Solutech: Web-izing Library Systems

St. Louis, Missouri. The arch, the gateway to the West, the Rams, The Zoo, DRA (Data Research Associates NASDAQ: DRAI, 4 7/8 on 10 November 2000).

Imagine my surprise when I learned that St. Charles City-County Library District of St. Charles, Missouri unveiled a Web service designed and built by Solutech, Inc. I pressed my mental replay button and heard my internal voice say, "The arch, the gateway to the West, DRA, the Zoo." No Solutech Inc.

Inwood, West Virginia is The Library Corporation. Minneapolis-St. Paul means Westlaw. St. Louis punches the DRA button and means OPACs, Web catalogs, and Z39.50 plus the World Wide Web Consortium role. St. Louis is DRA's home territory.

My curiosity piqued, I asked the DRA representative at the Internet Librarian Conference in November 2000 about Solutech Inc. The reply was, "Solu-who?"

A bit of poking around revealed that Solutech Inc. is a serious company, not a library automation company Web-izing its products. The difference speaks volumes about the changes taking place in library automation.

The St. Charles Project

The goal of the project was to develop a system that would automate the functions of a library's circulation desk, its catalog system and patron-processing functions. Solutech, Inc. consultants developed the new circulation desk subsystem in conjunction with the MIS staff at the St. Charles City-County Library District of St. Charles, Missouri. The project team developed the new system by building the Library District's business rules into the framework of a user-interface prototype and a database model that was designed by the library's MIS staff.

The library's OPAC was developed by Solutech Inc., working with a number of other consultants. The system that was being used at the library, called LISTEN ("Library Interface System through Electronic Networking") was developed in-house and continually modified from the mid-1980s to approximately 1996. LISTEN ran on Hazelwood EK30 mini-computers, using a Pascal-like programming language called Basic09 under the OS9 operating system. The scarcity of Basic09 programmers made saber-tooth cats from Missouri's pre-historic past easier to find.

The hardware was manufactured by a small company based in Hazelwood, Missouri. In 1996, the company notified the library that it was no longer in business. This put the library in a tough spot. LISTEN could not run on other OS9 machines(available from other sources) because of proprietary changes made to the operating system by the vendor. Other limitations and drawbacks to the LISTEN system and OS9 were:

    1. EK30 machines did not support TCP/IP.

    2. The library's MIS department's two programmers are the only known people who support and understand OS9/EK30 computers and the LISTEN software. The same people had to support both hardware and software for the library district as well as the seven other libraries throughout Missouri that were running the same hardware and software (approximately 40 physical locations/computers).

    3. There was no off-the-shelf support and utilities software (i.e. communications, database control, etc.). This forced in-house development of these types of software.

    4. No CD-ROM support.

    5. No graphical user interface support.

    6. SCSI large disk controller limitation of two gigabytes

    7. No alternate sources for hardware drivers.
Once the library found out that they could no longer get any replacement EK30 machines, they needed a mainstream hardware and software platform that offered good price points and easy availability to programmers. This approach would free up the MIS staff's support time that could then be applied to software development and enhancements to the new system. The choice came down to developing it in-house or to purchase a turn-key system. The library's Board voted to develop the system in-house.

The St. Charles' requirements included:

    1. Providing Web access to the catalog database

    2. Using the library district's frame relay network to support a centralized database (the current LISTEN system relied on modem access only).

    3. Accommodating future enhancements and upgrades in the architecture.
The library decided to develop using Windows NT Server, SQL Server, Visual Basic, and Visual Interdev. The library's MIS staff programmers attended classes at a local company, Solutech, Inc.

After a bit of preliminary work, the library district entered into a contract with Solutech, Inc.

Solutech's young team tackled the library project with enthusiasm and a fresh perspective.

    1. The interface. Solutech focused on usability and the Holy Grail of library interfaces--No special skills or training required. In addition, the Solutech team incorporated bar code input and a search box that allowed all patrons to search holdings across holdings of 10 libraries in the system.

    2. Installation/Setup. The library wanted a system that a capable but small information technology staff could maintain and support.

    3. Integration. The new system needed to integrate data from all 10 libraries in the district and provide a central repository that could contain the entire district's patron and catalog information.

    4. Salability. All the transactions from all the branches were going to be live on this centralized system, that is, at any given time there could be50 users simultaneously checking-in or checking-out any of books and as many as 200 simultaneous users searching the catalog remotely from home or from the 10 branch libraries.

    5. Cost. The library wanted to optimize the hardware and software development costs so that the annual allotted budget for the project would not be exceeded. Therefore there was a need for the development team to be highly cost-efficient.

    6. Performance. The system performance was an important factor since the library staff was accustomed to the speed of a text-based application and non-stop check-in/out operation using a scanner. Similar or better speeds were expected from an application that presented a graphical user interface and was designed to run over a frame relay network. The system was expected to facilitate checking-in of 500-700 books in the first 30 minutes in the morning.
Solutech did the job.

