VA Tool Brings Order to Oregon Court

When the Oregon Judicial Department (OJD) weighed its options for updating its aging COBOL-based court scheduling system, it ruled in favor of IBM's VisualAge Generator software, an object-oriented visual application development toolkit that creates graphical user interfaces (GUIs), database links and database programs.

Until 1996, the Salem, Ore.-based OJD was using a court management system made up of about 1,000 COBOL programs and 250 text screens running on the department's 20 networked IBM AS/400s and a DB2/400 database. Over the last several years, the department has replaced about 1,000 of its 2,000 text terminals with PCs running Windows 95 and Windows NT to access the data. OJD staffers use the system to schedule judges, court cases, courtrooms, security and transportation for more than 600,000 cases per year. The organization has 150 judges and support personnel among its 1,600 employees.

William Jennings, OJD applications programming manager, says his organization looked at different tools, but VisualAge Generator won hands down. "It was easy to use, and it provided enhanced functions to boost developer productivity. Other products required additional processes to tie everything to the middleware. With VisualAge Generator, once you're set up, the required linkages are already there," he says.

He also points out that OJD scheduling staff are finding they can finish their scheduling duties 80 percent faster than they could with the COBOL applications and green screens.

The OJD is currently using VisualAge Generator version 3.0, announced in September 1997. The rapid application development toolkit offers a visual composition editor and components-based construction, a high-level fourth generation language for scripting, and an Interactive Test Facility. Integrated VisualAge Generator templates can generate a large portion of an application, ranging from user interfaces to database access (Create/Read/Update/Delete) and error handling. OJD uses the VisualAge Generator in two environments: Windows 95 and Windows NT to develop the thin-client code, and COBOL for the AS/400 servers.

Jennings says that back in 1994, the OJD tried to develop a graphical scheduling application using C++, which would have offered the time-saving advantages of reusable modules as the project progressed, but because that language required the use of middleware, the department took a big hit in performance times.

"A few years ago, C++ and the middleware available was not robust enough for our purposes. We were getting multiple-minute response times during database queries, and that kind of performance just didn't make practical sense, so we scrapped that idea."

VisualAge Generator let Jennings' team develop the scheduling application's GUIs visually, whereas the old COBOL-based systems required hard-coding of text-based user interface screens.

"The difference between coding everything and just dropping it into a palette is like night and day," says Jennings. "It's not nearly as intensive as coding with COBOL, and with the VisualAge Generator we can reuse parts. We wrote all the I/O routines first as reusable parts."

The scheduling application was developed by five programmers, who created 32 GUIs and 60 programs in only four months. Jennings says it was a "very short learning curve, and a project this size would have taken twice as long with the old tools."

Over the next three years, the OJD will create an entire court-management system, including criminal case proceedings, finances and sentencing decisions, and all core applications will be linked.

Jennings says he expects about 20 percent of the scheduling application (such as the I/O routines) will be reused throughout the entire project.