Imagine, for a moment, the sum total of all information stored on every computer -- every desktop, mini and mainframe -- in the entire world at this exact point in time. Consider the trillions of gigabytes of information existing as electronic impulses stored in millions of hard drives planetwide. Now, image this universe of data doubled!

According to The Essential Client/Server Survival Guide, 2nd ed., the total quantity of data on computers worldwide doubles every five years. With the widespread use of client/server technologies, including the Internet, expectations are that this doubling factor may soon occur yearly. The sheer quantity of data now being stored digitally is almost unimaginable. The size and scope of a database containing complete information from a single state motor vehicle department, for example, is staggering. The task of enabling users even basic access to such large repositories is challenging to say the least. However, growing requirements for storing, evaluating and analyzing massive data stores have brought about a new technology field -- data mining and data warehousing.

Data Grows With Population

In some instances, increases in state agency databases have been triggered by nontechnical factors. For example, the state of Florida, in general, and Palm Beach County, in particular, have experienced explosive population growth in the last 20 years, according to Roger T. Presas, certified public accountant and business process consultant to the Clerk of the Circuit Court in Palm Beach County. Following this population uptrend, the volume of information being stored by state agencies has rapidly expanded along with the people served. "The need to serve the fast-increasing population coupled with the requirement to improve the cost-effectiveness of governmental services have caused us as public officials to search for new solutions," Presas said.

The search led to the examination of new ways to store and analyze digital data to improve the accuracy, availability and relevance of related information. Initially, the Palm Beach County Circuit Court stored and retrieved information using mainframe technology. As the volume of data and the demand for retrieving it increased, county officials decided that a more flexible solution was needed. A decision was made to search for better tools.

The county targeted the processing of child support information as a specific function requiring better data tools. The Child Support Enforcement (CSE) system, an Informix-based data-mart application, was created to replace a 15-year-old mainframe application developed in-house. The resulting new data-warehousing application solved significant problems, such as the need to increase the turnaround time between receiving and disbursing child support payments.

A second, equally important, requirement was the need to store and retrieve a greater quantity of child support case information required by both the courts responsible for processing child support cases and state and federal agencies. "In addition to meeting this need," commented Presas, "the data-warehouse solution enabled us to achieve more strict compliance with ever-changing legal mandates, reduce costs and increase employee productivity."

Choosing A New Solution

Arriving at such a solution is never an easy task. In this case, the decision-making process was simplified when the clerk of the court initially recognized the need to improve the state's child support data-management operation. This preliminary decision was further supported when the state of Florida mandated development of a new child support enforcement application.

The new application was made available to all court clerks in the state. "Clerks, early on, had concerns regarding the use of a database-based application. Many clerks lacked the technical personnel to undertake a project of this significance and were not familiar with the possible benefits of the solution," Presas said. Consequently, initial acceptance of the new tool was slow.

This was not the case, however, with the clerk of Palm Beach County, where Presas works. The clerk decided to move ahead with the data-warehousing