A Case For Building Multi-Tiered IT

Three Tiers for Alameda County's Court Information System Helps Case Overload.

California's Alameda County, (the state's seventh largest), courts faced an all tootypical problem: a burgeoning load of court cases, which led to a rising volume ofpaperwork. The county's court system serves a population of 1.3 million residents througha network of Municipal and Superior Courts at 20 locations.HP Professional Staff

he courts' disparate computer systems made management matters difficult: Communicationwas next to impossible among the county's Municipal and Superior Courts. For example, thepublic was unable to file complaints and other related documents from any court location.In addition, the courts lacked easy access to data that would support better-informeddecision-making.

"We had considered several packaged case management solutions, but they didn'toffer the features we needed," says Cielo Keller, Alameda County Courts' IT director.So, Alameda County IT department decided to build -- rather than buy -- its own countywidedistributed case management and decision support system. Keller had a simple, if notidealistic, goal in mind: to improve access to decision-support data and enhance publicservice.

Order In The Court

To create such an integrated computer system, Keller searched for an applicationdevelopment environment that could support high transaction volumes while providing a highdegree of reliability as well as scalability. To meet the requirements of Keller'sDecision Support and Operations Management Information System, or Domain (see sidebar),she chose to work in Forté's Application Environment.

Development, which included planning, requirements gathering, design and coding timelasted 14 months. An original team of 22 people contributed to the project, including sixdevelopers from Sage IT Partners (San Francisco, Calif.) and three from the county. Sageprovided the Forté developers that implemented the functional design specified by thecourts.

Additional team members included a lead architect, project administrator, businessanalysts, database administrator, UNIX administrator, Forté administrator and technicalsupport for the local and wide area networks. Also assisting with the implementation wasInfogain (San Jose, Calif.), which provided the team that converted the data from the oldsystem.

Because Forté provided simple, but sophisticated, partitioning capabilities,multi-tier application development was facilitated. Domain's partitions include a businesslayer, security services, data management, error handling and look-up codes. The logicalfunctional units are located in separate partitions, improving systems management andperformance. System managers can predict how each partition will behave, allowing bettermemory control and resource consumption.

A Tier For The Middleman

The application logic resides within the middle tier running on HP 9000 K250 serverswith HP-UX 10.20 and HP NetServers. An Informix RDBMS (7.24), which contains allcourt-related data, resides on the K250 servers. Domain runs over a 10Base-T Ethernetnetwork with an FDDI backbone and T1 connectivity to remote sites. Mid-way through thedevelopment cycle, Keller switched hardware vendors (from Sequent to HP), yet, because ofForté's platform independence, the change was of minimal consequence. Another benefit ofusing Forté is that it enables the new system to support a high transaction volume.Because the county wants to grow its user base to 800 users, scalability was a keydevelopment issue.

Keller notes that Forté's integrated, multi-tier development environment has enabled arelatively small development team to build a large and complex application consisting ofWindows 95 and Windows NT clients for the user interface. Forté's replication-on-demandand load-balancing capabilities were also important in the development of Domain.

In the early stages of deployment, when the number of concurrent users doubled from 25to 50, system response time was maintained by replicating services. One of the mostimportant benefits Forté has provided is superior reliability. "With Forté, we canmonitor performance at the application level," says Keller. "We can catch aproblem before it occurs, allowing us to achieve high-availability and continuousservices."

IN THE DOMAIN OF ALAMEDA COUNTY'S COURTS

Domain is Alameda County's criminal, civil and traffic court case tracking, managementand decision support system within the jurisdiction of the Municipal and Superior Courts.Domain ensures a consistent approach to case processing procedures and defines the methodsfor collecting, reporting and interpreting the courts' statistics. Domain tracks allfilings and case-related activities, monitors case management status, automatesscheduling, manages calendars, collects fees and issues notices, orders and other courtdocuments.

Domain also greatly reduced the amount of paper traffic within the courts by providingelectronic imaging capabilities via an interface to FileNet Corporation's ImagingSoftware. The FileNet software, which interfaces with the application tier, runs on a HPNetServer. All documents filed and issued are available as electronic images to all judgeson the bench and in chambers, as well as to their staffs in the courtroom and in theoffices. Domain also generates operational reports and provides facilities for ad hocreporting. A query application is also available on the Internet that provides calendarand summary case information real-time.

Domain was initially deployed at the Oakland Municipal Court in April 1997 and in theFremont Court in April 1998. Deployment continued throughout 1998 and sometime in 1999will include all 20 Alameda County court locations, ultimately growing the current userbase from 100 to 800 users.