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Open Source Cloud: Article

Bringing Thousands of Workers Together with an Open Source Intranet Solution

Improving information exchange and collaboration

When obstacles such as poverty, lack of education or disabilities keep people from finding jobs, Goodwill is there to help. We do that by selling your donations of clothing and household goods in local Goodwill stores and using the revenue to fund our job-training programs in your community. Last year, more than 846,000 people benefited from Goodwill's career services - we helped someone find a job every 57 seconds of every business day.

Delivering effective services to so many people requires a tremendous amount of communication and collaboration. To facilitate this, Goodwill Industries International runs an intranet site for Goodwill employees around the world. Until now, the site was fairly static, offering essentially a repository of useful documents. But as we sought to grow and enhance our services - with the ultimate goal of helping 20 million people by the year 2020 - we recognized the necessity of developing a knowledge-based system that would improve information exchange and collaboration among the very large, diverse group of employees that make up our organization.

One of Goodwill's key goals was to facilitate a system for "just-in-time" learning, so that, when employees were presented with an unknown situation, they could look up recommended practices from the intranet's knowledge base, or ask a question in the employee discussion forums. For our organization to work smarter and deliver better services, it was critical that we create an interactive environment where employees could share best practices, seek advice, and receive training from more experienced staff. Simply put, we needed a solution that would provide the technology framework behind our public web site www.goodwill.org and our new intranet site to be known as MyGoodwill.

The IT group at Goodwill Industries International drew up a shortlist of viable technology options, which, at the time, included products from Plumtree (BEA), IBM, Liferay, and others. The most important factor in our decision was whether the solution could support Goodwill's goals of real-time collaboration and easy-to-access information. Early on in the research and evaluation process, it was clear that a portal was the right approach. However, at this stage, there was no particular preference for proprietary or open source solutions.

A consultant specializing in learning and collaboration systems was retained to complete an industry analysis of portal solutions. Meanwhile the IT group pulled together functional and technical requirements by forming focus groups within the organization and documenting those requirements.

While the requirements were numerous, a few on the list were critically important. First, while we had a vision in our minds of the learning site and its capabilities, it was imperative that the solution could be supported in-house without introducing a new platform or architecture. Second, it was essential that the portal solution adhere to the J2EE standard, as Goodwill has many skilled Java developers on staff. Along these lines, the IT organization wanted to begin taking advantage of a service-oriented architecture (SOA) platform that would enable best-of-breed services to be easily acquired and integrated, as opposed to building them from scratch in a proprietary environment. In addition, providing a platform that presented a seamless user experience, from single sign-on and authentication to a common look and feel across applications within the portal, was critical to user acceptance of the product. Finally, it was important that the solution could support a personalized and customizable security model so that, depending on the user and the position within the organization, each unique login ID could provide a completely different user experience and access to a different set of applications.

A lengthy and expensive integration project was not an option for Goodwill, yet a high level of integration was required so the organization could deliver training to employees over the Web, and extend services to its member agencies. And with potentially thousands of employees using the site, another significant cost consideration was the number of licenses our organization would require. Goodwill quickly realized that the cost of traditional licenses would decimate our budget. As a result, customizing the new intranet to our specific needs and delivering the functionality we required would simply not be possible. This, more than any other factor, drove us to an open source solution and away from proprietary software vendors. Because Goodwill would be able to obtain licensing at no cost, we would be able to use our entire budget to customize the MyGoodwill intranet site.

Portal Selection and Implementation
As Goodwill looked more deeply into open source code portal solutions, we began to feel most comfortable and confident with a company called Liferay. This was supported by our own in-depth research, attending forums, and monitoring what existing users were saying about what was and was not working. One of the most important factors in reaching our decision was the Web site sourceforge.net. This site provided a window into the development community. We could see, firsthand, a tremendous amount of development activity, which included source code, applets, and even "Liferay-compatible" applications. Our IT group also looked at the quality of the open source code supporting the portal - something that is just not possible or welcomed with a proprietary product.

