Hitting rock bottom isn’t the ideal situation for anyone during a systems migration project. But that’s exactly where Michael D. Falkow, assistant city manager and CIO of Inglewood, Calif., found himself in 2009, after a failed attempt at moving the city’s homegrown computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system off an obsolete mainframe.

A Microsoft security update rendered the city’s newly transferred CAD system inoperable, crashing the system. While the system wasn’t live — it was being tested on a development server when the incident happened — it took eight hours for Falkow and his team to roll back the security update and get the code functioning again.

The project was initially spearheaded by a subcontractor of Unisys. When the new system became unstable, there was little to show for two years of work, as the reliability issues had Falkow dead-set against attempting to deploy the CAD system in fear it might fail again.

The city was unable to afford the roughly $2.5 million for an off-the-shelf solution, and according to Falkow, at the time, very few vendors had migration tools that were centered on the virtual storage extended operating system.

Ultimately Inglewood went with a solution from Micro Focus. Just more than a year later, the CAD system was operating on a Windows platform that allowed the city to emulate its previous IBM mainframe environment.

Lessons Learned

While a time-consuming experience, it did provide some valuable lessons learned for Falkow.

1. Don’t underestimate the size and scope of a modernization project.

“We knew it was large, and we knew we had the best subject-matter expert available,” Falkow said, regarding the city’s original developer and maintainer of the CISC COBOL code used for the CAD system. “What we didn’t plan for was the failure of the original migration. This extended the time frame by twofold.”

2. Don’t make a decision until you evaluate how the change might affect users.

Falkow emphasized the importance of recognizing who will be using the technology and let that guide whether you buy an off-the-shelf system, build one of your own or modernize an existing system, like Inglewood opted for. While it’s hard to pinpoint a dollar value to this step, the Inglewood CIO said it is a critical element to achieving success.

3. Make the project a team effort, both internally and externally.

Beginning the project from the mindset of a partnership with a vendor was the takeaway that Falkow felt was perhaps most important. He said that while having stakeholder buy-in and someone at a high level championing the project was critical, the relationship with the vendor was the major key to success.

“In my humble opinion, embracing the value of the partnership between the vendor and the client takes the top seat,” Falkow maintained. “When the going got tough, it was the leverage of the partnership that took us to the finish line with success.”

Recovery

Micro Focus took over the migration project in November 2009, and the migrated CAD system went live 12 months later. Falkow estimated that Inglewood paid the vendor approximately $105,000 for its work and pays a few thousand dollars annually for support and maintenance on the new environment. The city also spent $210,000 on the first attempt at migration.

Because Inglewood’s CAD system had so much functionality, Falkow and his team faced a few technical hurdles during the project. Toward the end of the migration process, in July 2010, Inglewood had to call in both the retiree who had written the CAD system’s code and have the vendor visit the city and fix some of the bugs.

The first engineer Micro Focus sent couldn’t fix the issues, but when Falkow got on the phone with the company, it agreed to send one of its high-end engineers to tackle the problems. Within two days, the entire project was virtually finished.

“That’s where a lot of projects fail [if] you don’t have that relationship from the start,” Falkow said. “[Micro Focus] stepped up to the plate, because they knew how critical it was. Ultimately that was the touchdown that really pushed us over.”

As for future features being added to the CAD system now that it resides on a Windows platform, Falkow said he is just happy the environment is “rock solid stable” and hasn’t had any issues since launch.

He added that Inglewood has discussed integrating the CAD system with a mapping program that 911 operators use so those operators won’t have to cut and paste coordinates into the CAD. But so far there aren’t any plans to do the integration. Additionally Falkow said the city has talked about adding automated vehicle locator functionality to the CAD system so that dispatch operators know exactly where each police car is, and more efficiently route vehicles to calls.

Given the final success of the long-winded CAD system migration, will Inglewood stay on the platform for very long?

“We probably would stay on this system for at least another two years, because we still don’t have funding available to go out and buy a commercial off-the-shelf package,” Falkow said. The city isn’t enhancing the code in its CAD system. “Does it make sense to stay on here indefinitely? Probably not, because we’d like to add the new features.”

Brian Heaton  |  Senior Writer

Brian Heaton is a senior writer for Government Technology. He primarily covers technology legislation and IT policy issues. Brian started his journalism career in 1999, covering sports and fitness for two trade publications based in Long Island, N.Y. He's also a member of the Professional Bowlers Association, and competes in regional tournaments throughout Northern California and Nevada.