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Client/Server Systems Development

Executive Summary

What trips up IS spending planners most when they initiate rightsizing? "Training, training, and training," says Henry Leingang, vice-president and CIO at Viacom Inc., the New York entertainment and broadcasting firm.1 It is easy to overlook the training effort required when organizations attempt to reengineer their business processes. Managers become accustomed to people doing their jobs in a certain way and overlook the effort that has been expended to get them to that level of competence. Reengineering means change—change that is fundamental and not transparent. Change requires people to be learning to work effectively within the changed environment. Continuous change means that a continuous program of learning must be in place to allow people to work effectively.

Client/server computing provides an opportunity to reengineer the business process by using technology earlier and in a more integrated manner. It does not eliminate the need to train for the new process.

Training Advantages of GUI Applications

A major training benefit of the graphical user interface (GUI) is the opportunity to provide an intuitive interface. Each time standard functions are used in a GUI platform, they are invoked in the same way. Each new business application does not require user retraining in the use of help, error correction, menu navigation, or security measures. The basic business process functionality to view, add, change, and delete information appears and works consistently from application to application. These processes are implemented as part of an organizational "view" implemented with a systems development environment (SDE) and incorporated into every application.

Because of GUIs, users can be trained once to properly use these features, and this knowledge can be reused for every new application. With standardized training on these fundamentals, new applications need only provide training on the new business processes. This will reduce costs, reduce stress on trainees, and decrease the time it takes to move new applications into production.

Reduced Training Costs

Forrester Research predicts that the use of GUIs will cut user training costs by 30 to 40 percent.2 In the Los Angeles Fire Department project described in Appendix A, the department has determined that training time has been reduced from the previous 10 weeks to only 4 weeks. Chief Rudd credits this to the ease of use provided by the GUI compared to the previous character mode implementation.

Adding a common front end to a mixture of existing applications dramatically reduced training costs for a major telephone company in another project. A reduction in staff turnover, attributed to the ease of use, further reduced training costs because of fewer new employees. In fast food restaurants, staff turnover may exceed 300 percent per year. Training costs could overwhelm profitability. The use of ergonomically engineered GUIs, with touch screen interfaces, enables new staff to be trained in less than one hour.

Although end-user training is the most costly and therefore receives the most benefit from the use of GUIs in client/server computing, there is still a need to train the technical support organization. Without proper training the system administrators, systems programmers, technicians, and developers will not build effective systems or support the system's users effectively. It costs about $300 to install the networking components to set up a workstation, but the salary cost for the maintenance staff can be $1,000 per machine if LAN Administration is done on a "learn as you do it" basis.3

Training the Technical Staff

With the critical nature of many client/server applications, downtime is a sensitive issue. Training of support personnel becomes a major concern for organizations moving forward with client/server applications. Many of the same techniques available to train users can be used in training the technical support organization. An SDE, consistent standards, multimedia, integrated help features, readable documentation, and training/test systems all have a place in the training of technical staff.

Technicians moving from a mainframe environment are challenged to overcome their culture shock and view these workstation-based systems as powerful equipment. These technicians must be trained to respect the knowledge possessed by the user community. In a client/server implementation, it is common for technical support personnel to deal with users who are very familiar with the technology and who may occasionally be more sophisticated about the technology than the technician. This is a major culture shock for technical personnel familiar with the complexities of the host environment and the relative lack of sophistication of the mainframe user community.

Training in product specifics may be obtained from many sources: product vendors, professional trainers, colleges, user groups, and hands-on, in-house tutorials. Each organization should assess the degree and type of training pertinent to its particular situation. Novell, Microsoft, and IBM have extensive training programs available for technical support personnel and network administrators. And they have created active programs to certify trainers to provide training for their products.

Experience indicates that technical personnel in a business get the most benefit from product vendor training. Most personnel in the business will benefit more from training that is tailored to the specifics of an organization's SDE and business priorities. The single-system image concept is best implemented when detailed technical training reflects the need to know. Training systems incorporated into the SDE and tailored to an organization frequently provide the most optimal training environment because the sessions use terminology and business language that the trainees are familiar with.

