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Case study: Saving the elk with Web services

The state of Colorado's Department of Agriculture recently deployed a Web service to help track the mortality rates of the state's elk population. Despite the challenges presented by an archaic database and remote users with slow connections, the Web service has made information distribution easier.

Last October, the state of Colorado's Department of Agriculture (CDA) realized it had a problem. In order to thwart Chronic Wasting Disease, a fatal illness that affects deer and elk, state law required the CDA to begin tracking and monitoring mortality rates of the state's elk population.

Though the CDA could effectively gather information from elk herders, recording that data and disseminating it within the CDA and to other decision-making state agencies was a challenge. Initially, three different applications -- all written for multiple operating systems -- were used to do the job. Getting them to work together was nearly impossible.

The process was further complicated by an archaic database, said John Picanso, chief information officer for the CDA.

"Our old, proprietary database resided on a MacOS, and any output requests had to be printed out or faxed or e-mailed to the requestor," said Picanso. As a result, requests for reports were handled like orders in a fast food restaurant -- each processed one at a time by hand -- and by the time reports were delivered, data was often outdated.

The CDA had recently hired Compuware Corp., a professional services firm based in Farmington Hills, Mich., to implement a three-tier client/server computing model, and Picanso said a Web service seemed like an intriguing way to put the new architecture to good use.

"I wasn't interested in looking only at Web services, but I wanted to use a Web service to test our (computing) model to be sure we could have new application development in a quicker time frame," Picanso said.

Once Compuware agreed to take on the task of building the Web service, job one was moving legacy data from the database using the MacOS to a new data mart on a Microsoft SQL Server.

Using a data mart would later allow a user of the Web service to do data mining based on OLAP, or online analytical processing, which enables data to be selectively extracted and viewed from different points-of-view.

From there, Compuware built the middle tier and front-end user interface. Using Microsoft's Visual Studio.NET, Compuware constructed transacted components and the Web service itself, as well as the browser-based user interface, which also consisted of some JavaScript.

"Because (the CDA's infrastructure) was all Microsoft beforehand, when we deployed the Web service, we were able to use the COM interoperability in the .NET framework to use legacy COM+ components that they already had in place," said Compuware's lead architect Manish Sharma.

The Web service works like this: Any of the CDA's more than two dozen employees can enter data from any remote office in Colorado on the state's network by using the browser-based interface. A SOAP/XML message carrying the new data then travels over HTTP to a dedicated Web services server and then to the SQL database.

Using the same interface, an end user could then submit data queries and retrieve reports based on real-time data that the Web services returns in the form of PDF files.

Though the Web service allows data to be inputted and retrieved with greater ease, the implementation was not without issues. One of which was network performance, because unlike the CDA's central office, many of its statewide remote users relied on connections as slow as 56k.

However, after some code tweaking by Compuware to more fully utilize the CDA's tiered architecture, Picanso said performance improved substantially for remote users.

"I'm convinced if people are dialing up, and you understand how you need to optimize the processes and the code, you can deliver a very workable Web service over small bandwidth," Picanso said.

Another common Web services issue, security, is not a high priority now because all end users are behind the CDA's network firewall. Local Windows NT-based authentication is sufficient, but in the future Picanso hopes to expand the Web service beyond his firewall for use by other agencies inside and outside Colorado.

"Whatever we plan to make available to the public, that's what we're going to have on our Internet site," Picanso said. "Will that be real-time? Probably not, but all our decision makers have got real-time access."

For other CIOs considering a Web service, Picanso advised developing a proposal for executives that demonstrates why a Web service would have advantages over traditional application integration strategies.

"Managers are not going to champion Web services," he said. "So as a CIO, you better know you can deliver the product and whatever value you're trying to add to that business process, and have a local team or staff implement it for you."

Picanso said the CDA spent in excess of $100,000 on the Web service implementation.


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