Give it up

Under the right circumstances, handing over Web operations to a host makes good sense

Consumers pay a premium for organically grown produce, but in the IT world, organic is not always good.

'Our old Web site had grown organically over time,' said John Stubbs, director of online strategy and operations for the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.

Like many government Web sites, www.ustr.gov grew as technology grew, without the benefit of standards for what a site should or shouldn't do, or how content should be managed.

The result was a collection of 65,000 pages, 'most of it redundant,' Stubbs said. 'Lots of it was outdated with old policies and information that had never been cleaned up.'

As the Web site became the primary means of communicating with the public, an overhaul clearly was needed. In 2002, the office began a redesign to make its work more transparent and to give trade negotiators access to the Web without requiring them to have technical expertise.

'The new site is around 10,000 pages,' Stubbs said. A hosted content management application streamlines the publishing process and makes pages available through a variety of channels in appropriate formats.

'It's pretty basic stuff,' Jim Howard, CEO of CrownPeak Technologies Inc. of Los Angeles, said of his company's work for USTR. 'We're providing Web content management and site search. Our job is to reduce complexity.'

The U.S. trade representative is a cabinet-level adviser responsible for international trade policy. The office is part of the Executive Office of the President and oversees negotiations with other countries. It is a small agency with only about 200 employees, most of them located at headquarters in Washington, although there are also small offices in Geneva and Brussels.

The audience for the USTR Web site is limited but diverse.

'Members of the general public aren't terribly interested in this,' Stubbs said. But companies and trade organizations in- volved in foreign trade are very interested. 'And there are all the Beltway types,' the legislators and bureaucrats, Stubbs said, plus foreign governments which have large stakes in negotiations.

And the data on the site can be dynamic.

'We have multiple updates every day,' Stubbs said. Usually there are three or four daily updates, but when there is a lot of activity, such as during the recent negotiations for the Central American Free Trade Agreement, there can be up to 20 updates a day.

By 2002 it had become clear that something had to be done to simplify online operations.

'We wanted to reduce costs for our Web operations and build a system that would let our negotiators be more involved with our public information interface,' Stubbs said. 'We knew we wanted to do something with content management. We seriously considered a number of different solutions' from six or eight companies, ranging from out-of-the-box software, to custom-built applications, to hosted services.

Ultimately, funding and the budget process were the determining factors in deciding to go with a hosted application, Stubbs said. Hosted and managed services require little up-front capital expenditure and predictable recurring costs from cycle to cycle.

'We also get built-in support,' he said. 'We didn't have to worry that whatever solution we chose would be updated.'

The handover

USTR is using two CrownPeak services, Content Management Service and Search. CMS lets nontechnical individuals publish content to a site. The application handles three broad functions:
  • Authoring, which includes putting the content into the proper format, layout and linking of documents.

  • Workflow, which includes collaboration and page approval as well as incorporating data from outside sources in a page.

  • Publishing, which involves writing the content to the Web server.

The USTR publishes multiple versions of each page'a text-only version, print-friendly version and a standard graphical Web page. 'So we are actually writing out the page three times,' Howard said.

Before using CMS, formatting data and deciding where it needed to appear was a big job.

'It had to be individually tagged and placed,' Stubbs said. Now, the document is placed one time with multiple tags, 'and it automatically populates links in the auto indexes.'

The search service pushes a search box with each page, and the engine on the backend returns hits.

'The results from the query are returned from our server,' Howard said.

Although CrownPeak offers a Web hosting service, the USTR site resides on a Web server in the White House data center. The CrownPeak CMS and Search applications live on servers in IBM Corp. hosting centers. Separating these applications from the Web server means that the only software needed on the White House server are the content itself and the Web server application.

'That is going to tend to make the server very stable and very fast,' Howard said.

The usual arguments in favor of a hosted service apply to this implementation: Re-duced capital costs, predictable expenses and service-level agreements that guarantee reliability without the expense of in-house support. But, 'there are times when our application is not appropriate,' Howard said of CrownPeak's services. 'The primary case is when classified data is involved. We have our own security and are as secure as an organization can be using public networks, which is to say there are inherent security issues.'

The USTR implementation is similar to those CrownPeak has in other agencies. The primary difference between government and commercial customers is the need to comply with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, which requires Web resources to be accessible by the handicapped.

The USTR, like many agencies, also uses a lot of documents in the Portable Document Format, which can cause problems for the search engine. The engine had to be tweaked to read a title from the body of the PDF document, because the name assigned to the PDF file is not relevant to the search.

With CMS, the agency saw a 20 to 30 percent reduction in Web costs in the first year, and USTR is now spending about half of what it did on the Web site before the switchover. But those savings came at a cost.

'You will always have some up-front capital expenditure,' Stubbs said. At USTR this expense was in the redesign stage. Much of that expenditure came in the form of time and manpower devoted to culling redundant and outdated pages.

'We didn't have any money,' so USTR's IT staff went through what Stubbs called 'the physical pain of chopping off 50,000 pages or so and moving them.'

This job eventually took 17 months, but the result is a Web site that is not so organic and a lot less filling.

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