Large, mainframe-based systems, goes conventional wisdom, are obsolete, more an Industrial Age artifact than a tool of the rapidly changing Information Age. Public and private enterprises have been moving steadily toward distributed systems relying on networks and computing power at workers' desks, making less and less use of mainframes.
But contrary to what seems to be a broad consensus, said Chong Ha, head of California's Stephen P. Teale Data Center, mainframe-based systems are still needed for some functions because the newer, distributed systems aren't developed enough to bear mission-critical functions. Mainframe technology took about 20 years to fully develop recovery, security and other important features, he said, and client/server and similar architectures haven't reached that point yet.
"We're getting there," Ha said. "In three-to-five years, maybe we'll be there. Then the question will be which system is easiest to develop, and if it is cheaper to use than a mainframe."
Ha points out that organizations still do much of their crucial computing on mainframes. "If you look at Fortune 100 companies, you'll see their mission-critical functions are on mainframes," he said.
The reason for this is that most of the critical data on applications used today were written a decade or more ago, he explained. Converting these from a mainframe to a distributed or other system can mean a hefty investment in rewriting applications, converting files and training users.
Another key reason there is no major rush to convert to client/server or similar systems, Ha said, is that there is no widespread, common agreement on platforms. "We haven't settled on one system yet for client/server."
Another unresolved issue is that it takes a number of pieces to put together a client/server system, and the pieces haven't been standardized yet. "To make something happen with client/server, you need so many products," he said. "Then it takes a few talented people to get those pieces together. But we don't even have those pieces. So everybody's in a waiting game."
Because of this, businesses aren't making wholesale conversions to other platforms, Ha said. "For new applications, they will tend to use client/server. But for old ones, they won't even attempt to do it. So mainframes will be around for a long time."
DATA CENTER ROLE
Once large-scale conversions to distributed systems occur, there will still be use for mainframes. "It could be used in client/server as a server," Ha said. "But the mainframe will play an important role in the future."
Data centers such as Teale, whose primary purpose has been to do large-scale computing for customer agencies, will have to evolve as the role of the mainframe changes. Ha said Teale will have a purpose even after mainframe importance shrinks. "There will still be a need for physical facilities like this."
Ha added that there is more to data centers than just a residence for big computers. "When people look at data centers, they just think of mainframes," he explained. "But our role is to build infrastructure or the network. The future is the networked computer. Someone has to provide that technology. To me, we will be needed more than ever.
"Our role is to provide the infrastructure so our customers, state agencies and departments, can move to that new platform," Ha said. "We build infrastucture so they can move to the new platform, or PC-based system."
Some of these jobs could arguably be done by the private sector. Consultants and other companies could help agencies develop and implement systems and networks, possibly for less money. Privatization is a trend sweeping the public sector for the past few years, from garbage to tax collection.
Information technology is not immune. Indiana briefly floated the idea of privatizing data processing functions last fall. And in California, the governor recently announced that agencies would explore outsourcing work which could be done better and cheaper by the private sector when possible.
Outsourcing is not confined to the public sector, however, especially for data processing. "Even the private sector goes outside for things," Ha said. "The private sector can't be efficient all the time."
Ha's bottom line regarding outsourcing government functions is service levels and cost. "To me, it's whoever can provide the best service at the best cost," he said. "So it doesn't matter if it is private or public. If the private sector does better than we do, then they can go there."
Teale, created by the state in 1972, is already an outsource of the state government, relying on agency and department contracts for its income. Agencies have a choice of contracting for computer services from the data center or a private company, making Teale comparable to a regular business. "We really have a lot of pressure on us," Ha said.
"We have customers and have to satisfy them with year-to-year contracts. So we have to develop plans based on those customer expectations."
Because the center relies on attracting and keeping customers to survive, Ha uses private sector business management concepts to run it. When he became director in 1991, he brought 27 years of private-sector management with him. But he spent his early days at the center figuring out how things worked in state government.
"I never understood the government until I came here," he said. "It is quite different from the private sector."
Ha said that the main difference between government and private business is expectations. In the private sector, the point is to produce and make a profit. But in government,
he said, procedure is the point. If a person follows the rules in government, he will be rewarded -- or at least not punished.
"You can spend 10 years doing something, and if you follow the process, it's fine, you've done your job," Ha said. "But in the private sector, they will ask you to do the same thing in a year."
Ha also said that before he began working for the government, he had some ideas about California state workers which he later found to be untrue. "I thought the people were really inefficient," he said. "I found out that there are many good people, and it's the system that is at fault."
At Teale, Ha brought in a new management philosophy which works for an organization that relies on customer satisfaction, rather than appropriations. He applies management skills picked up from his mentor Peter Drucker, who taught at Claremont Graduate School while Ha was earning his MBA.
Among the changes since Ha took the reins of the data center is a three-fold increase in workload without an increase in personnel. Staff began pursuing used equipment when practical, which saves money for the same function. There have been seven major rate reductions since 1991, saving client agencies $42 million.
Another result which shows the level to which the data center has risen is its successful competition with private-sector companies for a $5 million Department of Motor Vehicles network contract.
The evolution at Teale over the past few years is continuing. As computing needs change, the center will have to adapt in order to keep and effectively serve its customers. And Ha seems ready to accept the challenge of continuing change at Teale. Or for that matter, state government in general.
"At this point, I'm convinced you can change government," he said. "There is hope that California can change."
Chong Ha can be reached at 916/263-1816.