Two California cities migrate to the same system very differently

Two California cities migrate to the same system very differently

To change financial management apps, Watsonville takes it slow; West Covina races the clock

By Drew Robb

Special to GCN

When it came time to upgrade financial systems, the cities of Watsonville and West Covina, Calif., selected the same combination of Microsoft Windows NT and Envision Series financial management software from Systems Consultants Inc. of St. Louis.

Beyond that, however, the two California municipalities chose different paths. While Watsonville opted for a gradual switch, West Covina boldly attempted the transition over a three-month period.

Situated south of San Francisco, Watsonville'population 33,000'bills itself as a full-service city with its own airport, wastewater treatment plant and water system. Until recently, it used a homegrown records system running on a Unisys A-Series mainframe. Both database management and report generation, however, proved time-consuming and cumbersome.

'Our software was like an old Volkswagen Beetle: very dependable and did the job, but didn't have a lot of options,' said Jeff Merrill, information technology manager for Watsonville. 'We wanted more integration and less duplicate entry.'

Modern system move

Because city IT officials didn't want to burden users with learning new software and hardware, they decided to move to a more modern financial system that ran on the A-Series. They chose SCI's Envision Series suite for financial, payroll and business licensing functions. As well as being compatible with the city's mainframe infrastructure, the software offered an easier upgrade to Unix or NT because it also operates on those platforms.

'We didn't want to have to learn everything from scratch, so we simplified things by shifting to applications that we could carry forward when it came time to upgrade our hardware,' Merrill said. 'That way, we could train the users on the SCI applications, then move to a new platform seamlessly from the user perspective.'

At the completion of Phase 1, efficiency increased because of a significant reduction in programming and system management time. Watsonville found it much easier to handle the database, and users gained speedy access to a wider array of both standard and specialized reports.

Spiraling licensing and maintenance costs, as well as millennium date change concerns, hastened activation of the next phase'the changeover from mainframe to NT client-server architecture. Software licenses for the A-series system alone ran at $300,000 every three to five years, and maintenance cost $30,000 annually. Once Watsonville factored in the bill for year 2000 fixes, change became inevitable.

One Unisys NT Aquanta QS-2 server took over financial management functions from the mainframe. With the move to NT, licensing and maintenance expenses dropped to $4,200 annually. 'As well as for its cost [advantages], we chose NT as several departments were already successfully running it, and many of the applications we needed were only available on that platform,' Merrill said.

After the conversion to NT, Merrill loaded the SCI financial applications, which provide users with an interface and mode of operation that is almost identical to the A-Series system. As a result, Watsonville effectively eliminated user retraining.

From an IT perspective, however, much behind-the-scenes work went into the presentation of an almost invisible upgrade path. The conversion of the mainframe's old database to an Oracle database required months of trial and error. Merrill ran both systems in parallel testing and retesting until they produced identical outputs.

Instead of switching over all applications at once, Watsonville began with the smallest: the business license system. Only when it was working perfectly did the city make the final transition to the SCI financial and payroll applications.

'While everything went well, we opted for a cautious approach,' Merrill said. 'We ran both systems in parallel for a while before finally abandoning the old system.'

As a result, the city has realized many improvements, he said. Reports that used to take 45 minutes to generate now take 10. Printing is far easier to configure due to the system's increased flexibility, and users notice performance gains in just about every zone.

But the migration to NT didn't come without problems. Merrill said occasional program conflicts crop up that require rebooting during business hours. Despite this inconvenience, he is still satisfied with the changeover.

A costly series

'For our size city, it was getting too expensive to stay on the A-Series,' Merrill said. 'NT has become the operating system of choice, as it is the industry standard for so many types of application software.'

In stark contrast to the slow, methodical approach of Watsonville, West Covina gambled on a migration slam-dunk, just before Jan. 1. With a population of 96,000, West Covina has a reputation as a progressive municipality within greater Los Angeles.

Pressured by year 2000 concerns, the city initiated a migration from customized Cobol financial applications running on a leased Hewlett-Packard HP 9000 to an NT client-server platform running SCI Envision Series applications for financial management, payroll and human resources tasks. With only a few weeks remaining in 1999, West Covina decided to complete the entire evolution before the New Year.

'We wanted a Windows-based, network-ready, user-friendly and Y2K-compliant system,' said Tom Nguyen, system administrator for West Covina. 'We were confident we could accomplish the entire migration within 10 weeks, and that's what we set out to do.'

When using West Covina's old system, officials had to log off one module before logging onto another. Maintaining the system was technically demanding, so the city hired an outside contractor to do all Cobol programming for its in-house applications.

But with the contractor having to come in at least twice a week, the city ended up paying a substantial amount annually. The Hewlett-Packard lease also involved a hefty sum.

Not up to date

West Covina had a series of date change concerns about its mainframe, as well as other IT problems. The system generated reports slowly, required data to be rekeyed in different modules, and perpetuated paper-based data management due to its lack of integration.

Like Watsonville, West Covina chose a Unisys server running NT, as well as SCI Envision Series application packages for financial reporting, payroll management and human resources tasks. The Envision suite handles all software requirements in accounts payable and receivable, budget management, budget accounting, cash receipts, general ledger, project administration, human resources, payroll and purchasing management.

The city didn't meet its Dec. 31, 1999, transition deadline. City managers switched over to the SCI financial management applications in early February and planned to implement the rest of the new applications within weeks.

'Data conversion took much longer than anticipated,' Nguyen said. 'Information was not getting to the new system as smoothly as we expected, and that resulted in a lot more testing and reconverting.'

Training problems also slowed the transition. Faced with such a short time frame, the city called in SCI consultants to teach workshops and train staff members on the new applications.

'There is no way around the learning curve,' Nguyen said. 'You have to allow enough time for your staff to come to terms with new applications, otherwise you are asking for trouble when you go live.'

Despite missing their transition target by a few weeks, West Covina officials say they don't regret having adopted a light speed migration program.

As well as realizing annual savings of $20,000 to $30,000, the city has lightened the staff's workload, sped up workflow, eliminated rekeying and greatly reduced paperwork.

Flipping screens

'The integrated software allows us to easily go from one computer screen to another,' Nguyen said. 'The information on purchase orders and transactions is keyed in and routed on to the next person, is approved and keeps going, all without the need to print off data and route folders to the next person in line.'

Now that he's been through one such evolution, Nguyen recommends allowing 16 to 20 weeks for an upgrade of this magnitude. But he firmly believes that light speed is the best way in most cases.

'It would have taken us several more months, if not years, had we failed to operate the migration project on a fast track,' he said. 'It gets everyone working together. From the financial director on down, the entire financial department worked hand in hand with [the city's IT specialists] to make this a successful operation.'


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