A quiet revolution is happening in Texas government, forcing vendors to approach agencies differently. Service-oriented architecture (SOA) is a fast emerging IT methodology that organizes functions in a loosely tied application, allowing technicians to change sections of code without disrupting other parts of the application. It also enables a function to appear once in an IT infrastructure for all of its applications to share, minimizing code and making functions consistent across agencies. That format reduces programming time spent on function additions or experiments with existing ones. The time and labor saved slashes costs and frees up resources for more application developments.

The communal design of SOA is allowing organizations, such as the state Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC) and Austin Energy, to consolidate IT functions and change the dynamics of vendor relationships.

Breaking the Silos
Gary Gumbert took over as CIO of the HHSC in 2004 with the goal of consolidating 12 agencies into five and developing a new integrated eligibility solution for the state's Medicaid program.

"That was a significant challenge for us," Gumbert recalled. "We had six months to complete that operation."

The Texas Legislature had recently passed a bill mandating reduced state costs by consolidating redundant functions across the departments. As Gumbert's team merged the departments, they noticed several different silos for the same type of information. Gumbert saw the occasion as an opportunity to migrate all systems off the department's 30-year-old mainframe, which relied on an old COBOL program the department is still in the process of exiting. 

"It's getting harder and harder for us to hire people who have COBOL knowledge," Gumbert said. "It's getting harder to find parts for the system when it fails. It's just time to go ahead and migrate to a new solution."

He said the old mainframe was costly, and left eligibility determination highly subjective for caseworkers, which led to inconsistent eligibility standards statewide.

Gumbert's team decided an SOA with more objective criteria would make Medicaid eligibility completely consistent - creating one fine-tuned piece of eligibility coding for all departments to use.

Mohammed Farooq, chief technology officer of the HHSC, arrived at the agency in 2004 from the private sector where he had already worked with variations of SOA.

Farooq set to work changing business requirements.

"With a $300 million investment, we created a service-oriented architecture as a paradigm and then transformed that application piece by piece. To consolidate our 800 applications, we had to have a common shared IT platform," Farooq said. "We invested heavily in creating a shared IT platform - not only from a software perspective, but a hardware perspective."

He said he couldn't find a vendor who produced the full SOA picture he wanted, so the team spent three years integrating work from both IBM and Oracle with open source software.

"We then created global information models and service models," Farooq said.

Gumbert said as his team began the migration from the old mainframe, they noticed numerous applications developed throughout the years that could have used the same coding for common functions and saved time and money. He said he knew a complete migration would be expensive, but it would eliminate future redundant programming.

"We had more than 69 major codes - system designators that we had to get off the mainframe - huge programs - been there for years - millions of lines of COBOL code," Gumbert said. "To migrate that off is extremely expensive, but by reusing the code over and over, now we're starting to see efficiencies."

A Changing World for Vendors
Gumbert said SOA eliminates a government's need to buy an expensive package of services from a major vendor whenever it wants to make IT changes.

Andy Opsahl  | 

Andy Opsahl is a former staff writer and features editor for Government Technology magazine.