Web Service Rides Herd

.Net-based service brings tedious reporting process into real time at department of agriculture.

A Web service is helping the Colorado Department of Agriculture more efficiently track and report on its captive deer and elk population.

The CDA has authority over the states "alternative" livestock, classified as deer and elk. The department must compile information from a variety of sources, including a proprietary database running on a Macintosh, laboratory results on a mainframe and flat files of related information. That information is then disseminated to stakeholders, including other state agencies.

Prior to using the Web service, this information was compiled manually into a report that was distributed via fax or e-mail. The process was slow and tedious (taking about three to four weeks), especially considering the need to quickly and effectively track things such as chronic wasting disease, a fatal, untreatable ailment that causes irreversible weight loss in deer and elk and can spread through a herd. An uptick in the incidence of the disease made timing critical.

"This disease was percolating in such a way that we had to react quickly," said John Picanso, CIO of the department, in Lakewood, Colo. "We had three disparate sources, with output that surrounded the accumulation of all three sources into a management report. We didnt have an optimal data delivery system in place."

Picanso said he did not have the resources in-house to develop a solution in the time required. The CDA has a long-standing relationship with Compuware Corp., of Farmington Hills, Mich., and it went to that companys professional services team with its challenge. Working with Manish Sharma, lead architect at Compuware, Picanso decided to give the Web services platform a chance. However, with time being short and Web services still an unproven platform, Picanso imposed a time limit for the technology to prove its mettle.

"We gave it a six-week window to tune up and go, knowing that if it didnt from a technological standpoint, we could go to a more traditional solution and still learn from the process," Picanso said. "Manish worked on this with Beta 2 of .Net, so I was a little hesitant about whether it would be sound enough to deliver, but it proved that it was."

The CDA standardized on Microsoft Corp. technology about three and a half years ago, and Compuware used the .Net platform to develop the Web service, which is currently accessed by about 20 people on an intranet-only basis. Users log in and are authenticated to the Web service through ASP (Active Server Pages) .Net, Windows 2000 and SQL Server security.

Sharma, in Englewood, Colo., said ASP .Net was used for the front end, with Visual Basic .Net for the development language. Web Services Description Language and Simple Object Access Protocol connect the disparate data sources and allow real-time reporting and updates.

Sharma said the decision was made to use Visual Basic .Net and not C#—which Microsoft has made the flagship language of its Web services development strategy—because the department was already using Visual Basic and could achieve easier maintenance and transformation by sticking with it. "Now, with the common language run-time, theres no advantage of going with one or another," he said.

The adage "less is more" was indeed true with this deployment. "There were some lessons learned in terms of how to design the front end and not go overboard with the newer controls in ASP .Net," Sharma said. "We used heavy controls on the front end, and because most of the controls required a round trip, there were performance issues. We were working on a [64K-bps] line, and performance was slow."

Throttling back on the controls improved performance, Sharma said.

The Web service, launched in February, has reduced reporting from a three- to four-week cycle to real time. Picanso said the department is considering plans to enhance and extend the service beyond intranet use. For that to happen, however, additional security would have to be added beyond whats built into .Net. "The [Web Services Interoperability] standard has to stabilize before we can really open everything out," Sharma said.

Picanso said he thinks the technology is a natural for use in the government sector, an audience that has recently expressed the critical need to get its informational ducks in a row.

"I think [Web services can have] a great life in government services," said Picanso. "We can build these services, make them available, and people can come by, so to speak, grab on and have at it. Theres very little that has to be done to consume the service.

"If we can garner more life out of the investment weve got," he added, "it just seems practical to put your funding in the Web services side."

Executive Editor Debra Donston is at debra_donston@ziffdavis.com.