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Campus' Major Unseen Construction Project —
'NIH Business System'

By Rich McManus

On the Front Page...

There is a large construction project on campus that began last September and will likely last for the next 5 years, consuming the attention of hundreds of workers, costing an estimated $50 million over 5 years, and affecting the daily activities of at least 5,000 NIH'ers. Unlike the turned earth, diverted traffic and unsettled parking prompted by construction of the new Clinical Research Center and laboratory Bldgs. 50 and 40, this project — the NIH Business System (NBS) — is going up without the usual signs visible to the average employee. And unlike the new buildings, the new system will eventually affect everyone who works at NIH.

Continued...

If you purchase a pipette, prepare travel papers, pay bills, loan or move a piece of equipment, or seek the advice of an outside expert, you use a piece of infrastructure often taken for granted called the Administrative Data Base, or ADB, which has been around for the last 22 years. An invention of technical wizards at the former Division of Computer Research and Technology (now CIT), it was once a novel tool for handling the approximately 150,000 transactions a day in such fields as inventory, procurement, property, travel, human resources and central accounting.

"For its time, it was cutting-edge," says Colleen Barros, executive officer at the National Institute on Aging, and the leader tapped by NIH Deputy Director for Management Tony Itteilag to head the analytical effort to decide to renew or replace the ADB. "This software, now including 1.5 million lines of code, was built in the 1970's, based on the COBOL computer language and IMS database software," Barros explains. Housed on a mainframe computer, the ADB is maintained and tuned for the NIH business community by CIT.

NIA Executive Officer Colleen Barros has held down her regular job while juggling leadership of the new NIH Business System for the past 8 months.

"The ADB has been an absolutely critical piece of NIH infrastructure — a really first-rate product and service offered by the men and women who designed and maintained it," Barros said. "You won't see the ADB credited on papers published in Cell or Nature, but it has supported the daily activities that are associated with NIH's progress during its growth years. It has served NIH well."

But like its physical counterpart Bldg. 10, the ADB has become technologically obsolete, cumbersome and expensive to maintain. Where Bldg. 10 has sprouted new wings and additions on all sides, eventually exhausting its capacity to adapt, the ADB has similarly bulged with new features as information technology (IT) has exploded in the past decade. Also, the generation of engineers that built ADB is now retiring, and today, only four or five people support the behemoth.

"The business community at NIH knows that the ADB has been its lifeblood, but realizes that a next-generation version is overdue," said Barros. "With electronic commerce and the World Wide Web in our everyday lives, the ADB seems even more aged and in need of serious attention. Personal computers, the 'mouse' that sits on our desk, the 'dot-com' revolution, and buying airline tickets online —none of those existed when the ADB was designed, and it would take significant resources to upgrade to today's standards."

As it became apparent that something had to be done, officials at CIT approached the NIH executive officers about the need to address shortcomings in ADB. "These things are always a matter of money," notes Barros. "We all realized that a 'fix' would be very expensive and very challenging technically."

Itteilag asked Barros to lead a study of the business options available to update NIH's administrative computing systems. In September 1999, Barros began a project to write a "business case" for this substantial investment. Two choices quickly emerged: buy, on the commercial market, what is known as an Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) package, or develop a homegrown, or proprietary, customized application such as the ADB.

Almost 200 people from all parts of the NIH administrative and business communities formed workgroups and, under guidance of a steering committee chaired by Itteilag (and including the executive officers, the scientific community and OD functional managers), a process was crafted to identify the requirements of a new system as well as the best avenues for meeting those requirements. For the option associated with commercial products, major vendors responded with proposals, and demonstrations of their ERP packages. Each product had to comply with standards established by the Joint Financial Management Improvement Program, a government-wide certifying body.

"We had a really intense set of demonstrations over the course of 2 weeks, then we evaluated all of the proposed software packages," Barros said. "Each working group, including representatives from the scientific community, gave its assessment. That phase is concluding now. All involved are to be congratulated for their commitment and seriousness of purpose demonstrated throughout this period — they were doing this plus their regular jobs simultaneously and worked extremely hard during this period."

At the same time, CIT considered the feasibility of evolving the ADB into a next-generation system. "The phase I business case includes both options," reports Barros. "Later this month, NIH will decide which to choose."

NBS planners have also been interviewing academic medical centers, commercial ventures and other federal agencies for lessons learned and hints on how to proceed. "The limitation with other federal agencies is that their uses thus far are more focused on finance and accounting," Barros observed, "and less on travel, property, procurement, acquisition, research-and-development contracts" and other fields more typical of NIH. "We need a more holistic approach."

Like the public, which is doing more of its shopping and banking online, NIH is being drawn into the boom in e-commerce. "It is affecting procurement dramatically," Barros pointed out. "Our scientists want goods and services in the fastest way possible, and we need an administrative system that meets that need."

New products for e-commerce have built-in, automated data analysis, tracking, financial reconciliation, and reporting functions that the ADB simply can't deliver without major rebuilding. Barros credits the very people who invented the ADB (including Emmett Ward of CIT and his staff) with being the first to prescribe a successor to their creation.

"When it became obvious that new technology was outstripping their ability to keep pace, they were the first to propose a change," she said. "It was a reflection of their professionalism that they set aside ego and pressed for the consideration of alternatives. Once again, they did the heroic thing and looked for what works best and would serve the community best, just as they had done in the 1970's."

Whichever option is selected at the end of April, the NBS will continue to operate as a major enterprise-wide system along with a number of other large "enterprise systems" at NIH including CCRIS (the medical information computer system for the Clinical Center and CRC), IMPAC II, and the human resources system (which itself has undergone major HHS revision and will one day have to "marry up with NBS," according to Barros). And the many thousands of NIH'ers who use the system will need training on ADB's successor, a process that may take as long as 5 years.

"This is a big, complex, expensive effort," said Barros. "It will embed lots of best practices from the commercial community into a more comprehensive system that will reflect potentially new ways of doing business. There will be a tremendous amount of computing power behind a very friendly user face. We're going to make it easy for the occasional user, as well as for the user who needs the system's full power for his or her job."

To learn more about NBS, and progress of its implementation, visit its web site at http://nbs.nih.gov/.


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