Significant Challenges

By Joel Shore  |  Posted 2005-02-28 Print this article Print

Site control

A significant challenge faced by UFT was maintaining high Web site availability after migrating hosting and operations from a third-party service provider to UFTs own network.
Outsourced in 1997 to offload management chores—a skill that did not yet exist at UFT—the site offered only static, nontransactional general content.
Updating the site with important news for its members often took hours, which is typical when management is performed by a third party with many different customers and priorities.

All Web services now operate from redundant servers installed on-site. Page templates were designed using Macromedia Inc.s Dreamweaver, according to Bill Stamatis, UFTs Web content manager. Running Red Hat Linux, the Web servers also host Krang, an advanced open-source content management and Web publishing system.

Krang provides a story and media-editing environment, letting Perl programmers customize it to control the data entered in its content editor as well as the way templates and content are brought together to build output. Krang supports the Red Hat, Debian and Gentoo versions of Linux; the Fedora Project, and FreeBSD. With Krang handling content management, the content itself resides in a MySQL database from Swedens MySQL AB. Web pages are served by Apache Software Foundations Apache HTTP Server.

"Were not a [24-by-7] shop, so we needed to plan, build and test a redundant environment with automated failover to accommodate any outage," said UFTs Vigilante. Working with Plus Three LP, a technology provider specializing in solutions for labor unions, based in New York, UFT established a notification system that alerts key personnel of any Web outage and initiates automated failover to the backup servers. "We hope never to use it," Vigilante added.

Choice of platforms

In moving away from its static Web site and paper-based system of membership services, UFT and Plus Three crafted a three-phase approach. The key to success, according to Deirdre Hannigan, Plus Threes vice president of client services, was to move cautiously and maintain tight budgetary control.

"Phase 1 was homework, learning their processes and analyzing the current technology environment," said Hannigan. "In Phase 2, we installed hardware and the Krang content management platform to relaunch the Web site. Were now in Phase 3, bringing member services, health care and teacher resources online."

UFT chose Red Hat Linux, based on recommendations from both IBM and Plus Three. In contrast, Feedster followed a different path, deploying Novell Inc.s SuSE Linux on some servers and Gentoo Linux from the Gentoo Foundation Inc. on others.

A startup, Feedster had no legacy systems baggage—a rare luxury. UFT, with all its data residing on the AS/400, wasnt so lucky. IBM, however, offered what Vigilante considered a perfect solution, allowing the AS/400 to stay put while integrating it into the new open-source environment.

IBMs Toolbox for Java and JTOpen is a library of Java classes that can be used by Java applets, servlets and applications to access AS/400 or iSeries server data and resources. The toolbox provided everything that Plus Three and UFT needed to develop communications conduits and file access.

Electronic handshake

As part of its goal to foster educators professional development, UFTs educational programs, in affiliation with local colleges and universities, offer a full spectrum of workshops and graduate-level courses to some 10,000 members each year. In the third phase of the project, the Web site will be the place where teachers can learn about and register for these courses. And the unions nationally acclaimed Dial-A-Teacher program, in affiliation with the New York City Department of Education, offers homework assistance to more than 60,000 public school students and parents every year. The program uses the Web site as a starting point for matching students needs with specific teachers; the goal is to make a wide range of content available in as many as 12 languages.

"The Web site averages 30,000 visits per month. But the average visit length went from 30 seconds to 5 minutes," said Stamatis. "Members are downloading materials and even reading online. And now that we post news daily, weve created a compelling reason for teachers to visit and stay."

In addition to being light-years more efficient than the UFTs previous paper-bound methods, the unions new interactive Web presence also conveys a friendlier persona to the organizations 150,000 members.

"Theres no way the president of a union organization of our size can do a traditional reach-out to its dues-paying membership," said Vigilante. "What weve tried to do is design the site and its services to provide an electronic handshake to members. Were there all the time, and weve worked to provide immediate response or have the information they need just a click or two away."

The UFT, it seems, has learned its own lessons.

Technology journalist Joel Shore is based in Southborough, Mass.

Next Page: Road map of Open-Source Implementation at the UFT.

Veteran technology journalist Joel Shore is editor of Reference Guide, publishers of reviews and custom content for the technology industry. He co-founded and was the longtime director of the CRN Test Center.

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