Prison systems capture the essence of IT issues

Thomas R. Temin

Where can you find a convergence of nearly all important information technology issues'privacy, security, public Web access, multitier architectures and integration of legacy databases and applications?

Try systems supporting prisons and correctional offices. As this month's Page 1 story points out, few government services are growing as fast as corrections. Prison populations are ballooning.

The prison population growth has implications for systems. States are building more prisons, so there are more points for prisoner and prisoner data entry. The networking of systems increases the chances for systems breaches and data tampering.

Citizens want prisoner data posted on the Web. Privacy requirements vary among states and jurisdictions, but the widespread posting of data about released sex offenders has spurred interest in seeing information online about all prisoners or former prisoners.

The Florida Corrections Department is dealing creatively with the competing demands on its systems. The state's efforts indicate where systems architecture and design are heading given the use of data by many constituencies and for many applications.

Year 2000 readiness efforts led many agencies to retire legacy mainframe systems during the past couple of years. But those same agencies repaired many more systems. Although some existing applications got a new lease on life, new government programs are hatching fresh uses for that legacy data.

What were once strictly glass-house affairs are now far-flung networks of mixed hardware, operating systems and application software.

Florida's Offender Based Information System is one example. At its heart is a terabyte-sized complex of flat-file data running on an IBM Corp. mainframe. It would be impractical to put terminals for accessing such a system at every correctional facility and impossible for localities and individuals to access the data in a readable fashion.

Instead, the Corrections Department has built one subsystem for data entry, another for Web display. Using middleware, each subsystem taps into'but also protects'the OBIS data.

It is no longer adequate to think of data and applications as a bolted-together monolith. Systems architects have to consider the applications, database and communications infrastructure as components. They must operate seamlessly yet be upgraded separately'all in an environment of mainframe-quality security.

Thomas R. Temin

Editorial director


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