March 20, 2006

An open source virtual office for realtors

Author: Tina Gasperson

Professional Mortgage Partners in Downers Grove, Illinois, runs a technology consulting side business helping realtors set up office portals and inexpensively access the Multiple Listing Service (MLS) database through the use of open source software.

Realtors used to have to print out hard copies of real estate listings before meeting with potential buyers, but today they travel with their laptops, accessing virtual office Web sites (VOW) to pull up real time MLS listings, access email, and communicate with their home office.

Matt Lavallee, PMP/Technology's manager of Web services, says the VOWs he installs for his clients are "price point killers." Other companies license VOWs and charge anywhere from $3,600 to $11,000 per year to access Oracle databases holding listing information, but PMP's service goes for $400 a year because it uses the MySQL database.

MySQL is good for the realtors and good for PMP because it costs less money on both sides. "It's very fast and it's been very solid," Lavallee says. "Another provider that went out of business in October had a $2.5 million Oracle back end. There is no way to recoup that cost doing individual sites. You'd have to capture every single [realtor] and keep them subscribed for five years just to pay it off."

The Internet Data Exchange (IDX) is a new feature of the MLS. It is a data feed to which realtors can subscribe, enhancing cooperation between brokers by allowing them to exchange information on listings, even displaying those listings on each other's sites. Lavallee coded an IDX that realtors can access without having to engage the services of the higher-priced providers. He says he is considering releasing his version of the IDX as open source software, "so the rest of the world can get an open source version of property searching without having to get cleaned out by these large providers."

To further the cost-savings for his clients, Lavallee uses the Java-based Gordano groupware suite. It is compatible with Exchange servers and can run on any platform, giving users the option of less expensive Intel hardware and the free Linux operating system.

Lavallee says Gordano gives him the ability to transition his client offices slowly to the new system without much disruption in services such as email. "The migration is very simple because it provides a 'redirect nonlocal' -- it lets you put the Gordano server in the way of email communications, and you can roll it out in a way that lets you control the number of people who are on it," he says. "This gives you 100% sureness that everyone is getting their email, and it lets you performance monitor with real traffic, without affecting the users."

The biggest challenge with Gordano is keeping the Java runtimes uniform across all desktops, Lavallee says. "Gordano's Web mail client relies on Java. There are so many versions that it's tricky to make sure you have every computer set up correctly. It's a recurring problem. They've done their best to work with as many JVMs as possible, but there are probably 150 version and revisions. I can imagine it's really difficult to keep up."

Still, Lavallee says, Gordano is worth the extra effort because of the cost savings. "We are able to get 50 users in an office online for about $4,000," he says. "That includes anti-spam and anti-virus. With Exchange it would have been up around $20,000."


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