Outside The Box: Engineering Concept Aids Agency

Can a well-proven mechanical engineering concept, known as Black Box, improve systems development in government? One agency thinks so.

by / June 30, 1998
Whether technology is used to manage welfare caseloads for a state or finances for a midsize city government, the result is often the same: an intricate computer system built from the ground up as a single unit. Invariably, the software is complex, custom-designed and hard to modify, even if the change involves just one business function. The result, say government officials, are systems that cost too much to build and are at a high risk of failing. It doesn't have to be that way.

For decades, engineers have used the "Black Box" approach for developing everything from cars and PCs to stereos. Rather than try and build an entire project yourself, engineers suggest breaking it down into discrete pieces, which are built separately, but based on a common architecture. Each piece is both independent of and integral to the entire system. "The premise of Black Box," said David Gray, chief information officer for California's Secretary of State, "is that it's very inefficient for one organization to build everything they need, whether it's a product or a computer system."

Gray, an engineer prior to working in the public sector, pointed out that when Sony builds a stereo, the company doesn't try to design and build the tuner, speakers, CD player and amplifier itself. "They create a common architecture for the entire system, specialize in one area and then purchase component parts from firms that specialize in CD players, tuners and so on," he explained. "Sony then integrates all those together to make a product."

Gray, along with a small but growing number of IT executives, believes that same concept can be used with large-scale computer system development in the public sector. "The way it applies to information technology," outlined Gray, "is that the IT organization in an agency becomes the integrator, not the developer, of products necessary for a solution."

The difficulty with Black Box is designing an underlying architecture that's both scalable and open, covering everything from the network and operating
system to database management and memory specifications. Once the architecture is done, separate groups can be assigned to build components without necessarily knowing what is inside the other components. The advantage of this process is that, if an agency's business model changes over time, the IT department can retire and replace the system component affected by the change without redoing the entire system. "Black Box works because it reduces risk and cost by breaking large projects into little pieces," said Gray.

Black Box in Practice

The Secretary of State's Office used the Black Box approach for two key applications: one involving the certification and management of notary publics, the other for a document warehouse. In both cases, the agency created the architecture and then had a combination of in-house and private-sector developers build modules that interface with each other but are also stand-alone applications.

With more than 125,000 notaries in the state, the job of managing this licensed position requires significant automation. Unfortunately, the Secretary of State's Office only had a 30-year-old mainframe -- which costs $25,000 per month to maintain -- with limited functionality to do the job. According to Gray, the office decided to increase the efficiency of its Notary Public Automation System by automating a number of notary business functions, including commissions and investigations.

To design any new system using the Black Box approach, Gray begins by holding numerous meetings with his staff from the office's Information Technology Division to determine whether a system is a suitable candidate for Black Box development. Then the proposed system is evaluated by IT staff for ways it can be broken down into stand-alone components.
Ultimately, design of the notary system was divided along functional areas: data, commissions, investigations and seal

Actual design and development used two methodologies. Joint application development (JAD) calls for the system's users to work with the software developers in a series of white-board sessions to work out the detailed specifications, the business rules for the systems, and so on. With JAD, Gray's staff knew exactly what the system was supposed to do before any actual code was written.

The software developers then used rapid application development (RAD) to build the application. In a typical RAD session, a developer and a user actually build the application together, using an application development tool, such as Powerbuilder or SQL Windows. The user gets to try things out as they would work on a computer, and the developer gets continuous feedback from the user on how the application should work.

"The combination of the two development methodologies allowed the Black Box to come into play very well," said Gray. "Once we began RAD sessions, we treated each functional area of the notary system as a separate process that had to stand alone but also had to share a common architecture, such as database and network."

Once all the functional pieces were built, they were tested and integrated. "Now we can retire components of the notary system at will," added Gray, "and replace them as long as we don't change the specifications in a way that keeps them from interacting with the other modules."

By using the Black Box development, the notary system is very scalable, Gray said, meaning the different modules can be changed without affecting the entire system. "For example, if the state Legislature were to pass new legislation requiring us to store an actual image of a notary commission document, we would just replace the module that supports commissioning with one that adds imaging to the system," Gray pointed out. "We wouldn't have to change any of the other modules. Everything would work the same, yet we would have the ability to scale the commission module up to a higher level of functionality." The entire application was built in six months, at a cost of just over $2 million.

The Secretary of State's Office is also using the Black Box approach for its document warehouse. Document filings relating to corporations, lobbyists and campaign expenditures are a huge business for the Secretary of State, involving millions of documents annually. Right now, most end up on microfilm, which are hard to access by the public and involve lots of labor to retrieve. The agency's goal is to place the documents into an electronic warehouse that could be accessed by the public via the Internet.

Since storage technology continues to evolve, Gray doesn't want the agency to lock itself into one particular type of hardware and software, which may become obsolete in a few years. "There are a number of promising new technologies out there," explained Gray, "Everything from blue laser to DVD. We don't want to marry a technology that in two to three years down the road doesn't make sense any more."

Gray plans to use Black Box to build the warehouse's storage repository, which will have a clearly defined architecture and set of standards for input and output. Once again, scalability will be the key factor. "Whatever I design has to be able to increase the system's throughput over time," he said.

Limited Awareness

Crack open any engineering textbook and you'll find plenty of references to Black Box. But walk into just about any IT shop in the public or private sector, and when you mention the term, you're bound to get some blank stares. Gray believes the lack of knowledge about Black Box can be partly attributed to the fact that it's not taught in computer-science classes.

Despite ignorance about the concept, Gray thinks that some Black Box practices are used in IT departments, but that staff aren't aware of it. Others are aware of its benefits, but don't know how to implement it. To get started, Gray has two recommendations: "Make sure you have a good IT architect on staff, somebody who knows how to design a scalable system, then take the time to look at how other organizations have deployed an open, scalable architecture."

Once you stick to a set of architectural standards, then everything works together, Gray summed up. "The advantages of Black Box are too big to ignore. It reduces your risk while providing greater flexibility."

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