Big Overhaul in Big D

Dallas hasTexas-sized computer problems: ancient equipment, separate data networks thatdon’t communicate with each other, a hodgepodge of desktop operating systems,no centralized IT management, and a home-built proprietary network operatingsystem that only a handful of people understand.

Modernizingthis kind of system is a gigantic undertaking, but chief information officer H.Dan McFarland is confidently up to the task. Determination, lots of manpower,and a recently approved $33 million budget for the overhaul are the keys togetting it done.

Getting thefunding was the crucial step, and McFarland says Dallas would still beoperating in the computer Dark Ages if not for Teodoro J. Benavides, citymanager. Benavides “is very enlightened, and quickly realized that we needed tohave updated technology. I give a lot of credit to him,” McFarland says.

McFarlandstill marvels at the state of the network -- and he was brought in a year and ahalf ago. “We have at least five different, major, stand-alone networks of alldifferent standards,” McFarland explains. “The majority of [current] systemsare Novell networks. The networks literally don’t talk to each other, they’re 5to 8 years old, not updated, and weren’t adequately maintained. There are nostandards for maintenance. The network truly doesn’t work well.”

There areabout 8,500 voice users and 6,000 data users on the city’s network, and thereare no monitoring tools for the servers. “Can you believe a network this sizeand no monitoring tools?” an amazed McFarland says.

Perhapsworst of all is the operating system that runs the whole thing. “We have ahome-built operating system written in assembler language running on themainframe [an Amdahl 723]. We don’t even have databases: They’re flat files.Everything was developed in-house. We have one person [still on staff] who’sbeen involved with the OS,” McFarland says. The operating system is calledLinc. Haven’t heard of Linc before? You wouldn’t have, unless you were on thecity’s IT team that developed it.

Many of thecity’s most critical systems -- payroll, 911, dispatch -- are at the mercy ofLinc. That is unacceptable, McFarland says.

Thanks tocareful study, planning, and lots of money, Linc, disparate networks, ancientequipment, and a 10-year-old analog Centrex phone system will soon be a distantmemory.

The firststep is cabling. This job got under way in November. When done, about 4 millionfeet of Category 5 cable will be installed. “We’re totally rewiring the wholecity. The infrastructure’s so bad. It was cobbled together, and I don’t trustit,” McFarland says.

Sometime atthe beginning of this year, new applications will be up and running. There areabout 280 servers scattered throughout the city that McFarland plans toconsolidate into a server farm. The applications will be moved off themainframe -- which may be demoted to server status -- and onto the servers.

All thoseservers will run Windows NT, which McFarland says was an easy choice. He wentwith a Redmond solution “because more people are developing products forMicrosoft than any other [operating system] out there, and we can train peopleon Microsoft products. We are running Unix very, very little, and it’sdifficult to get enough people who know Unix” to run it reliably, McFarlandsays.

McFarlandalready has decided that the city eventually will move from Windows NT toWindows 2000. In addition, desktops for all 6,000 users will be Windows 98,instead of the current mishmash. “We’re really driving standards hard,”McFarland states.

Connectingall the machinery will be a 10/100 MB Ethernet system with a gigabit backbone.“We want to go 100 MB ultimately to each of the desktops,” McFarland says. He’salso decided to go exclusively with Cisco routers.

As for thelack of server monitoring, that will be taken care of by BMC Software.

The DallasIT nightmare was not just an equipment problem. The previous IT staffingstructure for the city was just as much trouble. Prior to his arrival,McFarland says individual departments had their own IT groups, which were runlike little fiefdoms. The internal politics severely hampered workingconditions and the ability to get things done. McFarland blew up the ITkingdoms and consolidated them under his command. Personnel will be used moreefficiently, which will be helped by the creation of a centralized helpdesk,“similar to private industry,” McFarland says.

The city issignificantly expanding its Internet and intranet sites, using them more ascommunications and business tools. McFarland recently deployed a Webapplication to do online bidding, but the network hampered his efforts yetagain. “We tried to put it on desktops, but they were all so different, it tookthree weeks to figure out how to do it.” A new emphasis will be put on onlineservices for city residents, allowing them to avoid lines at city agencies andto receive improved service from city workers.

There willbe about 100 people, including many from Southwestern Bell and Cisco, workingfull-time on the massive project. When finished in about 18 months, McFarlandenvisions a converged voice, data, and video network; a network that’scentrally maintained through proactive monitoring of the network; centralizedsoftware pushes; eliminated bottlenecks in the network; and standardizedsoftware with machines running current software releases.

He alsoenvisions “a well-trained internal workforce proficient in Cisco networking;we’ll be able to bring up bandwidth where more bandwidth is appropriate, andhave less where that’s appropriate; we’ll be able to add phone stations andcomputer equipment quickly and inexpensively; and be a customer-orientednetwork.”

The modernera of computing may be late in coming to Dallas, but at long last, it iscoming.

ENT willperiodically revisit the Dallas project to report on its status and how ITmanagers overcame any difficulties along the way.