June 1, 2007

Consultant uses OSS to build CaringBridge for the sick

Author: Tina Gasperson

Ten years ago, IT consultant Sona Mehring had a friend who was going through a difficult pregnancy. Mehring wanted to help in some way, so she created a Web site where her friend could post updates throughout the pregnancy and the subsequent premature birth of her child, and visitors could post messages of encouragement and love. It was an efficient way of communicating because it eliminated the need for multiple phone calls and email messages. The family was so impacted by the online support it had received through Mehring's Web site that it donated money to the hospital to provide an onsite computer and Internet access to other families experiencing life-threatening illness and disease. That inspired Mehring to found CaringBridge, a nonprofit company that provides free customizable Web sites built on open source software.

Hospitals often recommend CaringBridge to patients with severe illnesses or conditions like cancer. The site provides a private area accessible only by the patient and others approved by the patient. A journal provides updates to approved visitors, who can subscribe to receive update notifications via email. The patient can also upload photos, and there is a guestbook for visitors to sign and leave messages for the patient. Sometimes a patient will choose to make the site indexable by search engines and therefore open to the public, like Robyn's site.

Mehring started the company with "sweat equity," bootstrapping by investing profits from her existing Web design and consulting business into CaringBridge. Originally she built the site on Linux, using Perl, CGI, and free and low-cost software. "I was really looking for a economical and quick solution," Mehring says. "I didn't want to buy a large suite of tools and I didn't have a lot of capital to invest. That was the driving factor in using open source."

As the site grew, donations from families who had used CaringBridge and sponsorships from hospitals increased, and Mehring was able to focus all her attention on improving CaringBridge, which today supports 18 staff members and several volunteers. "We've had more than 60,000 families create CaringBridge sites," Mehring says. "Every 13 minutes, a new site is created."

All that growth required a rethinking of CaringBridge's technology strategy. About four years ago, she sat down with CaringBridge technology strategist Dale Durham to take a look at the options.

"We tested a Windows 2000 server," Durham says. "It wasn't what we were looking for." They compared the Windows server with Red Hat Enterprise 4. "We didn't have to restart the machine every month because of memory leaks."

Low cost is no longer the determining factor in CaringBridge's decision to use open source software, Durham says. "We choose to use open source because it is better."

Gary Ablan, CaringBridge IT director, agrees with Durham's assessment, adding that uptime is critical for user satisfaction. The Linux servers deliver 99.98% uptime, even with monthly bandwidth usage of 3.8 terabytes, a record that Ablan calls "outstanding."

Durham and Ablan also like the quick turnaround in code updates and bug fixes for open source. "There are challenges with any software," Durham says. "We've had rare occurrences of low-level bugs in JBoss. So we go scour the forums and post a bug report, and lo and behold, the bug is fixed in the next release. It's a lot faster turnaround than any Microsoft product."

The first migration to CaringBridge's own Red Hat servers had the site running on a classic LAMP stack with MySQL and Perl. Many of the older accounts are still hosted on this configuration, but most newer accounts are coded in Java and run with JBoss and Tomcat on Red Hat. Durham says CaringBridge is in the beginning stages of yet another migration from JBoss back to LAMP, but this time with a PHP framework.

Ablan has a laundry list of new features he hopes to implement in the near future, such as multilingual capabilities, increased photo storage capacity, and more template choices for users. The team hopes to encourage a community-based contribution network in which users could upload their own CaringBridge template modifications for others to use.

"I find the collaborative spirit within this industry is very high," Mehring says. "People like to help."

One of the biggest strengths Mehring brought to CaringBridge was her IT experience. She says it is one of the reasons CaringBridge has been so successful. "We started from a strong technology position. We had good solutions from the beginning, and we have built and grown and expanded from there." She says a lot of Web-based businesses make a mistake when putting marketing and advertising efforts before establishing a strong foundation and infrastructure. "They tend to fail because they don't have [that]. You have to always be worried about scalability and have the technology 'eye on the horizon,' so you can serve the people that are using CaringBridge. We've never failed at that. And then you can step into [market] awareness and higher profiles and driving traffic."

Mehring admits she had an upper hand in being able to focus on building infrastructure before growing the business. "I had the consulting business that allowed me to develop this service. As you're starting up, you have to look at ways of supplementing income."

Launching with open source software helps that process, Ablan says. "Just be open to exploring the option of open source products. The stability is there, and anything you need or want you can find. It may take a little research and you may need help, but don't be afraid."


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