November 30, 2005

Zope and Plone blaze open source path at Epson

Author: Tina Gasperson

Epson Electronics America (EEA) launched its Web presence in 1998 with a then-typical static HTML Web site running on a Windows server. But by 1999, exorbitant licensing and maintenance costs, coupled with the company's need to create a dynamic site, led EEA's Executive Director for New Business Roy DaSilva to begin a migration to a site built with open source tools running on a Linux server.

EEA, headquartered in San Jose, Calif., is a subsidiary of Seiko Epson Corporation and was established in November 1998. The company provides sales, marketing, and engineering support in America for certain Epson products, including low-power LCD screens and monitors.

When EEA established its first Web site, the Web was "in its infancy," says DaSilva, "and the industry was recovering from recession." DaSilva says the site was "brochure-ware," and provided no functionality other than to introduce the company and provide contact information. But in 1999, an "era of changes" happened at Epson, and DaSilva made plans to migrate the site to dynamic code in order to provide useful, on-the-fly information to support sales reps, distributors, and internal staff.

"It was really expensive to maintain the static site," says DaSilva. "It was all based on available proprietary software. Maintaining content was a nightmare and it was costing a lot of money." Once the migration plans were approved by corporate headquarters, the biggest question was "what type of software and hardware should we use?" DaSilva looked at Allaire's ColdFusion and Spectra, but those tools were also licensed at "astronomically high prices," DaSilva says.

Since EEA wanted to outsource code development, "we had two cost components -- the licensing and the development fees. The costs [for licensing proprietary software] were exorbitant, and the bottom line was that it was going to cost us as much to license as it would to develop. For our size of operation and what we wanted to do, that was just not a feasible option."

On top of that, DaSilva was charged with choosing products that would "be around for a period of time." He and his team conducted extensive market research, and finally decided to use the Zope open source Web application server and Plone content management system (CMS) as the framework on which to build the site.

One of the reasons they went with Zope is because the United States Navy was using it. "No pun intended, but we thought, with the Navy afloat, we'll be afloat," DaSilva says. "We did not want to get into something that would be here today and gone tomorrow. We were trying to minimize our risk."

EEA liked what it saw in Zope and the open source concept, and decided to put together a site completely based on open source tools. DaSilva hired a company called Cignex to do the development. At the time, DaSilva says, there weren't too many developers with open source experience, but Cignex "had capabilities," and eventually became a certified Zope trainer and a strategic partner with EEA instead of just a contractor.

Today sales reps and certain customers can visit the site to download the latest product maps, and potential clients can request contact from an EEA representative through automatic lead generation. DaSilva says one of the biggest benefits of the new system is that the IT department doesn't have to maintain content with which it has no expertise. "One of the things we did is we trained our product people to be able to post information and make content updates by themselves," he says. "So this was a big savings in the cost of maintaining content. Now, that cost suddenly got absorbed into the product cost, and the correctness of the content went up. These are areas of efficiency."

DaSilva says this is just the beginning for open source and EEA. "We will continue our work with open source to build features which are customer driven. We'll build a site that allows design engineers to have all their project information stored on the server. We can have collaborative work going on between our engineers and [customers'] engineers, through our site. Ideally as things progress you should be able to have a much richer experience." For example, DaSilva says he hopes to have videos introducing each sales representative instead of just a name and phone number. "It becomes a much more familiar experience just to visit us. It's a virtual presence, so 24/7 you know who you're dealing with up front. A far richer experience than we have today."

DaSilva says he hopes open source will reach even deeper into his company. "We used this as a test vehicle," he says. "As we go forward there are many other applications I think open source will ultimately get into."


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