Stories by Nestor E. Arellano

Canadian job site sacks open source for .Net

When an upgrade of its open source-based website threatened to overwhelm its budget, a Canadian IT career organisation decided to give Linux the pink slip and recruit Microsoft instead.
The Information and Communications Technology Council (ICTC) in Ottawa says switching to a content management system (CMS) based on Microsoft .Net 3.5 Framework, helped it carry out timely and cost-effective updates to its website without any IT help.
Thanks to the revamp, the council will not need to hire a developer to manage the site, effectively saving it as much as C$50,000 (NZ$65,000) a year.
A nonprofit sector council, ICTC's mandate is to build a strong information communication and technology (ICT) workforce in Canada.
One of its four websites, DiscoverIT.org, offers teachers, students and parents links and information about technology careers such as job descriptions, course recommendations, and certification services.
In recent years the council was unable to update much information on DiscoverIT.org because the open source software developer who created the site had "moved on" — leaving ICTC with no technical support, according to Paul Swinwood, president of the organisation.
He says ICTC had been unable to provide site users with updated job descriptions of many web developer and multi-media developer positions cropping up in the industry.
The Linux-based system, coded in PHP (a recursive acronym for the computer scripting language Hypertext Preprocessor), was too complex for in-house staff to maintain. With its limited budget, ICTC could not afford to hire a developer, says Swinwood.
With no IT support, he says, the Council was also unable to install security updates, which left the sites vulnerable to online attacks.
The organisation's lone IT worker was tasked with uploading new content but it soon became apparent the workload was too much for a single person to handle.
Many technology experts say open source software development benefits from the abundance of developer communities that can customise applications and operating systems for users more freely than those working on proprietary products. However, ICTC's budget constraints were a big challenge, Swinwood says..
"I turned to the open source development community, but could not find anyone who would do the upgrade and maintenance for the money we could offer."
He says developers were asking up to C$50,000 for upgrade and maintenance of the system — something ICTC, a non-profit organisation that relies on grants for each project, couldn't afford.
The constraints of an open source system became apparent too, Swinwood says. "With Linux, we might have saved the initial cost to get the system up and running, but it wasn't worth the investment, in our opinion."
Total cost of ownership includes the ability to easily change and update a website, the ICTC president says. "And that was costing us the most."
ICTC considered several alternative systems such as Adobe Cold Fusion, Adobe Flex and even a PHP-based CMS, but eventually opted for .Net 3.5 Framework in a bid to standardise the Council's Microsoft-based applications.
The Ottawa branch of Macadamian Technologies, a technology integrator, rebuilt the DiscoverIT site and created a new CMS on the .Net 3.5 Framework. It used Visual Studio 2008 for development, Microsoft Expression Web 2.0 to design the graphics, and Microsoft Silverlight for video capability.
The site was moved to a machine running Windows Server 2008 operating system. ICTC put in around C$50,000 towards the project, while corporate sponsors chipped in with cash, labour and material donations, says Swinwood.
The main implementation challenge was integrating three vital components of DiscoverIT so as to streamline site management, says Sebastien Giroux, Macadamian's project manager for the assignment.
He says the site's universal search tool and CMS used PHP while its glossary was on CGI Script. "The three accounts worked on three different programs that did not integrate so it was always a challenge for a non-techie to do any update."
Standardising on Microsoft software delivered centralised and simplified site administration so even non-technical staff members can now load new content to the site, he says.
During the three-month project, Macadamian also integrated several user interface features to make it easier for ICTC clients to access site features, says Lorraine Chapman, project manager of the integrator's user experience group.
She says a key challenge with the older system was that users found it very hard to navigate the site. "The features were not intuitive and users often got lost trying to follow the steps provided by the site."
Security features that barred different types of users from certain site sections also needed to be rationalised in line with user needs. A single sign-on feature was also installed so that visitors no longer need to remember numerous passwords to access multiple web applications.
For Swinwood, the main benefit of the .Net Framework-based CMS, is that existing staff can manage the site with very minor IT assistance, leaving the Council's lone IT person to tackle other essential tasks.

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