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ACS Healthcare turns to Segue to 'fill the holes'

ACS Healthcare (ACSH), a division of Affiliated Computer Services Inc., is an outsourcing provider of diversified business process and information technology for enterprises and government clients. It has recently won contracts and renewals for medical benefits claims processing in North Carolina, Texas and Mississippi -- a $600 million a year business.

About five years ago, ACSH was awarded the $351 million Georgia Health Partnership contract to provide administrative services and support for three separate government-run health programs. The partnership includes IBM, Computer Sciences and several other subcontractors.

But the contract was plagued from the start by missed service-level agreements (SLAs) and administrative glitches, damaging the company's reputation and the confidence of health-care providers who used the system.

A key problem is that the system is distributed and "a mind-blowing size," cutting across a huge variety of platforms and applications, explains Larry Fortune, ACSH's performance manager.

"There's IBM 3270 scripting for TCP/IP send-and-receive packets, on base software with jillions of OBDCs, CORBA calls, batch processing, Web apps, IVR and PowerBuilder," he says. "It's not easy to understand what's going on, and the data is old and dirty."

The Georgia system sits on a three-tiered network with a Web portal on top, five Windows servers for Web and interactive voice response in the middle, and mainframes in a Pittsburgh data center the size of three football fields. In a typical week, the company processes $110 million in Medicaid claims, Fortune says.

It was also the first time the company began handling claims submitted over the Web. Although ACSH performance tested the system before going live, no one knew how many claims would be submitted. The answer? The system now handles 67,000 Medicaid claims via the Web portal, which is operated by IBM in Raleigh, N.C.

"We were way off on our estimates of how popular the Web would be," Fortune now says.

Another factor was that the client, Georgia's CIO, demanded SLAs for five types of transactions with $2,000 penalties per week per transaction type for unmet SLAs. The SLA requires that it take no more than five seconds to submit a claim and three seconds to process it. The partnership must submit a monthly report card of how well it performs meeting its SLAs.

"There were times I said just pay the penalties because of the difficulties of fixing all these problems," Fortune recalls.

To get a handle on the system's problems, ACSH turned to Segue Software, which markets application performance management tools for testing, tuning and monitoring enterprise applications.

"The system is like a block of Swiss cheese with many very fine holes," Fortune explains. "You're never going to fill all the holes, but the only way you're going to know where they are so you can solve problems is with performance testing and monitoring."

Using Segue's SilkPerformer, ACSH began closing holes. "Our goals were to get stability and the speed up to meet our SLAs," Fortune says. "It was also important to see how well partner systems were performing, and how much time is spent to process each claim in the portal and middle tiers."

ACSH found, for example, that dual-processor machines were running slower than single-processor machines, Web servers in the middle tier were crashing up to 29 times per day, and a box to handle a macro scheduler that interfaced to the outside would hang every time the CPU maxed out at 100%.

Pinpointing specific problems like these has enabled the company to start meeting its SLAs, Fortune says. With SilkPerformer, he adds, ACSH was able to get away from a monthly report card to real-time analysis. "It's made us a believer in performance management," he adds.

The dollar savings are still difficult to quantify, but the value of customer satisfaction and company reputation makes it more than worthwhile, Fortune says.

Recently, ACSH wrested a contract from EDS in North Carolina because its bid was $80 million less. "We came in so much lower because, through the use of performance management tools, we're able to run systems better," Fortune says.

About the Author

Michael Alexander is editor-in-chief of Application Development Trends.

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