Application rollouts can be pressure-filled affairs. But when the cost of not getting it right the first time is paid in lives, not dollars, attention to detail becomes all the more critical.
Mitch Barnett, president of Vancouver-based 5 by 5 Software Ventures Ltd., recently took on such a job at Telus Geomatics in Edmonton. “It was a little more challenging,” he admitted. “Most IT projects don’t have that issue around security or reliability.”
Telus had done work with 5 by 5 before, and during the course of a routine discussion last November, officials told Barnett about a problem they had recently discovered. The Geomatics branch of the national telco-services provider is responsible for GIS applications – specifically Telus GeoExplorer, a massive Web-based tool that allows users to drill down into detailed maps of areas across North America. It is designed to provide them with a variety of data, including political boundaries, geology and oil and gas infrastructure.
The latter ability attracted the attention of several Alberta municipalities, represented by the Northeast Region Community Awareness Emergency Response Association (NRCAER). Concerned about the possibility of a catastrophic event taking place at an oil well, it commissioned Telus to supply a GIS map of all potential oil and gas flash points – maps that would also include all nearby residential address and contact information.
In the event of an emergency, Telus can, once notified, automatically have residents in a given area telephoned and given updated evacuation information. The maps can also help direct emergency personnel, and predict other problems before they occur.
The problem, however, is that the interactive voice response (IVR) system that handled the calls sits in Vancouver. The GIS app is housed in Calgary.
“We needed a way to transmit that (GIS) information in a secure fashion to the IVR,” said Jim Huff, general manager of Telus Geomatics in Edmonton.”We were going to build our own.”
But 5 by 5 instead recommended going with a customized build of Microsoft Corp.’s BizTalk 2000, software it had worked with since it was unveiled in 1999.
The project kicked-off in April and work itself took three weeks to complete. But it took nearly two months to design. That’s because the biggest challenge wasn’t in tying together the IVR and GIS. Instead, it was doing so in a enviornment where security and uptime are crucial.
“The variables of what can go wrong is exponential,” Barnett said. “The data exchange is pretty straight ahead. But putting it all together and making sure if there is system failure that we can account for it…that can be quite staggering.”
First Barnett made sure the integration would be seamless. “We told (Telus that) BizTalk has two pieces to it, a basic messaging engine and a basic workflow engine…so we can model your business processes,” Barnett said.
That way, the integration piece would not only link the IVR and GIS, it would also monitor itself and the data exchange process in real time, and alert 5 by 5 if something in the workflow broke down.
“If there is a failure, we take control of the business process,” he said. As well, besides the two servers hosting BizTalk, Barnett also built a failover cluster to automatically take the load in the event of system failure.
The third element was ensuring that BizTalk was bulletproof. A system that can automatically phone thousands of unsuspecting residents warning of an emergency makes for a tempting target.
“It’s locked down as tight as one can lock it down,” Barnett said. “We occasionally check out the system – you can use the term ‘ethical hacking.'”
Today the system is up and running. And if the IVR system calls a residence and doesn’t get an answer, or if a resident requires further information (indicated by keying in a touch-tone number), that information is instantly fed back to the GIS system.
Huff said he’s even looking at employing BizTalk in other areas of the business, in particular mapping customer data to the GIS via its Siebel CRM database.
Barnett said the key to successful integration projects is to do them in pieces. “Any project of any size we’ll do in three-month cycles,” he said. That’s because the only aspect that can change is the business requirements – which are tough to predict.