Solutech: Gateway to the Future

Founded in 1992, Solutech, Inc. is a leading provider of Internet solutions and employs more than 500 professionals with offices in Saint Louis (headquarters), Kansas City, Omaha, Des Moines, Louisville, Nashville, Memphis, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Colorado Springs, Detroit, Sacramento, St. Louis Metro East, San Diego, Portland, and Tampa.

The company's revenue in 2000 is likely to break the $43 million barrier. Unlike traditional library automation company's Solutech embraces the Web from the bottom of the programmers' Nikes to the top of the company's refurbished brick building in St. Charles.

In the first 10 months of 2000, Solutech has garnered some impressive clients and an armload of awards, including the VAR Business 500 Architects of the New Economy, Missouri's Small Business Person of the Year, Inc./Cisco Growing with Technology Award, 100 Leaders of the Millennium, Sm@rt Partner 100, Deloitte & Touche Fast 50 for the third year in a row and a winner of the St. Louis Fastest Growing Private Companies.

Randy Schilling, the company's young president says, "Solutech differentiates itself by being first, best, and different." Unlike a technical firm that focuses on a specific business segment like most of the old-line automation companies, Solutech tackles middle-sized markets in the U.S.

Solutech is one of a new breed of solutions companies that seem poised to reinvent how libraries and many other companies approach their information challenges. A behemoth like Thomson can say it is transforming itself in a solutions provider, but Solutech is too busy solving its customers problems to tell the world it is reinventing itself.

Solutech offers Internet Professional Services in five disciplines: e-strategy, creative, technology, managed hosting, and technical education. Solutech partners with top software vendors including Microsoft, Oracle, Sybase, Seagate, Rational, and iGeneration.

The Solutech Approach

Traditional library automation companies have a "system" that is used to solve the library's problem. Solutech has a process. The difference is significant. One traps libraries into a well worn groove. The process leads to a customer-centric solution.

Considering the complex nature of the library's requirements, the client and Solutech engineers made a decision to develop a modular, component-based client-server application instead of a "monolithic" application.

Since the library's MIS department was constrained by the limited availability of software personnel and its branches were spread throughout the county, the ease of installing and maintaining the application was of primary importance. This requirement made it necessary for the client (front-end) to have no "business logic" and have no connections to the database.

Therefore, the solution called for a middle tier containing the business objects. This solution provided for easy salability and upgrades. For most changes made in the application at a later date, only the affected components need to be reinstalled and not the complete application. Most OPACs struggle to accommodate business processes without considerable custom coding and attendant hair raising budget exercises.

Solutech assembled the front-end using Microsoft Visual Basic 6.0. The primary consideration was ease of use and intuitive learning. The business logic was implemented by objects in the middle tier running under Microsoft Transaction Server (MTS). All of the data access was performed by the middle tier while the client was required to knowonly the class IDs of the business object components residing on the remote MTS server. The middle tier of the application consisted only of ActiveX objects and the System DSNs for data access and included no visual forms. All the objects were stateless and were run from MTS.

The data was first stored in a SQL Server 6.5 database then upgraded to SQL Server 7.0 database) and was made available to the Business Services layer through a set of stored procedures.

Solutech generated functional requirements and specifications for the business objects from the client interface prototype and from user notes describing the relevant data that needed to be accessed and modified for implementing a particular functionality.

The requirements spiraled like most Web-centric projects through several reviews and revisions before being implemented into actual program code. Revisions identified coding were slipstreamed.

Once the object specifications were reviewed, decisions were made about the portions of the logic that would be implemented with SQL Server stored procedures. The goal was to keep the stored procedures simple (to minimize work done on the server) and reusable.

Solutech prepared for the library team diagrams of each major process (for example, item check-in/ check-out) showing the relationship between each object and the stored procedures it used, and showing which object methods were called from controls on the user interface. At this point, the library's MIS staff had already gathered requirements and created a prototype of the user interface. The prototype was an important step in the process affording the project team the ability to pin down the layout of the solution and to show the interactions between the controls.

The payoff from the Solutech approach was a library team that knew what the system would do, how the system was constructed, and what was necessary to maintain and tweak the system.

Since the system went live, Solutech is working with the library team to implement a Web interface for the reservations, renewals, and viewing of fines and fees. Compliance features are planned for 2001.

Winds of Change

Not too many years ago, the Web-izing of an OPAC was a job for the companies specializing in the library market. Solutech's success with the St. Charles project demonstrates that the new breed of solutions provider can deliver an easy-to-use service on time and on budget. For libraries this approach translates to the mantra of library professionals: "Faster, better, cheaper."

So, the answer to the Solu-who question is a group of dedicated professionals who engineer the Web into the fabric of their work. The result is clear signal that libraries looking for a new OPAC, a Web interface, or a system that is designed with the library in mind, may want to look for the Solutech's of the world. As for the DRAs and the Thomsons of the world, Solutech looks like an acquisition candidate...if the president is interested in selling to a company with roots deep in the Pleistocene Epoch of the midwestern United States.

Solutech Inc.
St. Charles, Missouri
Telephone: 800.676.9393
Web site:

Stephen E. Arnold
Arnold Information Technology,
Kentucky, USA

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