INDUSTRY NEWS / USA Swimming Dives Forward into an Innovative Integrated Information Technology World -- July 5, 2004
SWIMINFO Note: The following story was posted by Microsoft to reflect its interaction with USA Swimming, which is continually looking for ways to improve its information technologies in handling the diverse databases necessary to carry out its role as he national governing body for swimming.
Swimmers’ group dives in with integrated IT approach
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USA Swimming (USAS) is the national governing body responsible for tracking the competitive activities of individual swimmers and clubs across the United States. For years, USAS relied on a mix of loosely integrated databases and manual data entry to access and store information on members and events.
This aging system made it difficult for swimmers, coaches, and others to get accurate information, hampering efforts to easily and quickly verify records or qualify athletes for events. To improve its data gathering and access, USAS worked with Statera, a Microsoft partner, to deploy a new system based on Microsoft technologies. The solution helped consolidate information into a central location, provide users with easy Web access to information, and streamline internal operations at USAS.
USA Swimming (USAS) is the national governing body for U.S. swimmers and competitive swimming events in the United States, as well as for U.S. athletes competing in other countries.
Headquartered in the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, USAS provides programs and services for members, supporters, and local swimming clubs throughout the United States. The organization is responsible for maintaining extensive data on its members and clubs, and on U.S. events and any international competitions that include American swimmers.
This information includes membership registration, meet results and times, national team data, alumni tracking, certification of officials, team information, and tracking of sports medicine and drug testing procedures.
For years, USAS relied on an array of homegrown computer systems and applications—both at headquarters and among local swimming clubs—to manage its information. The IT systems had been built on a myriad of technologies, including disparate databases such as Delphi, dBase IV, Progress, Paradox, custom applications, and a mix of Microsoft® Access databases and Microsoft Excel spreadsheets.
Information on the organization's 300,000 members and more than 2,800 clubs throughout the United States was funneled through 59 regional committees, all of which had their own databases in differing formats. The committees then forwarded the information to USAS through a variety of channels such as e-mail and floppy disks, often requiring manual re-entry after the information was received by USAS headquarters.
This technology hodgepodge created a growing number of problems, which forced top officials at USAS to consider overhauling the organization's IT architecture. The diverse and loosely connected systems inadvertently led to multiple identifications for individual swimmers, creating redundant information and making it hard to compare one swimmer's statistics with another's.
Additionally, the manual data entry at USAS headquarters led to further potential for error: Athletes were occasionally seeded incorrectly in meets. And although USAS had a headquarters application that it could use to upload meet times and results, posting accurate, timely data was difficult and time-consuming because of the poorly connected software and the outdated PC hardware on which the application was run.
To make matters worse, when an annual membership was renewed, the client server system allowed the registration to duplicate the member's record. USAS then had to sift through its records to reconcile membership data, results data, and meet entries.
USA Swimming decided to deploy an entirely new IT solution with a centralized database that could provide data over the Internet to a widely dispersed user community. As its partner in the project, USAS chose Statera, a Denver, Colorado–based solutions provider.
Statera recommended creating an n-tier, or three-level, Web-based IT architecture. The architecture includes a scalable database server, a middle-tier business logic layer, and a presentation layer that provides information on a Web site that was redesigned to make it faster and easier for users to find statistics and other information on individuals, clubs, and events throughout the United States.
Key to the solution is consolidation of the organization's array of databases into a single data repository that receives data from the 59 regional swimming committees across the United States. To minimize the impact of the architecture change on local clubs and committees, the solution was rolled out over a period of several months.
For this reason—and to help eliminate the problem of duplicate membership identities—Statera helped create what USAS calls its "holding tank" database where the integrity of incoming data is verified or modified, including information on individuals and meets. This database helps USAS and the regional committees correct inaccuracies and eliminate redundant data on swimmers by allowing users to identify overlapping information.
For example, a local committee can be notified when a "T.M. Smith" and "Tom Smith" have the same hometown and birth date, allowing officials to check and, if necessary, eliminate duplicate information. In addition, the new system was designed to reuse the same member ID from year to year to eliminate the proliferation of duplicate records and member identities.
After regional information is verified, it is stored in a central database, which provides information in response to queries submitted by users on the new USAS Web site. Initial users are the USAS staff, 59 swimming committees, and approximately 200 volunteers—with the goal of making the application accessible to the organization's 2,800 member clubs nationwide.
In addition to building the new Web site, Statera created a wizard function that lets USAS staff add tables, forms, and other features to the Web site. Statera's user interface allows the USAS staff to extend the database in a user-friendly manner with all of the scalability supported by Microsoft SQL Server™.
For the new solution, USAS also implemented an array of new technologies.
Based on Statera's recommendations, the organization initially deployed a comprehensive Microsoft Windows®–based solution that uses Microsoft Windows 2000 Server operating system, Microsoft SQL Server 2000, and Microsoft Application Center 2000—all components of the Microsoft Windows Server System™ integrated server software—as well as the Microsoft Visual Studio® .NET development system. USAS and Statera have since upgraded the Web servers to the Microsoft Windows Server™ 2003 operating system.
