Wide-open sources

Technique | Portal tool gives Colorado department flexibility in consolidating its systems

Colorado's Department of Human Services is one of the hardest-working agencies in the state. The second-largest agency in Colorado, it oversees 64 county departments of social and human services, ranging from the state's public mental health system to veterans' nursing homes and thousands of community-based service providers. County-administered programs, such as public assistance and child welfare services, are also supervised by the department.

CDHS has three large systems to administer and support: the County Financial Management System; Trails, a child welfare system; and the Colorado Benefits Management System. The systems provide an array of services, including food and child welfare assistance and disbursement of funds.

Colorado wanted to standardize computers throughout all the counties.

'We recognized that loading applications on computers worked well, but it was a hard job to manage in 64 counties,' said Ron Cash, infrastructure manager at CDHS. The department had to install and support these core applications on about 5,000 computers statewide.

In 2002, CDHS partnered with Dynamics Research to develop a plan that would let the state deploy these core applications to the counties using a Citrix metaframe environment built on Novell Portal Service 1.5, which was later upgraded to Novell exteNd portal. A Web portal solution freed the department from managing distributed applications on desktops and worrying about dedicated network connections.

'We found great benefits in consolidating our infrastructure,' Cash said.
Although the department was basically happy with the exteNd portal, there were a few concerns. Novell had announced that they were going to sunset exteNd in June 2009.

'We also needed something that gave us more flexibility,' Cash said. 'With the exteNd portal, we were kind of stuck with the services they were able to develop at that time.'

About a year ago, CDHS officials began looking at open-source portals. 'The goal was that it would give us more flexibility to integrate the things we needed into the portal,' Cash said. They also liked the idea of the large support group that comes with an open-source environment and the sense that they could contribute to making a better product.

Department staff evaluated a range of open-source portals, including Jetspeed2, Jahia, GridSphere and Liferay. They wanted easy integration with CDHS' existing Novell eDirectory X.500-compatible directory services software and iChain sign-on and remote-authentication services.

CDHS decided on the Liferay open-source portal because 'it seemed to be the most mature product, and it had a very active open-source community,' Cash said.
The open-source community was one of the keys to the department's decision. 'We wanted to benefit from an open-source community, and we also wanted to contribute back to it,' Cash said. 'We felt that we had a lot to offer. To me that's one of the biggest benefits of open source.'

The department implemented the new portal about two months ago.

Feedback from users has been mostly good regarding the look and feel of the portal, Cash said. 'They noticed more because we made some pretty drastic changes in the security mechanisms,' but not so drastic that users resisted them.

'We publish a lot of applications and monitoring tools,' Cash said. 'Now our host environment administrators can provide support in the middle of the night or on the weekends.'

CDHS found an innovative way to fund the portal. When the department came to a refresh point ' the point in the business cycle when it would ordinarily buy a new batch of servers and other equipment ' it consolidated some services to its central data center, avoiding the need for some new equipment. CDHS then used the savings to fund the portal. 'That's one of the things we've prided ourselves on, that we funded our portal without any additional money,' Cash said.

Perhaps the biggest challenge in the migration from Novell's exteNd to Liferay was a complete rearchitecture of CDHS' authentication system. Before the migration, if users wanted only a piece of a community's content, they would have to get rights to the whole community. The new portal has a user-provisioning tool that lets a user or group of users access just one piece of a community.

The portal 'has given us a launching pad for the future,' Cash said. With more than 7,000 users, the portal is helping CDHS achieve its goal of a one-stop shop for the state's social services.

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