Out of the Blue: Midrange Perspectives

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Bucolic is one of those wonderful words whose sound mirrors its meaning. Strictly speaking, however, it's the wrong word to describe Marshfield. Bucolic has more to do with sheep and shepherds than with prime Wisconsin dairy land. But as John Beck described the town to me-the friendly, solid, helpful people; the pastoral landscape of green, coiling hills dotted by lazy, pampered cows-I found myself scrawling bucolic on my note pad.

An employment opportunity prompted Beck and his wife to move there three years ago, swelling the population of 20,000 by two. And since Beck's skills were more suited to computers than cows, he accepted a job with the city government. As Marshfield's Information Systems Director, he inherited an AS/400 C20, a staff of one, a scrawny budget, and a stable full of challenges.

When Beck arrived, the system was providing support for the police department and running the city's financial applications. But other city agencies had spawned private PC networks-five in all-and were busy duplicating a lot of effort, researching and capturing identical data.

It occurred to Beck that there was no logical reason for the tax assessor, the police department, the fire department, and the streets division to individually determine and then computerize the answer to the question, "Who owns the property at 123 Elm Street?" If nothing else, the guy at 123 Elm Street was probably getting tired of answering that question.

Beck asked his supervisor, the city administrator, if he could see any reason for it, and, by golly (that's my notion of a bucolic midwestern term, much as by gumbo would be a spicy Cajun exclamation), he couldn't either. The two men then effected what came to be known as Beck's Rule: capture information once, share it globally.

An upgraded AS/400 (it's now an F20) provided the solution "because of its integrated database," said Beck. "If you have a good database system- reliable, accessible, and easy to use-it makes no sense to tolerate the inconsistencies and extra costs of maintaining multiple, separate databases." Indeed, cost was a driving consideration. Taxpayers everywhere, I'm tempted to say, are revolting. In Marshfield, as elsewhere, taxpayers are demanding more government services for less money. Eliminating the cost of redundancy can free limited funds for expanding services.

Upgradability was important to Marshfield's data consolidation effort. Beck wonders why some AS/400 managers despair with every operating system upgrade or hardware enhancement. He has upgraded Marshfield's system three times in the last three years, and the increases in performance and functionality have more than offset the modest costs.

Beck's system now supports a directly attached Ethernet local area network (LAN), two remote SDLC sites, and four remote Ethernet LANs. "We use PC Support and OfficeVision/400," said Beck, "and support 80 PCs, seven CRTs, and 50 printers." The new configuration serves the police and fire departments, the waste-water utility, the streets division, the library, and the municipal government.

The AS/400's self-sufficiency is the engine, and efficiency is its by-product, suggests Beck. A small town operating on what he calls "a very finite budget and a very finite payroll" could not hope to achieve this level of affordable support if the hardware demanded constant attention. He estimates it would take two more people to manage an equivalent PC LAN-based environment. Headcount is the most conspicuous expense of local government that unlike milk cows, the voters prefer lean. Beck acknowledges that he is continually asked to add new functions, but does not have the luxury of adding new people.

Features like automated backup provide the efficiency needed to manage a centralized enterprise system with a modest staff. Previously, each site spent a minimum of two hours per day backing up data. Now, the AS/400 performs the function automatically using Client Access/400, and system recovery is as near as the 8mm tape cartridge in Beck's shirt pocket.

"The Police Emergency Dispatch Center is now supported around the clock, every day of the year," says Beck. The tax assessor, who used to analyze 10-20 properties per day under the old system, can now analyze 60-80 properties. (Marshfield's taxpayers are no doubt thrilled about that.)

Beck believes the AS/400's self-sufficiency is overlooked by marketing strategists who often present the system as a significant peripheral in a larger network or as a departmental system in an expansive corporate environment. Beck contends that "a vast majority of AS/400 sites are mom-and- pop sites, and the power of the AS/400s that run such sites should not be underestimated."

He recounts Marshfield's installation of OfficeVision-which was available to the users in a single morning-and contrasts it with a neighboring organization struggling to install a PC LAN-based word-processing program. Marshfield's city employees can now send memos at the touch of a function key, a process that formerly required each memo to be printed on a PC, then hand- carried to its recipient. By contrast, the group grappling with the LAN-based software "[has] been at it for three weeks and counting!" said Beck. An AS/400 implementation avoids issues like memory contention and incompatibilities between the application and the network operating system.

Such efficiencies are particularly welcome in a small data processing shop where every mistake, every delay, every excess is as visible as a pimple at the end of your nose. The combination of economy of ownership and abundance of service provided by the AS/400 "underscores our strategic direction," says Beck. "[We] always ask the question, 'How can we better use our resources and conserve tax dollars?'"

Although unaware of it at the time, Beck and I once shared magazine space. Last winter, Beck shared some of his accomplishments and insights with MC readers (see "CommLine," MC, December 1993). "We've come full circle," he said. "A year ago I wrote to you and now you're writing about me." Indeed, although the customer base is vast, there is a sense of community among AS/400 users.

The range of that community pays tribute to the product line. On one end of the spectrum, the AS/400 can help a multinational corporate behemoth carve out its next billion, and, on the other, allow one talented, innovative individual to aid his community.

Beck also noted, with a hint of pride, that, despite its small size, Marshfield boasts a major clinic, hosting some 400 doctors. I assume the clinic services the citizens, not the cows, but healthcare providers make me uneasy, so I failed to ask.

Victor Rozek has 17 years of experience in the data processing industry, including seven years with IBM in Operations Management and Systems Enginering.



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