After mapping product capabilities to our own specific requirements, objectives, and budget, Goodwill Industries selected the Enterprise version of Liferay Portal. Available under the MIT license, code can be modified and reused, even in a proprietary product. Because Liferay's business model is based on providing its code freely and only charging for support and customization, this was a very attractive option.

While the selection process was no different or faster compared to selecting a proprietary project, implementation was dramatically quicker. Because there is no licensing involved in open source solutions we simply went to the vendor's Web site, downloaded the software and dropped it into our data center. Within a couple of hours it was up and running, although it did require some significant integration to get the portal customized to our needs, and that work continues today. Even so, the first beta release of MyGoodwill was made just eight weeks after the software was initially downloaded, which is extremely fast for an enterprise application.

While the initial rollout was smooth, we did run into some performance issues after the implementation of a new security model in release 4.0 of the portal software. To alleviate the bottlenecks, Liferay, the open source community, and our own IT group spent a significant amount of time performance tuning the application to work effectively on our Microsoft SQL database. Ultimately, we had to dig into the code, which is one of the positive attributes of open source solutions. Because we could actually see the code and what it was trying to accomplish, performance tuning was possible and now the SQL server is performing as it should.

MyGoodwill Goes Live
The primary business goal of MyGoodwill is to create a centralized means of communication among Goodwill employees around the world in order to enhance the organization's services and share best practices between the different local Goodwill agencies. The portal, which went live in November 2005, is organized by Goodwill's retail, contracts, and workforce development business lines, as well as by specific focus areas, including information technology, marketing, and human resources.

Through MyGoodwill, employees are able to interact in real time, through online tools such as message boards and blogs, and to search the document management system. Eventually, the site will host "Wiki" pages that are updated on a regular basis by visitors. Because MyGoodwill is fully integrated with a Learning Management System, employees can access a growing collection of Computer-Based Training modules, or CBTs, that allow staffers to take online courses and track their individual progress.

Customization of MyGoodwill is ongoing, and it is here that adherence to standards has really paid off. Standards are important, not only for future development, but also to plug and play new components into the portal. For example, we wanted to add a new calendar function to the site. Instead of writing it from scratch, we downloaded an open source J2EE-compliant calendar and made only minor modifications before integrating it into the portal. As a result, the role of the development team changes. Instead of writing code from the ground, which is very time-consuming, the team integrates.

Adherence to standards also helps when integrating commercial products that are based on those standards. For the eLearning part of the site we purchased a commercial product from Saba. Because that product is J2EE compliant and also adheres to the JSR168 portal specification, it was very easy to add it into our portal. It now shows up as a portlet within MyGoodwill and users do not realize that it is a commercial, off-the-shelf product.

Built for Today and the Future
In all honesty, when we decided to use an open source portal the IT team did have some major reservations. Was open source code really mature enough to handle what was, in essence, an enterprise application? Despite these initial concerns, our fears gradually dissipated as the project moved forward.

For Goodwill, the open source portal we selected proved to be extremely robust and scalable. Perhaps most importantly of all, open source was by far the most cost effective and efficient portal technology Goodwill considered. As a result, the IT group was able to make additional high impact site features available to the user community sooner. This was a considerable advantage in building early acceptance of MyGoodwill, and was a major contributor to the overall success of the site.

Today, thousands of Goodwill employees nationwide have a better way to collaborate, share best practices, and engage in real-time learning through the MyGoodwill intranet site. By leveraging an open source solution, the IT group was able to provide Goodwill Industries with a landmark organizational tool that serves the company and those who need our help, today and in the future.

Goodwill's PR dept. has one more comment regarding the usage - deployment to Goodwill employees around the "world". To be legit, they aren't getting a lot of collaboration yet from around the world - in this stage of deployment they are getting most traction from the US and Canada. Employees from across the world have access, but few have setup accounts on the system yet.

More Stories By Steve Bergman

Steve Bergman is chief information officer, Goodwill Industries International.

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