit at Candle Corp.,

Los Angeles, whose Roma product is being used in North Carolina. "It now

understands what the information format is on one end and what it is on

the other, so it can automatically transform it."

Of course, North Carolina hasn't always had it so easy. Like most state

and local governments, the Tar Heel State has grown its automated environment

in an ad hoc fashion.

Each state agency had its own information technology department and

made unilateral decisions on hardware purchases and application development.

This, not surprisingly, made it difficult to communicate and share data

across different departments. For years, programmers would simply build

custom interfaces between two agency systems, but this was time-consuming,

expensive and outdated.

Schmidt, a former senior manager at Digital Equipment Corp., was hired

as the state's first chief technology officer in 1995 to develop a statewide

information technology architecture. She quickly saw that the pitfalls involved

in attempting to cross applications and share data was holding the government

back from reaching its long-term goals of providing better and more efficient

service to citizens.

"In the past, to provide any kind of data sharing, the programmers from

each agency would have to work together and cross-learn each other's environment

and application development tools," she explained. "Everything would work

just fine until one of the agencies decided to migrate to another platform.

That move would totally break the interface and you'd have to start all

over."

Add to that dilemma the then-pending Year 2000 crisis, which required

that many custom interfaces be rewritten. Then there was a growing trend

of legislation that required the crossing of applications, such as the motor-voter

law, which encourages the Division of Motor Vehicles to also offer voter

registration.

Within a year of coming on board, Schmidt began to look for a better

way.

"We started down the path of getting together and asking, "Well, should

we agree on all the same application development tools? Or all the same

middleware choices?' " she recalled. "But it became really obvious, really

fast, that we were not going to be able to standardize on one application

development tool, because one tool was just not going to work statewide.

And we came to the same conclusion for middleware as well, because the tools,

in a lot of instances, can only support certain middleware."

What the state wanted was a paradigm that would enable each agency to

keep everything within their own environments exactly the same — including

application development tools and database systems — and still be able to

cross application environments. Armed with those formidable requirements,

Schmidt and her team began to look for a vendor. They had nearly given up

when they came across the Roma EAI product from Candle Corp.

Roma was helpful because there is no mandated standardization within

the North Carolina government. The Wildlife Resources Commission, for example,

uses a Microsoft Corp. Windows NT environment and Message Queuing middleware,

while the Motor Vehicles Division within the Department of Transportation

relies on an IBM Corp. ES 9672 mainframe application built prior to the

advent of middleware. With Roma, these seemingly incompatible systems are

able to talk to each other, and just as important, agencies control their

own environments.

The data sharing works through a shared service, a custom program written

by the owner of the data that determines what information can be seen, under

what conditions, and by whom. In the case of the driver's license service

inquiry, for instance, the Wildlife Resources Commission doesn't get carte

blanche to root around the driver's license database; the system simply

matches certain fields of information based on the parameters given.

"The employees at Wildlife don't have to know anything about the mainframe

at Transportation," Schmidt explains. "All they have to know is, "I make

this call with these parameters and put it in my program here.' In the past,

the programmers would have had to learn about the middleware, the communications

protocols, and the database layouts of the target system being called. That's

all gone."

Schmidt said all 23 agencies are beginning to think strategically about

how accessing and sharing information will improve service, and several

agencies have begun to write new services.

She said she looks forward to having a library of reusable services.

For instance, in addition to the Wildlife Resources Commission, the Department

of Labor is using the driver's license service inquiry — to verify that

workers are not minors. And the Department of Corrections is using the service

to confirm the revocation of inmate driving permits.

Ultimately, North Carolina expects that this will enable the state's

long-term goal of high-quality Web-based customer service. "People are already

frustrated with the whole government paradigm of running here and there

to get all your business done," Schmidt said. "I don't think they'll put

up with a runaround for very long on the Internet."

To ease the red tape, the new, improved government site will include

portals that are individually directed at citizens, business owners, state

employees and visitors. For example, with EAI working in the background

to allow cross-communication, a business owner will be able to fill out

incorporation papers, get a tax identification number and apply for a liquor

license in one fell swoop.

Heather Hayes is a free-lance writer based in Stuarts Draft, Va.

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