Financial planning

Case study: SSA's painstaking approach pays off for system upgrade <@VM>Sidebar | The elements of SSOARS

How you handle your finances can be based on the fiscal year, but establishing
a working financial system requires a longer view.

The Social Security Administration started looking at replacing its mainframe system in late 1999. It took several years to implement the upgraded system, called the Social Security Online Accounting and Reporting System (SSOARS). Even now, SSA continues to add features.

Despite the lengthy implementation time, the results have paid off.

'We are now able to access data more readily with SSOARS,' said Chris Molander, director at SSA's Office of Finance. 'It modernized some of our processes and is more intuitive than the system previously in place.'

The system replaced a commercial package called Keane Federal Success that was installed in October 1993, said Tom Bianco, director of the Office of Financial Systems and product manager for SSOARS. The Keane package was certified under the Joint Financial Management Improvement Program (JFMIP), a multiagency initiative to standardize governmental accounting practices.

'It was heavily customized, as most of the systems were back then,' Bianco said. 'The idea was to take a [commercial] system and modify it so it worked for you.'

He said the software had worked well for the agency, but by the late 1990s, the mainframe application needed an update. The vendor was no longer supporting the software, so it was becoming increasingly difficult for the agency to maintain. Moreover, SSA couldn't take advantage of newer technology without investing heavily in more custom code.

'Since it was mainframe-based, we couldn't take advantage of things like Web services,'
Bianco said. 'It was a very good system but wouldn't prepare us well for the future.' So SSA made the decision to replace the system.

The search for a new financial system started with assembling a group of users to refine SSA's statement of requirements. Then came the initial market research. At that time, there were seven JFMIP-certified vendors. SSA invited representatives from each company to explain what was needed. The team gave each vendor a set of test scripts and notified them that SSA would be visiting to see how well their system could handle core accounting processes and SSA-specific ones. During the next year, SSA conducted market research and built the business case needed to secure funding.

Software selection

The following year, the agency sent formal requests for information to four of the seven
vendors. After subjecting the submissions to a best-value procurement evaluation, the team chose Oracle Financials.

But the contract wasn't signed at that point. The agency first bought a couple of servers to test drive the software. Oracle consultants installed the software on those servers, and SSA ran a series of test scripts that more closely followed the actual agency business processes.

'We had them configure the software, and we tested the functionality and performance to make sure we were making a good business decision in buying Oracle,' Bianco said. 'Once we completed the tests, we made the decision to proceed with the acquisition of the software and the implementation services.'

The implementation ran for about 18 months, but some of the work had been done
during the testing phase. However, SSA did not immediately implement all of the features.

'From seeing what other agencies have done, including lessons learned from our own past implementations, we decided to just bring up the functionality we had with the legacy system and nothing more,' Bianco said. 'Once we brought that system up and got all the kinks out, we would attempt to integrate other applications with the system.'

Oracle Services did most of the implementation. To guide them, Bianco recruited a team of subject-matter experts from different parts of the organization as permanent, full-time
members of the SSOARS team.

'We had some people who had worked in the finance office for years, were real sharp and knew the business processes cold,' he said. 'We just didn't have enough of them ' you can never have enough subject-matter experts 'and at the end, they were near burnout. But we did pull it off.'

The system went live on schedule ' close to the end of fiscal 2003. But for once, completing a project on time was a mistake. In the future, Bianco said, he plans to schedule releases for the middle of a fiscal year, not the beginning. 'There is too much going on at the end of one fiscal year and the beginning of the next,' he said. 'End users don't have a lot of time to dedicate to something like a brand-new accounting system.'

Bianco did take several steps to make the transition easier for his customers. 'The sooner you get end users on board and the more you make them feel part of the process,' he said, 'the more buy-in you will get, and your transition will be much easier.'

He set up a communications plan that included regular briefings, monthly newsletters and Web site links to keep people informed. When the go-live date neared, Oracle conducted formal training sessions for the 200 users who directly access Oracle Federal Financials through SSOARS.

