Client/server offers tremendous flexibility in system design, development and implementation. That's a valuable asset for state and local governments as they increasingly rely on computers not just to process information but also to run critical government services.
Flexibility, however, comes with higher costs for management, maintenance, training and software upgrades. Not surprisingly, a majority of first time client/server customers underestimate the costs and overshoot their original budgets.
It's not just government agencies that are struggling with this issue. A utility in the Northwest spent four years and $16.5 million -- three times what it expected to pay -- migrating from its mainframe to a client/server system. The Standish Group, a market research firm, estimates that if it costs $2 million for hardware and software for a typical 200-user client/server system, it will cost another $2 million for testing, consulting, training and software/hardware upgrades.
One problem for government is that there are few models on which to base budget estimates for client/server solutions. For many agencies, client/server is virgin territory. Social service agencies, for example, either relied on mainframes or paper to get the job done. Now they are expected to automate all sorts of public assistance and child-welfare programs.
"There aren't any models for [client/server] life-cycle costs," pointed out Darrell Gordon, director of systems development for Indiana's Family and Social Services Administration (FSSA). Gordon, who directed the installation of the agency's first client/server system earlier this year, was surprised by the dramatic rise in costs once the system was installed. "The operating costs caught us unprepared," he said.
To counter such surprises, government agencies need to expand their budgets for client/server operations, including the cost for training both users and information systems staff, testing their applications more
thoroughly before launching, or even rethinking the degree to which they plan to distribute their applications.
While state and local governments have steadily increased their use of PCs throughout the 1990s, it has only been in the past couple of years that client/server has invaded the domain of mainframe computers. Five years ago, client/server was limited to special applications that could justify the need for a distributed platform. Often, these applications involved imaging, case management or GIS (geographic information systems) and usually delivered a quick return on investment. The users of these systems were few in number, making system management relatively inexpensive.
That picture is beginning to change. Both state and local governments are pushing the boundaries of automation as they rely more than ever on computers to perform tasks once done by armies of government employees. Sometimes governments process information for tasks that previously didn't exist.
For example, 10 years ago, tracking down spouses who didn't pay child support was a low priority because of the effort involved and low success rate. Computer networks may soon enable states to perform this function much more effectively. In many cases, client/server systems link hundreds or even thousands of workers in field offices to databases.
GIS is another example. Once used mainly by engineers to map utility lines, it is now used by cities and counties just about everywhere. It appears on desktops in the city manager's office, where it can be used for decision support, and in the city planner's office for analyzing trends in urban growth.
Client/server has also opened the door to new technologies, such as document management and electronic communications. Missouri's Public Defender's Office uses both, plus groupware, thanks to the recent adoption of client/server. During the summer of 1997, the agency built a 450-user application, running with Lotus Notes, that provides 290 attorneys and their staffs, located in 39 offices around the state, with document management, form processing, scheduling and electronic mail functions.