It wasn't long ago that the Tarrant County, Texas, district attorney's office staffed multiple field offices with personnel expressly to shuttle court papers to the downtown Fort Worth office for court sessions.

Now nearly all court documents are shuttled by "the bus."

With the arrival of the enterprise service bus (ESB), and the corresponding electronic case filing system, the field offices have been eliminated. The bus handles nearly all case record transmissions electronically.

What Is the Bus?

The bus is the infrastructure that connects service-oriented architectures (SOA), which are commonly described as collections of loosely coupled, highly interoperable services built on open standards that can access data from a variety of sources, including databases and mainframes.

ESB is software architecture that acts as a shared message layer for connecting applications and services throughout an enterprise-computing infrastructure.

In practical terms, it allows autonomous groups, units of the Tarrant County justice community in this instance, to share information through one system.

"To provide that single face in an otherwise federated environment, you need infrastructure that solves that problem," said Hub Vandervoort, vice president of North American Field Operations for Bedford, Md.-based Sonic Software, which provided Tarrant County's ESB system.

"An ESB is meant to provide a uniform way of interconnecting those systems without hardwire technology in a way that matches the federated organizational model so there isn't one owner of the system," Vandervoort continued. "Just like the Internet, there's no one owner of the system, yet we can all collaborate on it. A portal connects into the ESB, and the ESB provides a distributed framework to connect each of the back-end databases that provide the information."

The ESB can access data from multiple sources, said Tarrant County CIO Steve Smith, and that's what makes it functional.

"Some information is in a mainframe, some is in a SQL server -- there's no telling where it could be -- but as a business process, you don't really care."

Stuart Ransom, public sector vice president for Sonic, said the beauty of the bus and SOAs is that they let the justice community develop and maintain their own systems while still communicating effectively.

"Their operational requirements are covered, but this then gives them the ability to communicate appropriately with the need to know across the justice enterprise. They retain ownership of their data, and they share with the proper level of security, permissions and access level across the enterprise."

System deployment began late in 2003 and will continue for another five years or so, as the county updates the jail's mainframe computer system. This major undertaking will probably triple the estimated $3.5 million spent so far, according to Smith.

Also in the offing is further development of an entire case-management system that includes mental health agencies and other county jail systems.

"In the long term, after we've handled the input process, we're going to begin with the case management; that's going to be much more problematic because if they're in the system they could have mental health [issues], they could have physical health [issues], they could have time they've served in county jail, they could be wanted in other places," Smith said. "There are a number of different parameters, so when we build a service tree for case management, it's going to be really interesting."

Business Process Revolution

"It's revolutionized the way we do business," said Miles Brissette, assistant district attorney for Tarrant County. "We were once a completely paper office. You had to have multiple copies of everything just to do anything."

The ESB also reduced the backlog of suspects awaiting trial, thereby saving the county money.

Before the system, information collected by

Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor  |  Justice and Public Safety Editor