Tools for Web 2.0

As agencies expand their use of the next generation of interactive Web applications, they might need to upgrade their enterprise application servers

Checklist

1. Execute a gap analysis of your current Web serving environments.


2. Determine what high availability and disaster recovery enhancements you need, including dynamic clustering.


3. See if dynamic routing implementation would improve your performance.


4. Examine whether adding database caching or database grids is warranted.


5. Evaluate whether you want to use your distributed enterprise application servers (EAS) environment for batch processing.


6. See if virtualizing applications across clusters or application versioning will yield any benefit for your agency.


7. Look at Web services, portals, collaboration, single sign-on and Web 2.0 functionality (e.g. mashups) to evaluate how these will impact agency productivity.


8. Review business processes to see if further automation, messaging, or workflow improvements can be made, including possibly adding or enhancing forms.


9. Examine your content management strategy to determine whether new functionality would yield an improvement.


10. Know how many users and locations you need to support and the acceptable response time needed given business requirements.


11. Execute proof-of-concept projects to test various EAS vendor offerings and new functionality.


12. Prioritize which functionality should be implemented to gain the most from your EAS environments.

THE WEB ' and, more specifically, Web application serving ' is entering a new era.

New infrastructure options enable better capacity on demand and built-in disaster recovery mechanisms. Improvements in routing requests, caching and virtualization help improve performance. And a plethora of new functionality at the application and Web services layer will allow agencies to construct frameworks that simplify extensibility.

The bottom line: Recent improvements in enterprise application server (EAS) technologies mean its time to consider upgrading your EAS capabilities.

An enterprise application server essentially is a platform that implements a programming model, such as Microsoft .Net, Java Enterprise Edition and others, and delivers applications to client computers. The EAS market has already been through its adolescent phase, which will make adoption choices simpler. The market leaders are all well-known heavyweights: IBM's WebSphere, Oracle's eponymous application server, BEA's WebLogic, Microsoft's .Net-based platform, and Red Hat's JBoss.

Nevertheless, recent changes in the marketplace will affect specific deployment decisions for agencies and departments. For example, Oracle's recent acquisition of BEA might prompt agencies using WebLogic to reconsider their EAS strategies. Agencies must, in short, factor in the changing EAS marketplace and the advanced features and functionality now emerging.

Whether installing for the first time or migrating to new EAS environments, agencies are finding positive results. For example, the Army's Surface Deployment and Distribution Command recently migrated its Global Freight Management system to an EAS environment.

The GFM system supports roughly 6,800 users across about 1,000 locations. The GFM system had been running on 10 subsystems on proprietary application servers.

Taking a measured approach, two architects migrated the system to seven EAS servers supporting the 10 applications. 'The migration went so smoothly and so quickly [that the] users don't even know we've made the change,' said Dianne Constable, GFM program manager and chief of the Surface Cargo Systems Branch.

GFM's successful migration can be attributed to a phased approach. 'We're big on uptime so we migrated one server at a time,' said Hal Mann, the Army's government technical team lead for the project. 'This allowed us to have both environments running simultaneously so we could roll back if things didn't work ' but that didn't happen.'

Major benefits have been realized since migrating GFM to the new EAS environment. 'GFM has seen significant improvements due to performance tuning,' Mann said. 'We use a lot less memory than we used to; the applications are growing, but memory is no longer a constraining factor.'

'We now have the flexibility to do things more quickly,' Mann added. 'We put out a software release [now] every other week.'

Booz Allen Hamilton also overcame challenges and found success in moving an agency's limited document management system to a message-oriented middleware architecture with EAS as its foundation. The new architecture improved the system's ability to handle increasing volumes of data, though the physical hardware still was a bottleneck.

'It wouldn't be enough just to show that we had high server utilization,' said Booz Allen associate Christopher Dale. 'We had to get a ton of work out of our investment with enough spare resources to be able to respond to new mission-critical demands at a moment's notice.' The system needed to scale processor and memory resources independently of network capacity, and network resources needed to scale independent of storage capacity and available throughput.

The company implemented clustering and grid technologies in the EAS and database layers. This enabled it to scale the system vertically and horizontally while delivering dynamic capacity on demand.

'We now have the capability to use spare capacity for the evaluation and hosting of new commercial off-the-shelf software, government off-the-shelf software, or custom software that previously would have been too expensive to implement even if the software was free,' Dale said.

Burgeoning benefits

Aside from achieving greater scalability and a more nimble computing framework, many agencies are moving to EAS architectures to improve business processes or workflow automation. Business process automation and workflow efficiency gains can go a long way toward increasing productivity and ensuring compliance needs are met.

For example, the Colorado Housing and Finance Authority recently migrated loan processing tasks from midrange systems to an EAS architecture. The agency's previous process provided limited visibility to the data, lacked workflow automation and the ability to view overall system metrics, and was difficult to update and maintain.

Karen Harkin, CHFA's director, said that with the old system, 'analysts used to spend about 30 percent of their days at a fax machine sending decision letters to lenders. [The new system] automated this task, freeing up valuable resources to focus on more crucial tasks.'

CHFA's new system includes a real-time Web interface for external business partners, which can log in and view the current status of their transactions in progress.

Internally, agency analysts are able to use smart-client software coupled with automated workflows and a rules-based system to process transactions. The new system enables analysts to view the entire pipeline; link and process documents automatically, including communications with external business partners; and receive real-time alerts if a transaction does not meet with the established business rules.

Harkin said the new system 'has been instrumental in our achieving a 30 percent increase in productivity.'

When compared with their former system, CHFA realized a 70 percent reduction in development time and budget by going to the new EAS-based system. 'It generally took us well over a year to roll out a major new software application' said Kelly Becker, technology program partner at CHFA. 'We now roll out new products in just months or as little as one month.'

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