Children have known it forever: amass enough blocks and you can build almost anything.

Like youngsters, state information technology officials are creating a way to pool their blocks for the benefit of all. Through a new National Software Component Exchange (NSCE), developers will be able to locate pieces of software created by others and build the pieces into their own government applications. By reusing existing software, instead of writing fresh code, developers expect to save money and drastically cut the time it takes to get applications up and running.

At the annual conference of the National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO) last spring, for example, IT officials from Georgia demonstrated how they saved 18 weeks and $45,000 by reusing software components created by their counterparts in Arkansas.

Working on behalf of NASCIO, the Georgia Technology Authority (GTA) in May chose ComponentSource of Kennesaw, Ga., to develop and implement the NSCE. ComponentSource will base the government exchange on technology it first developed for its flagship product, a commercial software exchange.

A component is a piece of software that performs a specific function. Components are "kind of like Legos," said Sam Patterson, chief executive officer of ComponentSource. Like children snapping together plastic bricks and accessories to build castles or space stations, developers snap together software components to create complete applications.

If an application needs to authorize credit card transactions, for example, instead of researching how to build this function and writing hundreds of lines of code, the developer can obtain a credit card authorization component and plug it into the software. "As a programmer, you dont have to understand anything about how all those processes work," Patterson said.

In the NSCE, state and local governments will post components they have developed, allowing colleagues in other jurisdictions to reuse those components free of charge. If programmers cant find what they need, they can purchase software posted by commercial developers.

Along with components, the exchange will offer several other kinds of reusable software, said Larry Singer, chief information officer of the GTA. These include whole applications, application templates, frameworks (structures into which the programmer plugs components) and tools for turning specifications for a business procedure into software.

New Ways to Share

Government officials have been working for years to find ways states can share resources to meet common IT requirements, Singer said. One technique is for the federal government to fund several states to develop an application -- a child-support enforcement system is one example -- and expect other states to reuse it. In another approach, several states work with a single vendor to build a system they all need. In that arena, Singer pointed to AAMVAnet, a subsidiary of the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, which has created applications used by multiple states.

Both those strategies have great virtues, Singer said, but they also have limitations. In the past, states developed applications based on specific platforms and architectures. Transferring them to other states, which might use different hardware or have slightly different needs, was a problem. States working together to build a common application face the challenge of getting people together in one place, over time, to do the work. "The logistics are just too difficult," Singer said.

The latest approach to sharing -- the component exchange -- is possible now because the software world has created development environments based on reusable services and software, Singer said. These include Microsofts .NET and Suns Java development platforms.

As this article went to press, the GTA and ComponentSource were negotiating their contract, and IT officials from several states were laying the groundwork for the government exchange. The GTA is funding the development and maintenance of the exchange with support from Public Interest Breakthrough, a not-for-profit organization in Vienna, Va.

Merrill Douglas  |  Contributing Writer