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Open source portal lets Goodwill CIO help those in need

Goodwill Industries International exists to help people. But when an antiquated Web site began to slow operations, it was Goodwill that needed the help.

Goodwill Industries International is an organization on a mission to help people in need.

For more than 100 years, this Rockville, Md.-based nonprofit has provided education, training and career services for those on welfare, people with substance abuse problems, the homeless and others.

Goodwill recently recognized the potential of a better technology platform. The staff at goodwill had long imagined an extranet and and was able to obtain the necessary funding to bring it to life. In an international organization that just last year provided more than 720,000 individuals with employment and training, such a move was deemed a necessary one.

Priority had not been give to IT enhancements in previous budget cycles, although it was recognized that by tapping into new platforms and applications, Goodwill could greatly enhance its services to local Goodwill agencies.

It was the kind of issue that Liferay, an open source portal company from Los Angeles, would eventually solve with help from the open source community and Goodwill itself.

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Opening minds

In light of his company's Web issues, Goodwill chief information officer Stephen Bergman went to the organization's senior executives with a plan to find an application that could resolve the technical issues and run on Goodwill's existing Java 2 Enterprise Edition (J2EE) and Wintel platforms.

"At the forefront were knowledge management applications, and we could exchange best practices and collaborate online," Bergman said. "We brought these applications to the forefront and essentially started down the path listing requirements and established what systems needed to do."

In sessions with his IT team and senior executives, Bergman came up with a new model for knowledge management, one that included document management, online collaboration and e-learning.

"There were a number of vendors, but ultimately we wound up with a portal application from Liferay," he said.

Liferay is an open source vendor founded by Brian Chan in 2000. Its Liferay Portal Version 3.6 product includes collaboration tools like e-mail, blogs, calendar, document library, journal (CMS), message boards, RSS and Wiki and can integrate with any middleware stack or database, including JBoss JEMS, BEA Platform, WebSphere and Oracle.

When Goodwill first selected Liferay, Bergman admitted he was the one who had the most reservations about going with an open source software (OSS) product.

"I was the person who was the most concerned, and it was my IT team that really tried to allay some of those fears," Bergman said.

"You're seeing in the news every day that the Suns and IBMs are moving toward this world as well. I was able to look to the Liferay client list that Brian [Chan] had put together and could see the tens of thousands using it. Seeing news like that makes you feel pretty confident in open source," he said.

Bergman said many of the conversations he was having with CIOs from other organizations helped quell any remaining doubts.

"I had a number of discussions with my peers, and they were seeing more and more organizations experimenting at a much larger level than they were willing to do one year ago," he said. "It's no longer just isolated little applications like it was before -- now we're starting to see organizations that have become more reliant on OSS for some very significant things."

License to save

Despite Bergman's initial concerns, the low-cost, open source nature of Liferay became one of its biggest selling points, because at Goodwill, as with other nonprofits, staying within budget is always a major concern.

"Really what we were trying to do was create a product with a minimal amount of funding that had the greatest impact," Bergman said.

One major area where savings could be found was licensing. With open source there weren't any huge costs associated with getting licenses from the vendor, so Bergman and his team took the savings and applied them to creating their own customizations within the Portal product. Doing this allowed the team to create the same product as a commercial proprietary vendor but with fewer resources.

"If we had happened to go out and license a non-OSS product, it would have set us back a tremendous percentage of our overall budget for licensing," Bergman said. "We were able to spend those resources instead on customizations that met our specific needs."

Moving at the speed of community

When the initial stages of the Web site overhaul began two years ago, Bergman said his shop was prepared for the long, drawn-out process that had become associated with enterprise-level migrations.

"For two years we had been doing design and analysis. That's about 80% of the effort and only the last 20% was implementation, and that was something like three to four months max. Given the resources, we felt that it was going to be a long endeavor [and] we didn't have the financial resources to hire that many people," he said.

A reliance on open source and its community of code contributors eliminated those doubts. Some of the tweaks to Portal were done in-house, Bergman said, while others were done outside of Goodwill and within the OSS and Liferay developer world.

"There was a customization that we requested from Liferay that I thought would take six to eight weeks to do, but by tapping into that community [Chan] would eventually have them done over the weekend," Bergman said.

The open standard components of OSS would allow developers to grab portlets and functions that were available through the OSS community. As long as the portlets and components were J2EE-compliant, it really sped time to market, he said.

Open future

When the Liferay implementation was complete, Bergman said there weren't many negatives to report.

"There are always so many issues with IT, and CIOs have pretty thick skin these days, because when you develop applications there will always be problems," Bergman said. "However, if issues popped up, we were able to resolve them with a much easier process than in the past."

Bergman said it was "completely within reason" that future OSS projects would surface at Goodwill, especially since his IT department plans to continue using the JSR-168 portlet standard to develop more applications, as well as to migrate many of the other internal applications at Goodwill into Liferay.

"CIOs I have spoken with are taking OSS from small little projects all the way through to full-blown enterprise apps," he said.

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