'We had originally thought that we would use our subject-matter experts to train the end users,' Bianco said. 'But we were a little thin in that area as the implementation went along, so it worked very well for us to have Oracle do the training.'

Branching out

The system is also used by 2,500 employees in SSA's field offices, but it was set up in a way that made training unnecessary. One field office had developed a graphical front end called Financial Information System for the previous financial system using Crystal Reports software from Business Objects, which SAP is acquiring. So a similar graphical user interface was set up for SSOARS. The users could then interact with the new system the same way they had with the old.

'It's a user-friendly and intuitive tool used to extract data from SSOARS,' Molander said. 'Because of its user-friendly nature, I have a good deal of information at my fingertips.' Molander said all three divisions of the Office of Finance use SSOARS. Managers primarily use it for oversight because the bulk of the data enters the system through automated feeds from payroll, travel management and other systems. He said the Division of Administrative Payments (DAP) uses the accounts-payable module to certify and issue payments, and it oversees the recording of requisitions, purchase orders and contracts.

Smooth sailing

Azmah Ahmad, a DAP financial management analyst who uses SSOARS on a daily basis to maintain the database of more than 30,000 vendors, said the system is easy to navigate. 'I can go to different jobs and screens to enter or update information, as well as query information using the available functions,' Ahmad said. 'SSOARS allows users to export information into programs like Excel and manipulate the information for research.'

Since its initial release, SSA has been regularly adding new functions to SSOARS. Links have been added to the Gelco Time Management system, Compusearch Prism purchasing system and federal Central Contractor Registration (CCR) database, which reduces the manual work required. 'We are now using software that allows us to scan invoices and attach them to payment and vendor records, and functions were created to handle the information being imported' from the CCR Extensible Markup Language-based interface, Ahmad said. 'Both updates have been very important to the processing of payments in a timely manner.'

More changes are in store. The agency has already upgraded Oracle twice and is looking to test the Oracle 12 database in the spring. Bianco said he plans to continue the strategy of integrating more third-party software into SSOARS. And in January, it will have real-time integration with the mainframe payment system used by SSA field offices for emergency payments to beneficiaries. He is also looking at linking the General Services Administration's SmartPay 2 to SSOARS.

'Our plan has always been to take a best-ofbreed approach ' bring up the basics and integrate everything else,' he said. 'It has worked out very well for us.'
Software

For the Social Security Online Accounting and
Reporting System (SSOARS), the Social
Security Administration uses Oracle
Financials and the Oracle 11.5.10.2 database
management system with the General Ledger,
Accounts Payable, Accounts Receivable and
Purchasing modules.

Servers and storage

Software resides on clustered servers from
Sun Microsystems running Solaris. The system
uses Sun Cluster software for high availability
and database failover, Oracle Real
Application Clusters for sharing resources
between nodes, and load-balancing software
from Alteon Networks. EMC direct-access
storage devices supply about 500G of production
storage. Veritas Volume Manager from
Symantec manages the disk drives, and
Veritas File System is used to speed access
and recovery times. Control-M software from
BMC Software handles scheduling.

Disaster recovery

SSA uses a disk-to-disk-to-tape backup system
to ensure that no more than one day's
data is ever lost in a disaster. It uses EMC
TimeFinder software to create Business
Contingency Volume backups twice daily '
before and after batch processing. After the
primary and secondary volumes are synchronized,
split and mounted onto a backup server,
the secondary volume is copied to tape using
Veritas Net Backup and Media Server. Daily
and monthly backups are stored off-site.

Reports

Business Objects' Crystal Reports software is
used to create a graphical user interface for
reports on the SSA Web portal.

Integration
SSOARS links with the agency's purchasing
system, Compusearch Software Systems'
Prism-Procurement. It also links to the government's
Travel Manager system and the Central
Contractor Registration database.

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