The missing piece
- By Dibya Sarkar
- Sep 03, 2001
Georgia and its chief information officer, Larry Singer, are taking the
lead in an effort they hope will make technology projects cheaper and easier
for government to handle perhaps even revolutionizing the way governments
build and buy e-applications.
Georgia and several states are participating in a National Software
Exchange Program in which governments can simply download components from
an online catalog. The idea is called "component reuse" because it involves
one government borrowing or reusing software already in use by another
Software components are self- contained source codes that perform certain
functions in applications. They are, in essence, the building blocks or
ingredients of applications. So, a component that performs a credit card
function for one application can be plugged into another one.
In a recent pilot project, officials in Georgia reused software components
of an Arkansas human services application to build a motor vehicle registration
application. And, Pennsylvania officials downloaded and modified a permitting
template developed by Washington state's government. In both cases, about
85 percent of the code was reused, meaning less time and money to build
the applications, according to Singer, who heads the Georgia Technology
Authority (www. gagta.com).
Georgia is finalizing a deal with Atlanta-based ComponentSource to
provide state governments, and ultimately municipalities, with an online
repository to share source codes.
"I think it could look a lot like other kinds of business-to-business
exchanges that you see popping up in other industries to support common
needs and allow aggregated and consolidated markets to drive prices down
and improve quality of product," Singer said.
For example, the automotive industry, he said, created an online exchange
to buy parts that General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co., Daimler.Chrysler
and others use.
"That means the competitive advantage from one of them is not by having
a different strut it's how they assemble the strut and other parts to
make a better car," Singer said. "And so I think you'll see these exchanges
growing up in aerospace, automotive, chemicals and a variety of other areas.
Software components will become a commodity. And your advantage will be
in your ability to identify the ones that work for you and assemble them
in the quickest way possible to meet your users' needs."
Reusing software components is a practice that has been around for many
years, but component-based architecture has flourished only in the last
decade. That's because companies, such as Microsoft Corp. and Sun Microsystems
Inc., came up with standard ways for developing components.
"It's the coming together of standards and technology and assets that
are already out there...that makes it practical to make large gains out of
reuse," said Sam Patterson, chief executive officer of ComponentSource (www.componentsource.com).
The com.pany, which offered only a couple of hundred components in 1995,
now has about 6,500 components in its electronic catalog, and that's doubling
every year, Patterson said.
He said several governments have used the company's online catalog,
but private companies are their biggest clients.
Reusing code is not a new idea for government, Singer said. What's new
is the concept of a repository or catalog where the packaging of software
components allows state governments to easily identify different component
"People have been reusing software for a really long time, but they
tend to reuse their own software that they built," he said. "A programmer
remembers a routine that they used in another application...but it's kind
of dependent on the programmer to remember that they've done that and figure
out how to use it again."
Singer said he became interested in the practice when he worked for
Texas Instruments Inc. years ago, and even more so when the federal government
in the early 1990s funded a program for five states to build a child support
system and share it nationwide.
But the systems were tightly tied to specific technologies, such as
operating systems and databases, and the applications were not written in
a way that made it possible to modify them to meet the different functionality
required from state to state. "It ended up costing states sometimes many
times more money to transfer systems than it would have from the beginning,"
Singer said. "So the business case was clear, the technology opportunity
was clear things just had to mature in the industry to get to a point
where it could become more real."
Singer said the proposed national exchange would operate on different
levels. If state officials are looking for a template where buttons and
a banner must match state designs, they might first go to their own state
repository or catalog. But if they are looking for an eligibility component
for a child welfare program, then they might go to the national catalog.
"And you do your search and you find out that there's three different
versions," Singer said, "and you download them and you take a look at them
and you run them and say, 'Does this do what our user wants?' and you show
it to the user. And if you find one that works for you, you would download
it and keep it."
Although two of the three versions may have been developed by other
state governments and are available at no charge, a vendor may have developed
the third. In that case, he said, if state officials decide to download
it, they would have to buy a license and pay a fee.
If the national exchange doesn't have what they need, officials can
also search through ComponentSource's open-market exchange. Many commercial
products are listed there, and they might find something that does the job.
Singer said the exchange would also contain different types of components.
There are black box components that are like packaged, off-the-shelf software
that can be plugged into an application. "You don't know the code on the
inside. You don't care. It just does what you want," he said.
Then there are white box components, which can be plugged into an application
and also allow access to the code. Singer said that those components have
a more limited value because the state would have to maintain them. "But
most are likely, frankly, to want the white box. Even though it might limit
some of the financial benefits, it provides a huge additional bit of functionality,"
The online repository would be available only to state governments until
the rules are worked out. "Once we get it worked out, we think we'll open
it up not only to local governments in this country but to governments worldwide,"
Still, for the online exchange to work, the current business model must
change, Singer said. Most vendors try to win a contract from a state and
then develop an application at no risk to the vendor.
"But it's difficult for anyone to accept that kind of wholesale change
even at that [National Association of State Chief Information Officers]
conference where...89 percent of the people said move on and keep doing this,"
he said. "They're just beginning to understand the kind of changes they
have to make in their own architectural and development environment to deal