SOA in a disjointed world
2008 GCN Technology Leadership Award winner Ram Murthy adapts Peace Corps architecture to realities of the field
Ram Murthy, former director of application systems at the Peace Corps, is a 2008 GCN Technology Leadership Award recipient.
Peace Corps volunteers work in nearly 70 countries, often in remote areas where electricity is a luxury.
In that situation, how can you build applications that are sustainable and available to the volunteers and overseas posts? That's the challenge Ram Murthy faced as director of application systems at the Peace Corps.
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The infrastructure supporting overseas posts and volunteers is connected in some ways and disconnected in others, said Murthy, who in April left the Peace Corps after five years to take over as chief information officer of the Inspector General's Office at the Transportation Department.
'We don't need [data] in real time, but if it can work in a near real-time fashion, that would solve our needs,' he said in an interview before his change of jobs.
With that goal in mind, Murthy spearheaded efforts to bring service-oriented architecture to the Peace Corps. His team delivered automated applications that helped the agency reduce costly data entry repetition, errors and process delays, colleagues say.
'In addition to being the lead architect of the SOA model, Murthy presented the business case to secure $1 million in funding to implement these solutions,' John Natali, a former colleague and program analyst at the Health and Human Services Department, wrote as part of the GCN Technology Leadership Award nomination.
It wasn't always an easy sell. Others who had implemented Web services were incredulous on hearing the Peace Corps' plan because the lack of connectivity in many places would affect the Web services that are used to implement SOA. Murthy said they asked, 'Why do you need SOA? You [would] need Web services available all the time.'
But Murthy's view of SOA was that, in this case, Web services should work in a different way ' with the emphasis on providing information when needed rather than maintaining constant connectivity.
SOA is a design approach that integrates business and information technology strategies to provide common services that take advantage of existing and new functionality.
'We use the same principles of SOA, breaking it up into multilayer data services, business services and so on. But what we've also done is make sure that the framework supports disconnected mode,' Murthy said. The SOA architecture is based on Microsoft .NET technology.
The door to SOA opened in 2006, when Murthy's team decided it would be more costeffective to move applications off the mainframe into a more distributed computing environment. Moreover, overseas posts could not access applications on the mainframe.
SOA enabled Murthy's team to build three applications that support posts and volunteers in the field: Crime and Incident Reporting, Site Enhancement and Development, and the Volunteer Information Database Application (VIDA).
Crime Incident and Reporting lets a Peace Corps security or medical officer in the field log information into a laptop PC or personal digital assistant if a volunteer has been victimized in any way ' whether a violent crime or small theft ' or if there is a medical issue. In some situations, headquarters officers might need to know right away.
With the Site Enhancement application, officers can collect feedback from volunteers to determine if they did the work assigned to them and if the host country nationals are satisfied.
VIDA is a virtual Rolodex of volunteer information. How do you get in touch with the volunteer? What projects are they working on? 'All the applications'running on a laptop or PDA or any device, we [ensure] that the person can take it off the network, go to the field, be with the volunteers, work with the application, collect data and come back, and ' without much effort ' the data is synchronized,' Murthy said. 'So that is how we get all the information back to the headquarters.'