SOA Case Study: El Paso County, Colorado

By Allen Bernard

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As CIO for the fastest-growing county in Colorado, Bill Miller has been working hard to move the county's IT infrastructure out of the dark ages and into the 21st Century.

For the last few years, Miller has been busy laying the groundwork for rolling out new, improved, automated and server-based IT services to county's myriad departments and citizens through the implementation of business process management (BPM) software from Metastorm and service-orientated architecture (SOA).

His first stop on this journey began with the county's 11 commissioners. He started by automating their agenda workflow system and is now in the process of tying that together, through web services, with all of the other available electronic content they need to run the county.

This includes, for now, the county's Hummingbird document management system, its GIS (geographic information system) so the commissioners can pull up maps, and the county's records system.

Next on the list is to bring the county's permitting office up to speed, which may take a little more time. Unable to get funding for this project form the county, Miller appealed directly to developers who, for obvious reasons, are gladly footing the bill via fees.

"If you walked into a planner's office you wouldn't believe it," said Miller. "You can hardly even move for the paper that's in there. And trying to track everything and keep track of where it is and respond to the customers is a nightmare, and it's been that way for years."

In fact, because of budget constraints, Miller has become quite good at creative financing. All of the county's departments have projects they want done—so many in fact, Miller had to put together a five year plan to show department heads when they will get what they're after—that Miller convinced them to help fund his SOA initiative out of their own budgets.

"This is a progressive thing for us," he said. "First of all, we started out basically with just a hodge-podge of applications that were custom written running on a DEC machine. And now we've evolved to a standards environment … and the next step is tying those together and providing those services electronically either to the public, or internally to departments and offices. So that's out web services structure."

Sounds simple enough but things are just beginning. Miller fully expects to be retired before his SOA "To Do" list is done.

The Devil's Details

Like all new technologies the upside potential is what draws people in but, as the expression goes, the Devil is in the details.

For Miller those details include overseeing the digitization of years and years of county records; moving from custom-coded mainframe software to off-the-shelf, standards-based software so he can tie everything together with web services; obtaining funding from a technology-illiterate board of commissioners; GPS enabling county snow removal and road maintenance equipment; migrating data from the mainframe to SQL databases so it can be accessed via web services calls, and on, and on, and on.

"Eventually," said Miller with a chuckle, " … eventually, I'll retire, but — eventually — it will all work together."

So far, technology has not been the difficult part of this transformation. What vendors have been telling him about their products has, for the most part, been accurate. His biggest stumbling blocks, like in the corporate world, is vision and funding.

"Well, obviously the general management (elected officials, user groups) organization do not understand any of these technology concepts," he said. "When you start (talking) standards and infrastructure and SOA … they glass over. So, the point is, we have to drive that piece of it. That requires money and, yes, funding is very difficult and convincing people you need the funding is very difficult.

"I came out of the corporate world. I've only bee in the public sector for six years so, yes, it's absolutely the same thing. But at least you have a chain of command and focal point in the corporate world, here you have eleven elected officials and their all CEOs."

Yet, everyone in the county knew something had to be done. Too many processes were too difficult and too time consuming to last in the digital age so it fell to Miller and his under-funded and overworked IT department to make something happen.

Enabling Standards

What has enabled Miller to succeed comes down to one word: standards. Without things like SOAP, BEPL, WSDL, HTTP, .NET, Java, WS Security, etc. Miller would have had little chance of tying the county's disparate systems together into a cohesive whole that could serve all its constituents using just one, over-arching architecture; in this case, SOA.

On the vendor side, Miller has also standardized his infrastructure to get away from the ad-hoc systems of days past. He uses 130 HP servers running Microsoft on a Cisco network accessing SQL databases. While this does pose some risk, he said, the rewards are a much easier infrastructure to maintain and manage.

One of the downsides (unless you're a techie, of course) is a tripling in the amount of databases and storage the county needs to manage its transformation from paper to bits and bites.

On the plus side, Miller and his crew get to keep their jobs while helping the county's citizens, officials and employees access more services, in new ways, faster. The only downside of this is, once everyone becomes dependent on the new systems, if they go down, no one will be able to do much.

"It ties things together so they don't have to go into five different systems to do their work," said Miller. "IT's always at risk after they're highly dependent on it. They send people home (if it crashes) and that's a bad thing."

For Miller, the rewards are more personal. Not only is he doing a good job by meeting the needs of the people that depend on him and his crew for services, this BPM/SOA initiative is allowing him to become the CIO he's always wanted to be—kind of the softer side of technology.

"I don't think it makes (managing IT) easier," he said. "I think what happens is I can evolve to higher levels. In other words, I don't have to focus on day-to-day crises. I can focus more out into the future. And I can focus on things I get excited about and are unique and provide even better capabilities down the road."

Which, at the end of the day, it what IT is all about.