GSA awards software development pact

The General Services Administration last week awarded a contract to develop a package of software tools based on an innovative theory to help manage the federal buildings and property under its control.

GSA's Public Buildings Service awarded a $15 million contract to 3H Technology, a subsidiary of QinetiQ North America, to build the so-called eCommon framework that will automate many of the tasks related to building, leasing and maintaining office space. The Public Buildings Service is the largest public real estate organization in the United States, managing more than 342 million square feet of workspace for federal employees living in 2,100 communities.

The contract calls for 3H to develop a service-oriented architecture as part of the framework. SOA has been an increasingly popular movement in software development, focusing on using a common approach to develop tools and applications rather than allowing different divisions and offices within an organization to pursue their own software solutions for similar tasks. Under SOA, programs are broken down and packaged as "services" based on the individual tasks they accomplish: attaching files, accessing databases, searching the directory.

"We used to be stovepipe; every application was self-contained," said Edward Meyman, program manager for customer and web services at the PBS' Office of Chief Information Officer. "Often organizations are developing similar or the same functionality for every application. What eCommon does is look at a commonly used functionality, find out where it is utilized best, decouple it from its current context and reuse it." The programs use standard formats and are housed in a centralized repository so that different business units can easily access and reuse them, and combine them with other software services to form new programs. GSA plans to expand the program agencywide.

For instance, if a bank is using a program that checks a customer's credit before approving a new credit card, that same program would have use if a customer were seeking a home loan or line of credit. Therefore, the portion of the coded software that verifies the customer's credit would be treated as an independent software service called "check credit" and would be housed at a centralized repository where it could be accessed and reused by other developers for similar purposes.

"SOA has been a movement for both the government as well as commercial industry for the past eight to nine years," said Ronald Schmelzer, a managing partner at Zapthink, an IT advisory and analysis firm in Baltimore. "It's a way to deal with the fact that IT systems are more and more complicated. The more technology there is, the harder it is to change. It's like we've applied all this glue, and now making an upgrade or change can take years and costs millions or even billions because of all the components and interconnections."

GSA expects the eCommon program, and in particular SOA, to significantly improve the PBS' ability to design, build and maintain its facilities because SOA simplifies the software development process. The theory is that SOA makes it easier to design software and modify existing programs for tasks related to building management and customer service, such as providing leasing and property maintenance documents through Web services.

"Every old application had its own data structure," Meyman said. "There were many dialects for buildings, accounts, because each application has its own dialect. Whenever you wanted to use the data in another program, you had to cleanse the data for your purposes. There were different naming conventions for every program. All these things must first be accounted for. Once we know how to categorize it, we can start to divide it up."

The buildings service plans to focus on basic functionalities first, such as how files are attached to e-mails, accessing databases and searching directories, and have the first Web services available in 18 months. "As we progress, the level of abstraction will increase," Meyman said. "From those basic components, we'll eventually progress to transactional functions and business rules."

3HT officials could not be reached for comment.

Just how much value SOA can provide is still unclear. Large companies have begun to deploy SOA but have yet to demonstrate its value because SOA achieves economies of scale after years. The benefits come not from the initial round of development, but later when there is need to update existing systems, because organizations are not forced to spend money (and increase the risks of inoperable software) on new developments, according to INPUT, a Reston, Va.-based IT consulting firm.

One of the obstacles to successful use of SOA is the difficulty in articulating its value to those executives outside the IT department, according to INPUT. The need for a significant upfront investment without the promise of immediate returns and the requirement of strong governance and ability to manage change also are stumbling blocks that do not favor the average agency, INPUT noted.

Meyman said the biggest challenge for PBS will be to "bring all business lines together, and they each have their own angle of view depending on the area of concentration." Also, he said, each GSA region is fairly autonomous, and officials there follow different ways to accomplish same thing. "Sometimes the difference is justified by regional uniqueness, but it's usually due to lack of communication," he said. The service joins other agencies in its use of SOA, including the FBI, which is utilizing the architecture as part of the development of the Sentinel case management system, and the Internal Revenue Service, which is using SOA for its directory services portion of its business and tax registration program. Other federal agencies using it on recent projects include the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Reconnaissance Office.

Under SOA, software is divided into smaller chunks according to the services it provides, rather than requiring unique software for every process. These smaller software modules each perform a separate basic task and use standardized interfaces so they may be easily stitched together to form new programs.

The advantages are that SOA increases an organization's ability to collaborate on software development and reduces cost by eliminating redundancies. In addition, projects can be developed incrementally rather than all at once, reducing risk and accelerating development.

Schmelzer also referred to three benefits that SOA provides: loose coupling, the ability to make changes without breaking existing systems; composition, the ability to take existing systems and combine them for new tasks; and abstracting heterogeneity, the use of standards and service contracts so that customers looking for specific technological services already will be familiar with the interface being used.

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