The Haphazard Evolution of Our Document-Imaging System
by DAVID A. UHLIG, Coordinator of Data Information Systems Charlottesville Public Schools Charlottesville, Va. By 1989, the building that houses the administrative offices for Charlottesville Public Schools had simply run out of square footage. There is little room to turn around; if you decide to do so, you must do so carefully, and at the risk of dipping your tie in a colleague's morning cup of coffee. Coupled with a steady demand for office equipment such as copiers, personal computers and printers, this left precious little room for those pillars of girthiness, otherwise known as filing cabinets. Several years prior to this, an attempt was made to remedy the filing situation through use of microfiche. Yes, we would transfer all the multitudes of paper to those little transparent index cards, which could hold so much information in such little space. We soon found out that the process was time consuming and expensive and that it took less time to walk over to the filing cabinet and retrieve the folder, than it did to find the right card, load it in the microfiche reader and then refile the card. Have you ever tried to make a hardcopy from microfiche? Everyone owes it to themselves to try it...just once. Being a bit of a non-conformist, I must admit I felt great trepidation during a staff meeting when I was asked to participate in yet another harebrained endeavor to alleviate office congestion through the attrition of filing cabinets. I was beginning to actually respect those venerable old cabinets for their endurance and fortitude. My job was to find vendors who offered computer-imaging systems that store documents, such as purchase orders or employee applications, on CD-ROMs. Imaging systems? Shouldn't that be reserved for the Department of Defense? We took a bit of a soaking on the microfiche, so I guessed we were ready for whole-hog, high-tech humiliation. Initial Steps I perused my technical journals for advertisements and actually found a few. After some phone calls, hearing things like "I'm in marketing, but I can have a technical specialist get back to you," we decided to invite some of these vendors to demonstrate their wares at our offices. I remember being amused when only one vendor responded. I was even more amused when, during the demonstration, this fast-talker told us that we could incorporate our existing computer equipment and form a "document imaging network." Although the demo seemed a bit rehearsed, it was impressive. After discussion, we decided to play it safe and write up the bid specs on a stand-alone imaging system that could be upgraded to a networked system later. We cut costs by including only those hardware items that we absolutely had to purchase from the vendor (who makes the bulk of their profit from the software). The vendor agreed to integrate our computer, which we would purchase elsewhere, for a $500 fee. Even with this fee, we realized significant savings. To guarantee our computer would work, integration and installation took place during a net-30-day-term period before we actually cut the check for the computer. The Stand-Alone Edition Basic components of our initial stand-alone setup included: the computer; a high-speed document scanner; an optical WORM drive (Write Once Read Many times optical disc, similar to recording on a CD); a special, 20-inch monitor for previewing scanned images prior to recording them; and a laser printer for printing retrieved images. Installation of the stand-alone imaging system went well, all things considered. Our clerical personnel were trained in scanning and retrieving images. However, we soon realized that we were still plagued by the problem of accessibility. Only one person at a time could use the computer to retrieve images. The DOS-based software (these were pre-Windows days) was functional , but unattractive. The system was functionally fine, but by no means a smashing success...and we still had not eliminated filing cabinets. Within a year it was obvious that to maximize usability, we had to upgrade to a networked imaging system. This would allow anyone with a computer on their desk to retrieve images (documents) in a client-server environment. By this time, most of our personnel had PCs on their desks, but no wiring or network was in place. I wholeheartedly supported this new effort for some selfish reasons: I had been reading about the trend of sharing files and printers though local area networks and I wanted to get experience in this cutting-edge technology. I realized that the proposed network wiring topology could also be used to support a Novell LAN! All we had to do was hang another PC off the wiring to act as a Novell file server. Upgrading to a Network Back to the imaging system. All of the images and most of the components for the stand-alone system migrated up to the networked system. The vendor allowed us to trade in non-usable components and apply the original costs toward the purchase of the imaging network. For example, we applied the costs of our single optical drive to a CD jukebox that allows us to record to and retrieve from any one of 50 currently mounted WORM discs, each with a gigabyte of image capacity. Just imagine a high-tech Wurlitzer; it works the same way. Two computers act as servers to the jukebox. One, the "database server," functions as an electronic table of contents for images. When a network request is made to access an image, the database server tells the "optical server" where the image is located in the jukebox. It is the optical server that actually interfaces with the jukebox and runs the software necessary to read from and write to the CDs. Both servers and the jukebox are stashed in a phone closet and only need to be turned on each morning. Two "scan stations," one in the personnel department and one in finance, are dedicated to scanning in paper documents. Adding Data Via a Novell LAN Once the imaging network was running smoothly, we forged ahead with our Novell plans. As a separate system, it would employ the same wiring to allow the sharing of data and printers. Costs to implement this were minimal. By this time, Windows had established itself as the dominant interface in DOS computing, so to maintain consistency, only Windows applications were to be installed and used on the data network. The Novell LAN caught on quickly and co-existed peacefully on the same wiring as the imaging system. However, when some one wanted to look up an image, he or she had to quit Windows and re-enter the dreaded DOS environment to get it. They had to abandon "point and click" for the world of commands and function keys. It was here that our software-support contract with the imaging system's vendor paid off. The company had the foresight to develop a Windows version of its imaging software that ran under Novell, as well as other network operating systems such as Microsoft's LAN Manager. Charlottesville Public Schools was immediately selected as a beta test site for the new software and it was hugely successful from day one. Only minor problems were reported by us, all of which were corrected in the commercial release. How It Works Today Today, when a user wishes to retrieve an image, he or she simply clicks the CD icon in Windows' Program Manager and is presented with a scrolling list of our imaging applications. They include accounts payable (for purchase order and invoice retrieval), personnel (for employee folders) and payroll (for payroll documentation). Developing these applications is a relatively simple process, similar to building a database, and done in-house by our own staff as need arises. After providing a valid user ID and password, a user is presented with the Search window. Next, one enters any combination of search criteria associated with that application: for example, a social security number or employee name for payroll, or a purchase order number or vendor name for accounts payable. When the search button is clicked, a Hit List window appears, displaying an entry for each "folder" that matched the criteria. To actually fetch and display the images from the jukebox, the user double clicks on a line in the Hit List and the image appears on the screen, in perfect resolution. One can page through the folder, rotate the image, zoom in or out, fax or print it -- all through an icon bar on the side of the screen. The imaging application can be windowed or minimized to an icon in order to share the Windows desktop with other applications. In retrospect, there was no way for us to know from the inception of the imaging system that things would have turned out so fortuitously. However, I think some key decisions along the way helped to influence the outcome. Selecting a credible, stable and innovative vendor that offered a software-maintenance contract and training was paramount. This, in conjunction with our choice of industry-standard platforms, allowed the coalescence of a state-of-the-art imaging system that will provide good service for years to come. By the way, we still have not eliminated those filing cabinets. David Uhlig is coordinator of Data Information Systems for Charlottesville Public Schools in Charlottesville, Virginia, where he is a midrange systems programmer and network administrator. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
This article originally appeared in the 04/01/1994 issue of THE Journal.