Microsoft ASP.NET presents data on the USAS Web site, while XML translates data from external vendors into a common format for internal use. USAS runs the Microsoft Windows XP Professional operating system on its PCs.
With this common IT infrastructure, USAS now has seamlessly integrated software, thereby increasing the efficiency of operations while reducing the organization's cost of ownership.
The solution was rolled out incrementally, first at organization headquarters and then to the regional committees; eventually, all USAS-sanctioned clubs in the United States will have full access to the system. The solution's SQL Server currently manages about 4.5 million records. Initially the system supported about 250 users, but USAS plans to make much of its information available to the entire organization membership. With SQL Server running on a four-processor Dell PowerEdge server, the online transaction processing capabilities in SQL Server are capable of supporting up to about 1 million concurrent queries.
The new solution has made USA Swimming a technology leader among national governing sports organizations by reducing the complexity and cost of ownership of its IT infrastructure. USAS employees can update forms and create reports far more easily than in the past, vastly increasing their ability to rapidly respond to requests from members and clubs—and the problem of duplicate identities is being eliminated. The use of highly scalable database technology provides USAS with the ability to steadily increase the amount and complexity of data that it can handle, which reduces the workload on USAS personnel while providing users with faster Web-based access to data and the ability to create, for example, custom Web pages with a swimmer's personal data.
USAS now has an integrated, long-term solution that is cost-effective and easy to support. Similarly, the new platform is being integrated with the USAS public Web site, which is being developed by Statera on Microsoft .NET connection software and SQL Server 2000. The revamped Web site scheduled for launch in May 2004.
Reduced Complexity Improves Organizational Efficiency
John Burbidge, Information Technology Director for USA Swimming, says the benefits of the new solution were quickly appreciated both at the organization's headquarters and at external locations. "Our users at headquarters and in the field have been very receptive toward the new solution because it makes their work easier," says Burbidge. "Many of the users—particularly those involved in tracking and entering time results from meets—are volunteers. They often don't have a lot of computer training, so we had to provide a system that is easy to use. With the help of Statera and Visual Studio .NET, we were able to create a wizard that walks them easily and quickly through the data entry process."
The issue of redundant identities was addressed by the creation of a single record key for each USAS member. "This helps us solve what was perhaps our biggest issue with the old system," explains Burbidge. "Depending on who was creating the data at a swim committee, a legal first name or perhaps the person's initials would be entered in the system—sometimes resulting in four or five different identities for the same person. By gradually eliminating this duplication, we can be far more responsive in terms of providing critical information on individual and event information and statistics."
Solution Cuts Cost of Ownership, Adds Capabilities
Paul Bloom, Lead Developer for Statera on the USAS project, says USAS wanted technology that would carry them into the future. "They did not want to get painted into a corner with a platform that would not be supported over the long term or would cost them a lot of money to support," Bloom says. "Microsoft offers proven technologies, and it provides the tools such as Visual C#®, ASP.NET, and SQL Server to create a robust, multitiered, Web-based application that can handle their current needs and growth in the organization."
Bloom adds that due to all the variables in an athlete's record, including personal information as well as performance and event data, the records contained in the database are large and constantly in flux, demanding a highly scalable and flexible database. Statera believed that SQL Server, combined with its integration into other Windows-based components, would be the best application to accomplish this key task.
Bloom says SQL Server provided other features, such as rich business intelligence and data warehousing capabilities that USAS will benefit from as the new solution is fully implemented. "With SQL Server, we were able to create a central online transaction database that captures information that arrives during the day, and a data warehouse that is updated nightly, providing faster and more detailed data on activities that affect the organization's members and events," says Bloom.
"Previously there was no communication between the organization's databases that dealt with membership details and competition statistics, so relating event results to individuals was very difficult and time-consuming," Bloom continues. "SQL Server is the core of an integrated, cost-effective solution with a central database that can feed their data warehouse every day with updated information, accurately matching performances with individuals. This is a huge advantage. Previously it would take up to three days to refresh the data. Now a full refresh takes about one hour in the middle of the night."
New IT Infrastructure Provides Foundation for the Future
By selecting a Microsoft-based solution, USAS chose a platform that the organization can count on for the long term for continued growth and supportability.
Burbidge says that by May 2004, in collaboration with Statera's development team, USAS will have revamped its public Web site to offer users a high degree of personalization. For example, a swimmer will be able to create a "My USA Swimming" page with her personal times as well as charts and graphs to help her measure her progress.
"The Microsoft-based solution provides us with cleaner data and better access to information for internal purposes. It also helps us provide our users with information much faster than before," Burbidge says. "The choice of technology matches the technical skills in house—we won't have to outsource for UNIX skills, which will save us time and money. Our overall goal was to improve service to our membership by making information access easier and faster for coaches, swimmers, and clubs to access. And this solution is helping us accomplish that."
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