A well-implemented Help Desk, using a product such as Remedy's Action Request System, is the best training vehicle for technical support personnel. This is the vehicle to capture the corporate experience and through workgroup computing techniques, to share this knowledge throughout the support organization, and to leverage the experience and expertise of the organization.

Systems Administrator Training

One of the first steps in training systems administration personnel to support client/server technology must be to teach the importance and reality of the applications. There is a prevalent attitude that workstations provide only personal productivity services. The implication of this attitude is that the organization doesn't really care about availability of the LANs. Insufficient training in this area will doom all other training efforts.

Once system administration personnel accept the requirements for system availability, the next steps are much easier. Administrators must understand the level of performance and ease of use their users require. Engineers and clerical users do have different needs, expectations, and technical abilities. Management should direct training into the areas that are of concern to the organization. In small workgroup LANs, many performance and automation issues are not nearly as significant as ease of use and ease of maintenance. In large LANs, performance and automated procedures may be sufficiently critical to justify the use of complex installation and maintenance procedures.

The cost of training expert administrators and technicians is such that most organizations will need to provide remote LAN and WAN management and support. It often is impractical to have highly technical support personnel at every workgroup location. Thus, as part of their training personnel, they should be made aware of both the technical and human-interaction protocols of working remotely. The lack of eye contact inherent in a remote support situation means that the person providing support to a frustrated user must be able to build and maintain a rapport over the telephone or through e-mail. This is a challenge that many organizations have not addressed in their training. The inability to deal with this situation has led some organizations to use outsourced support with professionally trained help desk and technical support personnel.

LAN Administration

The first step in system administration training is to understand the organization's conventions. Naming, security, help procedures, and so on must be understood and implemented uniformly between applications and products. Large systems rolled out in many locations should develop administrator training as well as user training. This training will ensure that each installation operates the same way and that remote support personnel can communicate with local administrators.

The administrator should receive thorough software product training. Word processors, spreadsheets, databases, graphics, and other complex products should be installed with uniform default settings across all sites. In order to properly select these options and support requests for help, the administrator should be an expert in the use of the product. Remote support will be much easier when products are installed with consistent defaults.

Disk space management is an important issue for the administrator. Proper file naming conventions and defaults will ensure that each user's or workgroup's data is localized for backups and archiving. If everyone stores data files in random locations, it will be extremely difficult to manage space usage. The administrator must understand what the product requirements are and arrange to have temporary and backup files created on volumes that can be cleaned up regularly. This is an often-overlooked aspect of training in product usage.

Products such as Network General's Sniffer enable LAN administrators to monitor the network for capacity and problems without the need for detailed knowledge of the applications. Contributing to the power of these products is their capability to be used without prior detailed training on the specific technologies employed on the LAN. Sniffer captures LAN traffic, analyzes the data, and recommends actions based on its assessment of the data's meaning. Internal LAN message formats are interpreted by the software so that the LAN administrator can take action based on the recommendations without the need for detailed knowledge of these message formats. This feature is particularly critical with remote LANs, for which it is not possible to have the most highly trained LAN administrative personnel resident.

WAN Issues

All the same WAN network issues associated with remote terminal access to host systems exist in the client/server-to-WAN access. Additional complexities arise when data is distributed to the remote LAN. Application programs that are distributed to remote servers present many of the same problems as do distributed databases. Administrators must be trained in the software and in procedures to handle network definition, network management, and remote backup and recovery. Many of the WAN problems appear as unrelated incidents to remote users who don't understand the WAN issues. It is imperative to train the WAN administrator in the use of remote management tools. Tools such as IBM's NetView and Cabletron's Spectrum enable administrators to remotely manage the LAN-to-WAN environment needed for many client/server applications.

