The Tyranny of the Tiers in Public Safety Software

Everyone in the public safety software business knows The Tiers. Agencies are ranked by population served. Vendors are classified according to their customers’ tiers. Exact definitions of the tiers vary but the concept is the consistent.  Big cities are usually Tier 1. Some distinguish the largest cities as Tier 0, others include them in Tier 1.  Small towns and rural counties are Tier 3, and  Tier 2 is everyone else. Gartner group counts five tiers numbered 1 through 5.  Dispatch Magazine simplifies, listing fourteen vendors in the top of only two tiers.  Robertson and Associates also identifies fourteen vendors in the top two (of four) tiers, but only six are on both lists. Gartner lists fifteen “vendors to watch” most of which are on at least one of the other two lists.  Most sources agree there are somewhere around 130 additional vendors in the lower tiers.

The conventional wisdom is that, near the top of the pyramid, massive projects must be undertaken at great expense and risk to deliver scalable high availability systems that meet unique and complex requirements. Even the best off-the-shelf products must be customized and tailored until every one of thousands of individual detailed requirements is met and verified. At the opposite extreme, small agencies have little choice but to get by with either low cost turnkey products or none at all. Those in between, unable to afford top tier solutions, choose from an abundance of second and third tier options in accordance with their budgets and their aspirations.

Like all conventional thinking, this sounds perfectly reasonable. But, conventions are essentially shortcuts based on repeating what worked in the past. In the midst of the seismic shift underway today in the foundations on which public safety system are built, doing what worked in the past is downright wrong. It is time to rethink our assumptions including the tiers themselves.

Public safety is highly decentralized in the U.S. Nearly every political subdivision has one or more agencies under its jurisdiction. Early computer applications were affordable only to only the largest agencies, and they mirrored the commercial data processing sensibilities of the period: custom systems built by large internal IT departments and large system integrators.  As the cost of computing fell over the years, smaller agencies were able to acquire scaled down systems. Agencies and vendors entered the marketplace  side by side in size order.  To this day, the top vendors are the oldest and largest, mid-tier suppliers are mid-sized and middle-aged, and the lowest tiers are served by the youngest, smallest most geographically rangebound providers.

One of the results of the industry’s evolution was the stratification of solutions. The largest vendors structured their businesses around doing a small number of large projects, and were weren’t quick to adopt the less costly technologies that were affordable to newly arriving agencies. Likewise, vendors who entered the market with mid-tier solutions didn’t have the right skills or business practices necessary to capitalize on the market for very low cost PC-based products for the smallest agencies. Over the years, only a few vendors have moved up or down the tiers.

Imagine if we started over from scratch tomorrow, with scalable cloud computing and modern multi-tenant applications shared by hundreds of agencies and hundreds of thousands of users. Scalable fault-tolerant applications would be available to agencies of all sizes, and there would be no reason to build different products for agencies in different tiers. Of course the largest agencies would still have some requirements that the smallest would not, but these would simply be optional modules.  The aggregate cost savings would approach ninety percent as the massive redundancy of on-premise hardware was eliminated, and sharing information would be as simple and natural as it is on Facebook.

Of course, no matter how appealing the vision might be, it can’t be achieved in a single giant leap. But we can begin the work of considering potential obstacles and the roadmap needed to get past them.

The idea that all extant business processes are essential and that the goal of information systems is to support them without modification flies in the face of reason, yet most large public safety software projects are conducted with this premise. In 1990, Michael Hammer of MIT wrote a now famous article on Business Process Reengineering  in which he claimed that information technology has been overused for automating existing processes rather than using it to make work that is of no value obsolete. The private sector embraced the concept of during the nineties, achieved some great successes, and also learned some lessons, among the best of which was the idea of best practices.  A best practice is a method or technique that has consistently shown results superior to those achieved with other means. One of the greatest benefits of large-scale shared information systems is that they encourage users to adopt best practices rather than solidifying ineffective processes by building systems around them.

Note: Needs that arise from truly unique circumstances sometimes don’t have applicable best practices. However, the discipline of always assessing best practices first is the user side of the technology dictum, “Never build what you can buy.”  And for the most part, best practices are free.

Having over a hundred CAD companies in the public safety industry is just as redundant and inefficient has having a hundred CAD systems in a single state.  The reason there are so many is that those that serve the smallest agencies have maintained their cost advantage over larger competitors by being able to provide on-site service for their customers. As public safety applications are migrated to the cloud, the smallest agencies will have access to high-end applications at less cost than the on-premise systems they have today. The advantage of being the local supplier will vanish.

But that doesn’t mean all the small companies will disappear  If we imagine once again starting over with today’s technologies, the diminished importance of physical location would lead small businesses entering the market to become functional specialists rather than regional service companies. At the same time, the cloud offers larger vendors the opportunity to create not just products but platforms.  One of the best examples of the power of platforms is from the mobile phone industry. When traditional phone manufacturers dominated the smart-phone business, devices came with half a dozen manufacturer-supplied applications. Apple changed the industry by making the iPhone a platform on which independent developers were encouraged to build thousands of applications.

We have seen these transformations in other industries, from banking to bookstores. Amazon become the leader in online retail not by creating a store that stocks every item in the world, but by creating a retail platform and opening it up to anyone, from individuals to large specialty shops to competitors in the media business.

It is inevitable that the public safety industry will reshape itself to reap the benefits of the new interconnected world of the cloud. The tides are too strong to resist and the benefits are too massive to be ignored. The new shape will be a cloud and at long last the pyramid and the tyranny of the tiers will take their place in history.

Posted in Commentary, Politics and Government, Public Safety