BLS applies tough-love policy for Web posting

Twice burned by premature Web postings in recent months, the Bureau of Labor Statistics
no longer trusts software scripts or people working alone to publish time-sensitive
economic data on the Web.


Until the bureau comes up with better automated processes, it will adhere to interim
procedures adopted after the premature postings, said Thomas Zuromskis, director of
technology and computing services.


At 8:30 a.m. and 10 a.m. on official release days for major economic indicators, a BLS
data expert stands near the elbow of a BLS information technology employee. When they
concur about the time and the content, the IT employee taps the computer key that starts
the release script, moving the new numbers to the bureau’s public Web server.


“Together they validate the fact the Naval Observatory master clock has clicked
past the official release time, and we can start the process,” Zuromskis said.


The data expert is there in the same room to make sure that the data is properly
formatted and that the table of contents and all required tables have been generated,
Zuromskis said.


BLS will carry out the extra validation step until Web production processes have been
upgraded and tested, he said.


After the two posting errors, the bureau bought additional hardware and software to
build a test environment completely separate from, but identical to, its two public-access
Web servers.


BLS publishes 20,000 static Web pages on a Compaq ProLiant 6000 server with four
Pentium processors running Microsoft Internet Information Server 3.0 and Windows NT Server
4.0.


The second public server, a Sun Microsystems four-way Sun Ultra Enterprise 450, hosts
database extracts.


The server runs Apache Web Server freeware, File Transfer Protocol server software and
time series data stored in a Sybase Inc. Adaptive Server Enterprise 11.5.1 database
management system.


“We have a huge set of Sybase time series databases for monthly observations that
go back to the early 1900s,” the technology services director said.


Each server has a dedicated 100-Mbps Ethernet connection to a CoreBuilder switch from
3Com Corp. of Santa Clara, Calif.


To improve software testing procedures, the bureau has assigned a quality control group
to test all new software after developers complete their initial unit tests, Zuromskis
said.


He said the bureau’s comprehensive response to the posting errors is necessary
because such errors subvert the mission to publish complete and timely data and to secure
it before the official scheduled release.


Last November, a BLS economist mistakenly posted supplementary economic data on an
internal server, which triggered an automatic posting on the public-access Web server [GCN, Nov. 25, 1998, Page 1]. The mistake set off a
small bond rally as investors traded on the information.


In January, an IT employee accidentally published the producer price indexes for
December 1998 a day early [GCN, Jan. 25, Page 3]. An
insufficiently tested software script for automating such postings had misread the time.


Zuromskis acknowledged that the Web has become a principal publishing medium, though
the bureau still provides news media with hard-copy releases of time-sensitive data 30
minutes in advance.


The bureau also operates a fax-on-demand distribution system and publishes some data on
floppy diskettes.


In 1993, the first year BLS had public Internet access, it provided only FTP and gopher
services. In late 1994, the bureau began offering Web access to a Sun Ultra Enterprise 10
server and later a Sun Sparcserver 1000.


The Ultra Enterprise 450 and ProLiant Web servers represent BLS’ third generation
of Web publishing under a basic architecture Zuromskis said he thinks is a good one.


The goal now is ironclad release systems. BLS officials also want to re-evaluate the
look and feel of the Web data presentation. “I don’t know that it’s a huge
issue, but it’s important,” Zuromskis said.


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