Training developers in WAN issues is also critical because of the WAN's impact on communication issues. Where data is stored and how it is to be retrieved must be considered in the development of applications. The conversations will be quite different for a WAN rather than a LAN.

WANs are particularly complex to understand and optimize because of the many configuration options available. Training WAN administrators to understand all of the options available to establish an optimal topology is more expensive than many organizations can justify. Tools such as IBM's NetView, Sunsoft's Sun/Connect, HP's Openview, and various products from BBN and Openvision can be used to provide recommendations and assessments to the WAN administrator. Training in the tools is frequently more valuable than extensive training in the WAN technologies.

Operating System Issues

Administrators must be expertly trained in the operating system (OS) used by clients and servers in the client/server application. Networks frequently run several OSs—such as DOS, Windows 3.x, Windows NT, OS/2, and UNIX—within the supported client/server implementations. This diversity of platforms challenges the administrators to have expertise not only in the particulars of a single OS but also in the interaction of the various OSs.

New releases of OSs introduce additional challenges as new interactions and incompatibilities appear. In the UNIX arena, an additional challenge arises when the hardware platforms are not homogeneous and several UNIX derivatives, each with minor variations, are being used simultaneously. The costs and implications of training in this area must not be overlooked. In the design and planning for a new client/server application, the training requirements should be carefully considered before an organization establishes too many OS configurations.

PC/Workstation Issues

Administrators must be trained in the basic hardware components of the workstation. Many problems that occur in the field can be fixed remotely by a user with direction from the remote administrator. Common problems such as unplugged devices, loose cards, or lost configurations, can often be repaired by a user with some willingness to follow directions. Support personnel should be trained in software to support remote PC/workstation logins. Software such as Checkit PRO for the PC and ESRA for UNIX can be used to diagnose more complex hardware problems.

Application Issues

Administrators must be well-versed in the application to enable rapid and effective communication with remote users. They should be trained in both the functionality and technology of the applications. It is common to designate a sophisticated user as the support administrator for an application. Because most problems are related to applications, the application support administrator should be an expert in how business users utilize the application. It is especially important with the first applications being rolled out for remote usage, that support administrators be able to rapidly determine whether a problem is related to application usage or truly technical.

Programmers' Resistance to New Technologies

The major problem facing organizations in training developers for the client/server model is the staff's resistance to such a radical change. Many computer industry personnel are now middle-aged, and many are reluctant to undertake a challenging relearning process. Many feel they have invested the best years of their lives in attaining excellence in their technologies and the business of their corporations and are reluctant to see this knowledge diminished in value by radically new and different technologies. The movement from host-centered COBOL programming to distributed C and graphical, object-oriented development requires a rethinking of the fundamentals of system development. Windowing systems require the layout skills more commonly found in a graphic designer than in a programmer. Training seasoned minds for this new environment is a challenging undertaking.

One solution is to provide training that enables developers to work effectively in the new environment. The problems indicate there is a real need to market the advantages of the new environment to these people. Training for programmers should be built into the SDE. Success in building client/server applications is more dependent on the use of standards and reusable objects than it was in the host environment. It is important for the SDE team to appreciate this mandate and to develop training that addresses the natural objections of the existing staff and highlights the advantages of the new tools. The SDE objects must be seen as an integral part of the development tools, not as optional components. With the rapid changes taking place in the tools of client/server development, the developers may see as many new tools in a single project as they have encountered in their careers. Ongoing training to gain proficiency in these new tools will create the demand for a new training approach that focuses on teaching only the differences within the common framework laid out by the SDE.

Technology components, such as communications and database access, use the same underlying technologies that most host developers are familiar with. In most cases, these technologies are masked by high-level interfaces, so training all personnel, except the technical support staff, can be restricted to the use of the interface software. This is an important feature of the SDE and a necessary step in protecting the single-system image.

