National Marrow Donor Program

Development Team:
Aranya Kreber, Jolene Gardner, Paul Zyla, Stephanie Martin, Tim Longsdorf, David Lee (front row), Matt Presteggard, Bob Reuss, Sam McCaa, Chris Schey (not pictured), Kristin Merwin (not pictured)
National Marrow Donor Program links donors with patients

If any IS organization builds truly mission-critical systems, it is the development team at the National Marrow Donor Program in Minneapolis. If an application can join the right patient with the right donor at the right time, lives can be saved.

And so it is with the TRANS Link application built in the past year to provide 140 worldwide transplant centers with an application that can dramatically cut the time required for vital data searches that match transplant donors with patients. The new system will provide online access to data that was previously only available via paper reports mailed to the centers. Searches that once took up to a day can now be completed online in seconds by directly accessing the program's Sybase RDBMS, say officials.


Project: TRANS Link

Purpose: To improve communications with transplant center coordinators and physicians, and to provide a more efficient way to manage patient files and searches.

Benefits: Provides extensive donor information to physicians, and in a quicker fashion, allowing for a much faster decision-making process.

Platform: Sun Solaris

Once the testing and training phase — started early this year — is completed this spring, the TRANS Link software will be distributed to each transplant center.

An older Search Tracking and Registry (STAR) system called for compiling, printing and mailing daily, weekly and monthly reports consisting of hundreds of pages. The dissemination of the project resulted in a 24-hour wait for a patient to learn whether a donor was available and acceptable. The STAR system was installed in 1992 to replace an app that required a three-to-four day wait to match donors and recipients. "We needed a new system that could send the data in real time," said Paul Zyla, senior manager, systems development in the non-profit donor program's IS unit. He said the centers will continue to get printed reports if they request them, but he expects the number of such requests to decline steadily as the online system becomes available.


Sybase Enterprise Application Server, Sybase PowerJ, Sybase PowerDesigner, Sybase Adaptive Server Enterprise, Sybase Replication Server, Sybase Unified Process, Rational Requisite Pro, Rational Rose

The new TRANS Link system will continue to be upgraded in stages, he said. The initial plan calls for a gradual replacement of installed apps and communications devices with a set of integrated and centralized apps, Zyla said. The goal is to provide accurate and immediate information that cannot face delays due to system or communication barriers. TRANS Link will allow transplant centers to get immediate results of preliminary and formal online searches. In addition, the system will register patients, track patient information, manage patient files, and supply information on demographics and infectious diseases.

The TRANS Link project began with a task force meeting in September 1998 in which participants established preliminary requirements for the project. The task force included staff representatives from the program's business units and coordinators from 10 transplant centers in the United States. The team con- tinued to provide input and suggestions throughout the life cycle of the project. A project leader was named two months later and the creation of a project team of developers, development managers and consultants followed quickly. Training of personnel at the worldwide transplant centers began last month.

The TRANS Link development project marked the marrow donor program's inaugural use of the Unified Modeling Language (UML), Java, a three-tier architecture and application servers. It also marked the development team's first use of object- oriented programming and development tools. Zyla remarked that the new technologies were a major hurdle for internal developers, but this was handled through extensive training classes.

The project also utilized the Rational Unified Process (RUP) from Rational Software, San Jose, Calif., an iterative and controlled process that caused some consternation among developers because the unit had previously relied on traditional structured development processes.

Zyla said the organization turned to the Sybase Enterprise Application Server (EAServer) and PowerJ Java development toolset as key technologies because of the team's familiarity with Sybase products. However, some training was required for PowerJ and a new version of the EAServer application server, he said.

While the project kept very close to the original timetable set in late 1998, Zyla said that based on hindsight, more time should have been allotted for training because of the significant number of new technologies and tools introduced to the team during the process.

Another major challenge was incor- porating measures that ensured patient and donor security, Zyla said. "We knew we wanted a centralized database here [at the program headquarters]," he said. "We thought it would be better to have them come into our database." However, this required assurances that the data would be available only to authorized personnel. IS developers worked with colleagues in the network unit to build a virtual private network (VPN) that utilizes security cards.

Data is stored in the STAR system, which is a centralized Sybase database. TRANS Link accesses data through an EAServer sitting outside the organization's firewall. A VPN and security-card system ensure secure connections, said Zyla.
— Michael W. Bucken


The project's success stemmed in part from full executive sponsorship and the inclusion of project team members from 10 domestic transplant centers. These system-targeted users were heavily involved throughout the requirements gathering process, system concept formation and risk analysis phase.

We were impressed that the team introduced and utilized the Rational Unified Process (RUP). They found this approach to be effective but sometimes difficult, as most of the team's experience was in traditional structured development. In the end, RUP's iterative processes delivered improved management of both resources and the overall project itself.

The team brought in new technology and supported the required training investment, and also encouraged participation in vendor technical support and newsgroups. This, combined with the team member's significant software development experience and knowledge of how the organization conducts business, was a key to the project's success.

Security access to the new system was a valid concern, and we liked the way the developers overcame this challenge by utilizing Secure ID and a virtual private network. We also applaud the team's choice to take an "open system" approach, therefore reducing vendor dependence and ensuring portability to other platforms. Finally, we respected the project team's honesty in acknowledging that more time should be spent in acquiring knowledge regarding new technology, allowing the team to fully exploit its capabilities.

Team Leader:
Daniel Suppin, director of frameworks development

Team Members:
Judy Meadows, senior principal consultant in Keane's corporate project management service organization; and Ann Schmenk, principal consultant with Keane's methodology development group