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expensive and outdated.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
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
Within a year of coming on board, Schmidt began to look for a better
"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
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
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.