UFT Gives Lesson in Open Source

Teachers' union trades paper forms for Web services and online transactions.

For the 150,000 members of the United Federation of Teachers, paper forms, phone calls and hours spent standing in line are no longer current events; instead, they are consigned to the history books.

Made up of current and retired New York City public school teachers and the largest union local in the world, the UFT is the sole bargaining agent for most of the nonsupervisory educators that work in the New York City public school system.

It represents roughly 74,000 teachers and 17,000 classroom paraprofessionals, along with secretaries, guidance counselors, psychologists, social workers, nurses, adult education teachers and 32,000 retired members.

With 6,000 new teachers added to its membership every year and a desire to vastly increase its portfolio of member services, UFTs archaic paper-driven business methods and static, noninteractive Web site simply couldnt keep up.

Amid a three-phase design and deployment campaign, new services offered by the UFT range from Web-based course enrollment, which replaces a mail-in paper form, to health care benefits from the UFT Welfare Fund.

According to UFT President Randi Weingarten, the fund has provided upward of $1 billion in benefits to union members over its 30-year history. Breaking news, pension and financial services, updated salary schedules, and tax advice are also being better-provided to educators thanks to the new online environment.

"With our growing membership, the time to rethink the delivery of services and information could wait no longer," said Joe Vigilante, the UFTs director of information services. "With all of our data on [an IBM] legacy AS/400, we needed to get that information directly into the hands of the people who needed it most, our members."

/zimages/6/28571.gifPublic-sector deployments of Linux are growing. Click here to read more.

To improve service while managing costs, Vigilantes team chose a complete open-source solution with multiprocessor, rack-mounted ProLiant DL servers from Hewlett-Packard Co. running Red Hat Inc.s Enterprise Linux operating system. There isnt a new server running Solaris or Unix in sight, although an IBM iSeries (formerly AS/400) remains. The only Microsoft Corp. software in use at UFT is the Office suite of productivity applications and one legacy Exchange Server for e-mail.

Its close to the typical evolutionary pattern, according to Jeffrey Hewitt, an analyst with Gartner Inc., in Stamford, Conn. "These are new applications and sometimes represent additional horsepower added in parallel to existing systems," Hewitt said. According to his research, 22 percent of companies polled are deploying open-source systems not to replace older technology but to deploy new applications.

Regardless of the strategy, Linux is earning high marks not just as a technical solution but as a financial one that results in immediate and significant cost advantages.

"The Linux open-source route provided us with a way to avoid license fees and learn from a vast community of developers and users with issues similar to ours," said Vigilante.

Thats a theme thats echoed in disparate users, from off-the-leading-edge, paper-based organizations such as the UFT to next-generation Web-based startups. For example, Feedster Inc., a San Francisco search engine and syndicator of XML Web content, would never have gotten off the ground if not for the savings achieved by implementing Linux.

"It didnt make sense to us or our investors to pay huge Windows and [Sun Microsystems Inc.] Solaris license fees and buy expensive support contracts," said Feedster CEO Scott Rafer. "And for the price of a single Oracle license, we got the top-tier MySQL product, direct access to the people who developed it, and a worldwide community ready to help anytime."

Those licenses were nearly a showstopper. With its entire operation—and its lawyers—based in New York, the UFT refused to sign contracts whose terms would be governed by the laws of any other state. Red Hat, for example, is based in North Carolina. "For large enterprise corporations, this isnt a problem," said Vigilante. "But as a labor union, we were ready to walk away if vendors would not change their terms for us." Change them they did.

Next Page: UFT faced significant challenges.