Interior makes HR data handy

Interior makes HR data handy

Java middleware connects browser app to payroll system for 180,000 workers

By Patricia Daukantas

GCN Staff

The Interior Department's National Business Center is updating its mainframe personnel system into a browser application without getting rid of the mainframe screens.

The application, now in the proof-of-concept stage, uses Java middleware to connect browsers to the IBM Corp. mainframe. Changing the interface will cost about $24 million less than starting from scratch with a client-server system, said Michael Colburn, chief of the applications planning and technology group at the National Business Center in Denver.


The browser version of FPPS uses pull-down menus. The mainframe version of the FPPS main menu requires typing a letter or moving the cursor to select desired functions. With the Web version, users can piont and click to make their selections. Users of the FPPS mainframe version must scroll through many options to choose their selections.


Colburn said the center provides computer services to federal agencies on a private-sector model. It competes for business even though its workers are federal employees.

Colburn's group manages the Federal Personnel/Payroll System (FPPS), which handles records for about 180,000 workers in 14 agencies within Interior and 40 other agencies. Its biggest non-Interior customers are the Education Department and the Social Security Administration.

Home grown

The Business Center developed FPPS in-house. It has more than 2,000 character-based screens, Colburn said.

'We want to be competitive in the marketplace, and part of being competitive is having a modern interface,' he said.

Agencies started using FPPS about three years ago, so it's a relatively new legacy system. 'The problem is, when you create something as large as FPPS, it's hard to respond to fast changes in technology,' Colburn said.

The business center set down the requirements for FPPS long before the Internet took off. The back end, however, is up-to-date: a five-processor IBM System/390 G5 Enterprise Server running OS/390.

'It's the user interface that was the issue,' Colburn said. Interior's IRM Office requires new administrative systems to have Web browser interfaces.

The pilot project, which started in January and continues through November, will put browser prototypes of two FPPS subsystems into the hands of test groups in a production environment, Colburn said.

Because the project is only a proof of concept, Colburn's group is focusing on two portions of FPPS: the Time and Attendance and the Employee History View subsystems.

Center officials asked five companies to demonstrate prototype systems before choosing Jacada Server for Java, from Jacada Ltd. of Atlanta, Colburn said.

The Java version of Jacada Server was chosen over the Visual Basic or Hypertext Markup Language versions of the middleware partly because of concerns that HTML could not make as sophisticated a graphical interface as Java applets would.

'Plus, we like the portability of Java to various operating systems,' Colburn said. 'Visual Basic would tie us to the [Microsoft] Windows platform.'

In January, Colburn's group contracted with Netron Inc. of Toronto to design the Time and Attendance subsystem while Business Center employees worked on the employee history portion. 'We wanted to put something into the users' hands quickly to try,' Colburn said.

Netron delivered its portion on Feb. 25, and after a few modifications, turned it over to testers at the Denver center on May 19.

The center developers have finished the Web version of the employee history subsystem, which will be turned over to testers later this summer.

Colburn's group expects to finish collecting feedback and wrap up the proof of concept by the end of November.

Although the switch was smooth for most users, a few longtime mainframe users have been 'uncomfortable with the change because it's a change, or because they're not Windows users,' Colburn said.

After reviewing the proof-of-concept comments, center programmers will take about 12 to 18 months to finish Web-enabling FPPS.

A worker can use the Web version of FPPS even for screens that don't yet have a graphical interface, Colburn said, because the mainframe screen pops up in a window.

Back and forth

If the user subsequently enters a command for which there is a Web interface, it pops up in a separate window.

'Users don't like to have two different systems,' Colburn said. Until all the mainframe screens are converted, Web FPPS will automatically switch users back and forth between the mainframe and the graphical interfaces.

The sequence of FPPS commands is identical in both mainframe and Web versions. The point-and-click capability, however, speeds up use in the Web version.

To skip over questions on a mainframe screen, users must scroll down with the arrow keys. In a browser, they use a mouse to pull down menus and click on items.

Colburn said his staff is developing computer-based training for FPPS novices who can learn the payroll system from either a CD-ROM or a Web tutorial.

'What impressed us about Jacada's products was that once you make your initial investment, you move quickly,' Colburn said.

Business Center programmers are also beefing up FPPS' online help with RoboHelp software from eHelp Corp. of La Jolla, Calif., Colburn said. It resembles the help function in Microsoft Word.

Users access FPPS over their agency intranets. The mainframe system already has extensive built-in security to check user names, passwords and levels of permitted access to data.

Completely rewriting FPPS to make it a native client-server application would have cost about $27 million, Colburn said.

The estimated cost of Web FPPS is $3 million. Spread out over five years, the price tag comes to $3.33 per year for each employee whose records are stored in the system, he said.

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