July 9, 2007

Colorado Human Services opens an open source portal

Author: Tina Gasperson

When the Colorado Department of Human Services (CDHS) couldn't depend on a proprietary portal solution to meet its needs any longer, CDHS County Infrastructure Manager Ron Cash turned to open source software, because of the benefits of community development and the flexibility to customize applications for a perfect fit. The financial benefits of open source are nice too, Cash says.

CDHS oversees all of Colorado's 64 county social services departments, as well as the public mental health system, services for those with developmental disabilities, juvenile corrections, and state nursing homes. With more than 5,000 employees and thousands more community-based service providers to support, CDHS needed an efficient way to distribute applications and content. The first thing Cash tried was Novell Portal Services (NPS). This first experience with a portal was a valuable one for Cash, opening the door to a centralized distribution method that made more sense than trying to support core applications on thousands of separate workstations across the state. "At this point, we could see the light," says Cash.

For Cash, the ability to deliver everything users needed no matter where they were was the key to providing better service. NPS worked well for CDHS for several years. "The portal opened up several new and exciting avenues, including a rapid application development environment and the ability to provide additional content to our customers beyond simply application services." But as the department continued to grow and its needs changed, Cash found it increasingly difficult to obtain the ongoing development and support CDHS needed. "We were finding it was too restrictive. We had gone in and looked at the code and saw where our problems were, but over many months of trying to get it to be a high enough priority within Novell," Cash was increasingly frustrated. When Novell announced it would no longer support NPS, "we decided it was time to move to something we would have more control of," Cash says. "It was time to look for an open source solution."

In June 2006, Cash began an evaluation. "This was the first direction we'd gone with open source, but we got no resistance" from management, he says. "We've been able to do pretty much whatever we wanted."

Cash looked at Jetspeed2, Jahia, GridSphere, and LifeRay. "The things we looked for included easy integration with our existing Novell environments, support for custom themes and layouts, true open source with easy-to-read and well-documented code, the ability to natively support access to remote resources, and a motivated support community." After three months of testing, Cash decided to go with LifeRay, and rolled it out in April 2007.

The migration to LifeRay included a new site design and a reworking of how employees and privileged users access content on the intranet. Instead of one layer of access authority that created an "all or nothing" approach to permissions, Cash says that the new system allows highly configurable content access settings for individual users.

Cash says any challenges of migrating to a new system have been mitigated by the extreme flexibility the organization has gained through access to the code and the development community. "We haven't run into any stumbling blocks -- honestly, we're looking for more open source products to use as time goes on because we're saving money on the maintenance side. We don't have to pay for support contracts and we're not restricted by any licensing components."

While Cash is excited about saving money, in the long run the customizable and scalable aspects of open source provide the biggest benefits. "It's the flexibility," he says. "We see a lot of potential in the product for further development, and because of the open source nature we can take some of the components and enhance them to support the changing needs of our environment. We're also very excited about being able to contribute back to the community."


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