September 13, 2006

Goodwill is good with open source portal Liferay

Author: Tina Gasperson

Goodwill Industries provides employment services for the homeless, disabled, and disadvantaged. In 2005, the 80,000 employees of this international charity helped more than 720,000 people work their way to a better life. Goodwill CIO Steve Bergman knew that with the help of some updated technology, his company could do an even better job of reaching people. After looking at the options, Bergman decided that open source software was the best solution.

Goodwill had an intranet, but it provided only the most basic company information in a static form. "It was a very static environment," Bergman says. "We made the decision to move to a more knowledge-based system, so that we could exchange information and collaborate better within this large, diverse group of people."

Bergman wanted to provide a way for employees to communicate about best practices, ask questions, and receive training from superiors and more experienced staff members. "We had to be able to facilitate a system for 'just-in-time' learning," so that when employees were presented with an unknown situation, they could look up recommended practices from the intranet's knowledge base, or ask a question in the employee discussion forums.

At the onset of Bergman's search for an acceptable intranet application, "we weren't coming at it from an open source software direction." He and his team were simply searching for the best product that met Goodwill's need for real-time collaboration and an easy to access information repository. "We went under that umbrella and began polling the market," Bergman says. "We quickly decided that a portal was right for us. So we started interviewing vendors and considering the resources available."

Michael Schollenberger, Goodwill's director of IT member services, says the team had some pretty specific requirements. "One of our foundational system requirements was a personalized and customizable security model," Schollenberger says. "So that no matter who you were, your login could provide you with a completely different experience and access to a different set of applications."

As they reviewed products which met their requirements, they realized that the license fees for traditional proprietary products would eat up their budget, with no money left to customize the new intranet. "It came down to making an investment up front in licenses, or making a later investment in customization," Bergman says. "That is really what drove us to open source. We got the licensing for no cost and put those resources into customizing."

Schollenberger adds that since the portal is Goodwill's "unifying" application, "the largest number of users will have access to this," which would increase the cost of a per-seat licensing scheme, in a company with 80,000 employees, to unacceptably high levels.

Bergman says that he didn't run into too much resistance from company executives when he suggested that Goodwill go with an open source solution called Liferay Portal. "Actually, Michael and his team had to convince me this was a viable alternative."

Liferay Portal is available in Professional and Enterprise versions. Both are available under the MIT license, which allows modification and reuse of the code even in a proprietary product. Liferay's business model is to provide its code freely and charge for support and customization.

Schollenberger says, "We did a tremendous amount of research prior to even approaching Steve. We were looking at Palm Tree, IBM Websphere, Liferay, and others. We began to get a comfort level with Liferay that came through the research and going to forums and seeing what the users were saying about whether it was working or not. Then we hired a consultant to do some very in-depth analysis of the product, even to the extent of looking at the quality of the code. That's something you'd never be able to do with a proprietary product. Finally, we felt comfortable proposing this."

Says Bergman, "It was a bit of a leap of faith. A year ago the open source software market was coming into a level of maturity it hadn't had in the past. But I still hadn't met a lot of CIOs that had deployed major enterprise applications on open source. The thing that inked it was the amount of activity in the open source community and the amount of people writing code for this product."

Late last year, Bergman went live with a beta release of Goodwill's customized version of Liferay. "We rolled it out to a small group and we've been growing it ever since." Today, about 7,000 employees are on the system. "We still have a way to go," Bergman says.

There have been relatively few deployment challenges, though "we certainly expected challenges," Bergman says. "It's a large venue with a very diverse set of needs and lots of different requirements. It was nice when we got to positions where you really need to meet a quick deadline or make a major modification and you need to throw a lot of resources at the project. On two separate occasions we were able to go back to Liferay and they went back to the community and turned things around for us over a weekend. In my past experience, it's taken weeks or months to do."

In July, Bergman and his team released the final version of the customized Liferay portal. "It is fully available," Bergman says. "Now we need to go out and ramp up."


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