Thousands or millions of pages of information exist in state and local databases, safely tucked away in back-end "big iron" systems. This information could or should be made available to citizens, businesses or other agencies. The problem is how to make the transition from legacy to client server and Web-based applications.

One of the primary obstacles to moving such data around is at the network level -- the ability of older, mainframe-centric network protocols to talk Ethernet, the lingua franca of the new Web world. And while the network level is important, it should come as no surprise that there are also other barriers to hurdle. Moving data around requires work at all levels, from network to application. There is no simple, one-shot button that makes legacy data available everywhere.

The good news is that the industry is moving in the direction of interoperability. Vendors have begun to offer hardware and software to help agencies translate information from old to newer formats. This kind of support is particularly important when dealing with lower levels, such as the networking protocols. In the mainframe world, IBM's Systems Network Architecture (SNA) ruled for years, and still does to a large extent, as the standard networking architecture. While TCP/IP was built to be flexible and ignore or work around network problems -- important in a network protocol designed to function even if sections of the network were bombed out during an attack -- the original SNA controlled the entire network. Client sessions, routing decisions and network maintenance were controlled from the data center.

To achieve this high level of control, SNA required a high level of technical expertise. Maintaining an SNA network required a pool of technicians always available to install or maintain additions to the network, including such simple items as new workstations. Because IBM ruled the back-end big iron, it often ran on the LAN in the form of IBM's Token Ring network protocol.

While such control can be beneficial in commercial environments or when security is important, it is not helpful or even possible in wild, free-wheeling environments such as the Internet. Fortunately, solutions have begun to appear to help MIS departments rather easily translate from

the SNA and Token Ring worlds to Ethernet and back again. While this can make a big difference when trying to decide what to do with legacy data, it is really just the beginning of the story.

In fact, MIS departments have two general choices of how to approach the problem of different networking protocols -- translate between the two to allow easy exchange of data, or standardize one protocol and homogenize heterogeneous environments. Both approaches have their place.

'Webifying' the Legacy Back End

Most critical data for Marietta, Ga., resides on a legacy back end. But Gene Estensen, director of the city's MIS department, wanted to begin to make the data available via the Web.

"We wanted to put up a professional, good-looking site," Estensen said. "The end game for us is payment of bills -- utility bills or traffic tickets. [But to begin, we] just want people to be able to look at their payment history in graphical format."

The Web site Estensen is building will also accommodate strictly Web-based data. It will let departments enter and update the data they own. The personnel department can update the open jobs, the city clerk can update the minutes or the agenda for the City Council. Data such as the city's annual report and the city code will also be available. Still, Estensen's primary goal is to make legacy data available.

To get there, Estensen needed to build an infrastructure that would allow information to move between the mainframe back end and the Web front end, which runs on an IBM/Lotus Domino

David Aden  | 
David Aden is a writer from Washington, D.C.