Employment Department takes on .NET

Providing greater functionality for the end-user by utilising the Web while ensuring the privacy of its employment information data were key factors in the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations’ (DEWR) decision to implement Microsoft’s .NET into its next-generation employment systems.

Currently, DEWR manages interaction between Centrelink and the 200 Job Network members Australia-wide through its employment assistant EA2000 application, a mainframe-based system which matches applicants and vacancies across the entire network. In contrast, the up-and-coming EA3000 application, developed in-house by DEWR, will be based on Microsoft’s .NET platform.

DEWR employment systems manager Anthony Parsons said the Department originally looked at implementing an Internet-based system in 1998, but was discouraged by the “newness” of the Web.

Parsons said the Department consulted IT research and analyst firm Gartner on the appropriateness of using an Internet-based system for its 2.5 million transactions and $4 million worth of payments every day, and were advised that the Internet was not yet reliable enough for this.

“When Job Network started, the members had to buy a PC, buy the mainframe emulation software and have a dedicated communications link to DEWR,” he said.

To make it easier for members to use the mainframe system, the department then added an Internet-based user interface, allowing Job Network companies to interact with the mainframe data via their desktop browser and the Internet instead of the emulation software.

“When the Internet front-end was introduced, they no longer needed the communications link or the emulation software, and only required the Internet and a browser,” he said.

Parsons said the Internet front-end solution, however, was merely adding the “lipstick on the pig” and providing a glossy front-end to an otherwise clunky back-end system.

Responding to negative member feedback on the mainframe system, DEWR decided to upgrade. One of the immediate problems it faced was ensuring the privacy of data being retrieved from the system. According to Parsons, new provisions to the Privacy Act mean job network members are no longer allowed to keep local copies of the employment history and personal details of the unemployed.

“I want them [members] to be able to view the information, but not keep it in spreadsheets or databases.”

Parsons said utilising Microsoft’s .NET smart client component in its new EA3000 application addresses this problem by allowing DEWR to tag sensitive data in-house. The Department first considered using XML to tag data in-house, but found the tagging capabilities had not yet been developed.

As well as tagging all data as display only and locking such functions as print and save, the .NET smart client software also gives members the desktop tools to sort columns and customise the central system interface to suit their needs.

“With .NET, we can leverage off desktop functionality from Internet applications,” Parsons said.

In order to use the smart client, members need to download a free .NET smart client software runtime program from the Microsoft Web site. They will also need the new DEWR EA3000 application. Once installed, the benefit of the new online EA3000 application is that its will add in new software and applications introduced by DEWR automatically, Parsons said.

Parsons said another reason for choosing .NET over other software packages was the Department’s decision to standardise all of its non-mainframe platforms on Microsoft tools.

By insisting on a standardised system across its Job Network (all members need Windows XP to run the .NET and EA3000 applications), DEWR also avoided having to test or deal with a variety of non-Windows operating systems.

“We have done this in the past and scrapped this approach,” he said.

Several commercial, off-the-shelf products were considered by the DEWR before finally choosing the .NET platform. Authentica’s NetRecall, for example, which is distributed through Validate Technologies in Melbourne, would allow the department to introduce display-only tags to sensitive data, but the costs of gaining licences for such software for all of its 200-plus Job Network companies was estimated at “several millions” and therefore would be prohibitively expensive, Parsons said.

Other applications and software packages considered by DEWR didn’t meet the requirements for Web forms, and were only suitable for e-mail, he said.

Overall, the cost of implementing .NET was comparable to that of setting up the original mainframe system, Parsons said. Using .NET contractors, for example, cost DEWR 60-70 per cent less than the mainframe contractors hired for the EA2000 application. Hardware costs are also less, as DEWR can use commodity-based hardware rather than mainframe hardware, Parsons added.

The first stage of implementing the .NET smart client functionality into the Job Network will be with the introduction of an electronic diary application in December 2002. The electronic diary will be used as a pilot to give Job Network members the opportunity to trial and train their staff in how to use the system before it becomes live. Once fully implemented, DEWR expects to have around 30 functions like the electronic diary available across its EA3000 application.

The first delivery of the .NET-based EA3000 application is due on 31 March next year, with the final instalment expected to be in place by July 2003.

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