Management Spotlight: NYC modernizes mainframe to rebuild city

New York City has been in a rebuilding process since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Much of that rebuilding effort filters through the Department of Buildings, which stores data on the city’s mainframes to manage permits and license people to work on NYC’s 900,000 buildings.

In the past, city employees could access Department of Buildings information through an Adabas green-screen app, which remains the mainstay of all the department’s work, according to Matti Friedman (left), application development director.

The public, however, could not access such information. Instead, people had to line up in one of the five NYC borough offices to wait for a dumb terminal to query information on building history -- such as complaints or violations -- or to check the status of a permit. People who did not want to wait in line hired expediters.

Just as things have changed in the construction industry, the Department of Buildings found that people now wanted to access information over the Internet. That left the department with three choices, Friedman said. It could keep what it had and build a front end to make it easier for people to access; it could replace everything; or it could do a combination of both.

“The quickest thing we found is to build a front end to the Adabas files and [to then] put it on the Web,” Friedman noted. Germany-based Software AG presented a proof of concept to the department on how to use its EntireX integration software to Web-enable its legacy database.

The original trial version of the Web-enabled database, which debuted last year, worked well and fast but only presented limited information, Friedman noted. “You could see an overview of a property but not much detail.”

The department put in a major revision in April and added final query capabilities in June. The updated version “gives information to anybody on the Web,” Friedman remarked. “You can find violations, what’s happening with the physical structure of a building, a plumber’s license, etc.” The information, which used to be just for builders, can now be accessed by people wanting to buy a house or by people wanting to see if they have any complaints from their neighbors.

The Department of Buildings staff is able to use its existing Software AG Natural programs to query the system thanks to EntireX wrappers around the existing code. “We’re using our existing Natural programs. We didn’t have to invent new code and we were able to get it up quickly,” Friedman said.

The Web-enabled app sends the information to Java instead of to a green screen. “It takes the data and passes it back and forth,” Friedman explained, adding that “the Web application is extremely faster than our green-screen application.”

It took seven months to complete the mainframe front end on the department’s system, he said. The department enlisted a Java expert and an EntireX expert to lead the project. On December 11, 2002, the Building Information Systems Web site (Bisweb) had 10,800 hits a day, Friedman said. “It’s now close to 140,000 hits a day.”

The most significant challenge the department encountered along the way was converting from an application that went through links in a procedural fashion, Friedman acknowledged. By moving to a point-and-click application where users could go from anywhere to anywhere, the department had to change its methodology, he explained. The department talked to users to learn where they wanted to go from which pages, and was able to redesign ways of accessing data.

The front end has reduced the number of people going into the Department of Buildings offices and the accompanying long lines, Friedman said. “We’re able to use our people -- clerical and staff -- and enable them to work on their tasks instead of just answering questions from the public,” he added.

In addition, the Web-enabled database has enabled people to perform their jobs more efficiently. “Now we can take someone used to the green screen and put them on a page on the Web and they’re able to get their information so much faster,” Friedman said. “It’s the same data, but made in a much nicer format.”

The Department of Buildings is pleased with its progress but is not content to stop here. It plans to make it possible for people to file remotely over the Web, according to Friedman. The department’s dream is that “people can file from their laptop from wherever they are, and submit CAD drawings and trigger the process,” Friedman added. Eventually, the department wants to enable people to get permits electronically as well.

“The main objective of our administration is to rebuild New York,” Friedman noted. “We’re doing whatever we can to help in that process and to make sure that there are no bottlenecks.”

About the Author

Lana Gates is a freelance writer based in Mesa, Arizona. She can be reached via e-mail at


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