A lack of mutually accessible and consistent information about the water level of the Mississippi River at any given time compelled businesses and citizens along the river last year to demand federal action.
At the core of the problem were an antiquated Web design and the network of water-control sites for the Water Control division of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Specifically, the myriad sites in districts along the river offered distinctive, nonintegrated water-level data. And nowhere was there a destination that aggregated all that data.
As a result, the barge industry, other businesses and the general public could not know the full extent of a potential risk. For the corps, the answer was clear: It needed to consolidate the information in a single repository that was robust enough to withstand the flood of traffic during inclement weather.
“Within our corps and within our division, each district office had Web pages that were all somewhat unique, so it made it difficult for the public to plow through that information based on where you lived,” said Jim Stiman, chief of water control for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “Especially during flooding season, people who lived along the rivers were concerned about when the rivers rise and how high they go.”
Located in Rock Island, Ill., the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers division is primarily a civil-works district administering federal water-resource development programs in large portions of Iowa and Illinois and smaller portions of Wisconsin, Minnesota and Missouri. Primary missions of the military organization include navigation, environmental preservation, flood control, regulatory functions, recreation, meteorological information and federal real estate management, as well as mobilization for federal disaster response and national defense and for emergency operations.
To address the Mississippi challenge, the corps built its own Web-based application called River Gages. The software features individually customizable content management modules, built using Macromedia Inc.s ColdFusion code-scripting tools, and runs on an Oracle Corp. 9i database and Application Server.
Stiman said River Gages provided his department with a simple form of data input from nondeveloper personnel and dramatically boosted productivity levels by cutting down on isolated maintenance concerns at each location.
“As security became more and more of an issue, it took more time away from engineering and operating projects because you kept busy patching servers and other security issues,” said Stiman. “From a water-control perspective, it allows us to spend more time on forecasts and operating projects, rather than having to deal with some of the information management issues.”
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers next step led to the recruitment of IBM technology reseller and IBM channel partner OpenDemand Systems Inc. and its browser-based OpenLoad testing software. The product was entrusted to make sure the throughput of the newly centralized IT system could handle thousands of hits and find potential bottlenecks in its Oracle environment.
The softwares easy-to-configure capabilities proved the perfect fit with the corps engineers programming skills level, said Donald Doane, president of OpenDemand, based in Newark, N.J.
“They wanted test tools they could quickly implement and not have to spend a lot of time scripting—having to become testing experts. They just wanted something that could get it done very quickly. Thats really where IBM and OpenLoad came in,” said Doane. “The reality is [the corps] can spend all that time on data integration, but if users come in and they cant get a response, thats a major problem. They wanted to make sure it was meeting users expectations.”
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Oracle environment runs on Solaris servers and is Unix-based. OpenLoad is featured on a separate Windows box.
The IBM and OpenLoad software was used to simulate hundreds of users hammering the corps system and accessing different parts of River Gages at different times.
OpenLoad can be installed on a central workstation and accessed anywhere from a browser. The software creates scenarios or business processes emulating how a user navigates through an application, simulating different browsers, platforms and transaction speeds to determine if service levels are met for a myriad of possibilities.
Following the OpenLoad implementation, it was soon discovered that a number of areas in the Oracle system required changes. For instance, servers monitored during OpenLoad testing revealed that a CPU on a server running the Oracle database was getting maxed out too quickly.
“Its kind of funny. In this case, they used [IBMs] WebSphere and DB2 to find out how to run their Oracle system more efficiently,” said Doane.
Doane said that a greater number of customers, including the Army, are finding that by testing their systems, they can save projected costs by reducing unnecessary hardware purchases.
In terms of future development, OpenDemand will extend its monitoring capabilities to provide information across database, application and Web servers to offer drill-down diagnostics. The features will be part of the softwares Version 5.0 release in February.
River Gages is setting a high bar for integrated data access and is drawing praise from other corps districts that are interested in using the technology.
“They see our division Web site, and they say, How can we get involved with this?” noted Stiman. “Who knows, down the road this might be a model for standardized Web pages for the entire Corps of Engineers for the nation. There is some interest out there.”