When the Tobacco Merchants Association wanted to redo its information portal, it turned to Cordiant Technologies Ltd. to transform a legacy system into a modern information portal based on industry standards and using standard development technologies.
Much under siege in recent years in the public and the press, no one would deny that the tobacco industry needs a good public relations or lobbying voice.
But that is not the role of TMA, according to Farrell Delman, president of the association. Delman described TMA as the content portal for the global tobacco industry. Formed in 1915, “Our thing is facts; were not a lobbying group,” he said.
Unfortunately for TMA, those facts had become increasingly hard to manage in recent years, forcing the organization to rethink its systems and support, Delman said.
For more than 14 years, the Princeton, N.J., organization had been collecting information and managing it via CD on Folio Corp.s Folio content management system, then porting its CD information—more than 3GBs worth—to the Web using Folio Site Director, said Delman.
In 1999 TMA moved the process to Vignette Corp.s namesake content management system, and for three years the organization rented Vignette support through a hosted environment.
ITC Infotech India Ltd., in Calcutta, India, delivered the original Web-based system for TMA, Delman said. ITC Infotech is a spinoff of the ITC Ltd., which Delman had ties with.
But TMA soon found the Vignette-based solution to be “top-heavy in terms of page deliveries,” Delman said. So, instead of moving the solution, which was based on the Vignette V/5 eBusiness Platform, to Vignettes 6.0 version, Delman said the association “decided to get into the open-source world.” He added, “I had looked at Jakarta and other things. But before that I had shifted from support under ITC to support under Cordiant.”
“Vignette was a good base because it gave us something to build off of,” Delman said.
Dennis Paul, founder and president of Cordiant, said the application “is a tobacco industry information portal, with information about whats happening in the tobacco industry, financial data, plus a lot of information on the industry and companies, including laws, regulation and legislation.”
Cordiant of Kochi, India, began supporting the TMA solution about 18 months ago, said Paul. “The TMA members were not happy with the application,” he said, adding that the system had become slow, lacked an intuitive user interface and was expensive to maintain.
“So we did a proposal to re-engineer the application,” Paul said. “We planned to use conventional development methodologies, [but] we got to the development phase and we knew we needed something different.”
What the company quickly realized, Paul said, was that it needed MDA (Model Driven Architecture) and rapid application development methodologies. “So we created UML [Unified Modeling Language ] diagrams for the application.”
Both MDA and UML are Object Management Group standard technologies for helping developers build better applications through modeling. According to OMG officials, MDA separates business and application logic from underlying platform technology.
“Platform-independent models of an application or integrated systems business functionality and behavior, built using UML and other associated OMG modeling standards, can be realized through the MDA on virtually any platform, open or proprietary, including Web services, .Net, CORBA, J2EE [Java 2 Platform, Enterprise Edition] and others,” according to a definition of the standard from the Needham, Mass., organization.
Cordiant used MDA and UML and “fine-tuned the diagrams to reflect the business requirements of TMA, and we only had to do about 5 to 8 percent hand coding,” said Paul.
Indeed, using the MDA and UML specifications, Paul said Cordiant needed only “15 person months” to re-engineer the TMA system. In other words, it took three people five months to do the project.
Cordiant used “a lot of open-source technology to complete the work,” Paul said, including moving from Microsoft Corp.s SQL Server database to the MySQL database, moving from Windows to Linux, using the Lucene open-source search engine and using the Apache Tomcat open-source application server.
“Open source is something we thought about and our client also required,” Paul said.
“Things are so much faster in the Linux environment,” Delman said. “We also have an incredibly stable environment,” he added, noting that with SQL Server much replication was needed.
“One of the big changes was bringing up Lucene as our search engine,” Delman said. “Search has been our No. 1 goal. So [the ability of] building on a Lucene-type search engine is something I didnt have in the other world.” Delman said Google is probably TMAs biggest competitor, except “nobody else has what we have. We have more focused data; we know the business, and we have relationships.”
Cordiant also used J2EE as its core platform, which typically would require a heavy testing regimen, Paul said. “But because so much of the code was generated automatically, the testing was easier,” he said.
In addition, the Cordiant team used IBMs Rational Unified Process as its core development methodology, Paul said. Meanwhile, based on the UML models, “all the code is generated—and the code is really optimized, fine-tuned code,” he said.
Despite its success using the OMG standards, the Cordiant team had not used MDA before. Paul described the effort as a “self-learning” experience and had to evangelize the use of the MDA methodology to his team.
“The biggest challenge was to sell our development team on MDA,” Paul said. “They said without coding it cant be an application. But after two or three weeks of using MDA, the [developers] are bigger evangelists than I was.”
Meanwhile, the payoff of two to three weeks of initial training proved invaluable, Paul said. Key benefits to using the MDA model included fast turnaround, easier integration of open-source technology, better portal navigation, system stability and lower monthly maintenance costs, he said.
Helping tremendously in the effort, Paul said, was that Cordiant had already been supporting the TMA application for more than a year, and “we knew the requirements of the application quite well.” Still, according to Paul, had it not been for MDA and UML, to deliver the same solution from scratch using traditional development methodologies would have taken considerably longer. The requirements process itself “could have taken us maybe three months,” Paul said.
The new system enables TMA to be more proactive with its constituents, Delman said. “We are constantly looking at ways to integrate content and structure content … to spoon-feed our users.”
TMA pushes out news to its users and has a content team in Hyderabad, India, that batches news for release to TMAs users, Delman said. For example, TMA provides information on all laws and legislation worldwide regarding tobacco. In particular, TMA monitors the Master Settlement Agreement between U.S. states and the tobacco industry. So the team in Hyderabad “goes into every [settling] state AGs [attorney generals] Web site every day and pulls out data relating to the MSA,” Delman said.
Meanwhile, Delman said he has tasked Cordiant to work on the next step for the TMA system.
“The next big thing is the implicit personalization,” so that users who come to the TMA site will be able to get a personalized experience. “Thats what Cordiant is working on with me right this minute,” said Delman.