Training for debugging in the client/server technologies is both simpler and more difficult. The single-user workstation usually provides responsive debugging information. Frequently, this feature is integrated with windowed debugging tools that enable staff to monitor the application output in conjunction with the application execution status. The complexity comes with the mass of new technologies implemented in a distributed environment. This complexity will be greatly simplified with careful attention in the SDE to building reusable objects that manage all interfaces. Database functions to support the building of test environments, back up of logical rather than physical components, recovery in shared environments, and views of before-and-after images all will reduce the training effort and improve productivity.

Database Administrator Training

Database administrators face additional challenges in a client/server implementation when data is distributed. Even in single-site, shared database applications, the client/server model typically leads to ad hoc end-user access. Most current host implementations operate in an environment where trained operations and technical support staff are operating and supporting the applications. This ensures that standard operating procedures will be followed and that problems can be solved quickly by experienced technical support personnel.

In the client/server environment, distributed data implies that data may be stored where no skilled staff are available to provide support. In addition, the additional complexity of the new environment requires new training for existing database administration staff. Design issues are particularly critical here because performance can be dramatically affected by the location of data. Remote control of utility functions is mandatory, and training existing staff to handle these procedures presents real challenges, especially when they continue to operate existing systems. Once again, the use of SDE-developed standard procedures that are reused between applications will allow this training to be provided once and applied to all new client/server applications.

End-User Training

End users should be trained once in the user interface standards defined by the organization as part of the SDE. The best time to provide this training is in conjunction with the first applications. It is likely that users will already know how to use a workstation for personal productivity. The new standards will not be dramatically different from those currently used unless a very different technology is being employed.

Workstation Operations

It is important to train in the shared use of the workstation for personal productivity and client/server application functionality. Users will be very unhappy if their existing valued capabilities are lost as a result of the new system. This training should include such standard features as security, help, navigation (how to get from one function to the next), table management and scrolling, as well as standard business processes such as viewing, adding, changing, and deleting information.

Applications and New Technologies

When the standard environment is understood, the particular application processes can be trained within this environment. In the future, new applications should require only training in the new business processes. The training should take place on a test system that replicates the production environment with training databases. This method ensures that the training environment matches production and can act as an acceptance test for the application. Training cannot take place on software that is faulty. User confidence and concentration will be lost if errors are regularly encountered. Version releases of the software should enable training to be provided on portions of the application as it is ready, without the need to wait for products to be completed.

Training Delivery Technology

Taking advantage of the many new training technologies is an integral part of a successful client/server training plan. For example, integrated context-sensitive help can provide users with information when they are in doubt. These facilities are provided as part of an SDE. Help details are provided by knowledgeable users during the development of the application. Formal user instruction should use a training version of the software that provides all of the functionality of the production system and uses training databases.

Integration of video and audio presentations into the training program will make it enjoyable for the trainee. These technologies can be integrated into the training program so that full-motion video training can be invoked to demonstrate a scenario on the workstation at any time the user requires. This training can be integrated in a context-sensitive manner so that the training system recognizes the point in the business process at which a request for training is issued and begins the training on that topic. For example, a user that is unfamiliar with the steps required to enter a contract in a new customer information management system would press a key that starts a video sequence illustrating the contract process. This form of training enables casual users of a system to be productive without the need for constant formal retraining. All training is provided directly at the workstation on demand.

The use of multimedia technologies can be an effective means of improving attentiveness to the training. This technology enables trainers to illustrate explanations of the business process with sound and video examples at the request of the trainee. When the user feels confident, he or she can recall the production environment and proceed. Integrating this facility into the SDE can dramatically reduce training costs for organizations with new employees or an application with casual users.


1 John P. McPartlin, Bob Violino, Peter Krass, "The Hidden Costs of Downsizing," Information Week, No. 347 (November 18, 1991), p. 36.

2 Forrester Research, Professional Systems Report (Cambridge, MA: Forrester Research, 1990).

3 These figures are cited by Larry Orenstein, Assistand Chief Engineer, IT Division, Stone & Webster Engineering.

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