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.
According to Mary Willingham, IT manager for the public defender's office, e-mail is already changing the way attorneys handle their annual workload of 75,000 cases. "E-mail allows the attorneys to support each other," she said. "They can post a question to their colleagues about a case they are handling, or ask for expertise on a legal matter, and get a response quickly."
A major item on the budget of any client/server project is outside support for design and technical assistance. To build its $1.6 million client/server application, Missouri's Public Defender's Office relied on outside expertise to develop the application and tested it at four offices before rolling it out to the remaining sites. The office also contracted with consultants to provide the necessary skills for running the application on the Windows NT operating system.
The Indiana Child Welfare Information System (ICWIS) was developed using technical support from Unisys Corp., and input from scores of FSSA workers. The only additional support came from the state's IT staff, who assisted with developing the wide area network, according to Gordon.
In 1993 -- the most recent year for which data is available -- 62,000 cases of child abuse and neglect were reported to FSSA, with just under half substantiated, leading to some course of action by the state. With ICWIS, the state has been able to move critical case-management functions out into the field, allowing case managers to keep a high percentage of children with their families while providing the necessary resources to aid the families and the children.
Gordon, who has experience developing applications for mainframes, said a major challenge he faced early on with client/server was testing the application. "We found out that Oracle and NT behave differently when they are in a local testing environment than when they are in the field offices, on a three-tier environment, where you are communicating remotely," he pointed out. Specifically, the project team would get one kind of result when an application was tested locally and an entirely different result when they rolled the application out to the pilot testing locations. Gordon and his staff decided to push all the testing out to the pilot sites. It solved the testing problem, but the project lost nearly a month's time.
Willingham also mentioned testing as a critical phase in the client/server project, and one she would have given more time to. "We had a number of usability issues that came up after implementation," she said. "Taking more time to test at more sites might have helped us to avoid the problem."
A mainframe computer may lack flexibility, compared to client/server, but its level of availability is much higher than today's UNIX and NT server environment. It's not unusual for new client/server systems to be down as much as 30 percent of the time. Mainframe operating systems, on the other hand, have more than half their code dedicated to error-detection and recovery tasks. Availability is one of the mainframe's chief strengths.
While inexpensive in terms of raw power, today's client/server just doesn't have the same level of availability, reliability and system management control that is considered standard in the mainframe environment. Not surprisingly, companies that use client/server have seen their management costs rise exponentially. Users are happy, but client/server computing costs more than mainframe computing.
"We have found that operating costs at the remote locations have risen dramatically," Gordon said. As an example, Gordon mentioned the problem of providing support to a user with a broken keyboard, who happens to be 200 miles away. Then there are LAN support issues at 92 local offices throughout the state.
Another major headache is software distribution, upgrades and security. Keeping 1,400 workstations running on the same software version is a daunting task. Gordon's staff uses Tivoli, an enterprise management software program, to distribute software and keep application software in sync with operating systems. But as reliable as it and other management products are, they are no good if workers have turned off their PCs. IT staff must also support more than 100 notebook PCs, which have to be plugged into the network in order to have their software upgraded.
Besides issues of availability and security, client/server requires training for both users and IT staff. For many government agencies, their first exposure to automation usually comes with client/server computing. Workers have to learn how to use a mouse, navigate with Windows and comprehend the functions of core applications. For workers accustomed to performing with paper, the computer can provide a real culture shock. Similarly, IT staff, with years of experience running mainframes, must now rebuild their skills to include the intricacies of client/server.
Perhaps it comes as no surprise that some organizations, which embraced client/server wholeheartedly in the early 90s, are now having second thoughts. Companies that deployed dozens, even hundreds of servers, are planning to re-centralize some or even all of their distributed systems. In a survey of 250 IS managers by Information Week magazine ["Distributed Systems: Back to the Middle," Sept. 29, 1997], more than 60 percent said they plan to centralize distributed systems. The prime reasons for doing so include easier management, lower costs, improved security, increased performance and simpler storage strategies.
Government agencies, which have been slower to deploy client/server than the private sector, appear less inclined to centralize their distributed systems. But they acknowledge that client/server has to be approached in a way that calls for balancing flexible systems development with structured systems management. "Client/server gives managers a lot of freedom," commented Gordon. "But by giving them freedom, you take away a lot of the structure that helps somebody work through the process."
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