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