UFT Gives Lesson in Open SourceBy Joel Shore | Print
Re-Imagining Linux Platforms to Meet the Needs of Cloud Service Providers
Teachers' union trades paper forms for Web services and online transactions.
For the 150,000 members of the United Federation of Teachers, paper forms, phone calls and hours spent standing in line are no longer current events; instead, they are consigned to the history books.
Made up of current and retired New York City public school teachers and the largest union local in the world, the UFT is the sole bargaining agent for most of the nonsupervisory educators that work in the New York City public school system.
It represents roughly 74,000 teachers and 17,000 classroom paraprofessionals, along with secretaries, guidance counselors, psychologists, social workers, nurses, adult education teachers and 32,000 retired members.
With 6,000 new teachers added to its membership every year and a desire to vastly increase its portfolio of member services, UFT's archaic paper-driven business methods and static, noninteractive Web site simply couldn't keep up.
Amid a three-phase design and deployment campaign, new services offered by the UFT range from Web-based course enrollment, which replaces a mail-in paper form, to health care benefits from the UFT Welfare Fund.
According to UFT President Randi Weingarten, the fund has provided upward of $1 billion in benefits to union members over its 30-year history. Breaking news, pension and financial services, updated salary schedules, and tax advice are also being better-provided to educators thanks to the new online environment.
"With our growing membership, the time to rethink the delivery of services and information could wait no longer," said Joe Vigilante, the UFT's director of information services. "With all of our data on [an IBM] legacy AS/400, we needed to get that information directly into the hands of the people who needed it most, our members."
To improve service while managing costs, Vigilante's team chose a complete open-source solution with multiprocessor, rack-mounted ProLiant DL servers from Hewlett-Packard Co. running Red Hat Inc.'s Enterprise Linux operating system. There isn't a new server running Solaris or Unix in sight, although an IBM iSeries (formerly AS/400) remains. The only Microsoft Corp. software in use at UFT is the Office suite of productivity applications and one legacy Exchange Server for e-mail.
It's close to the typical evolutionary pattern, according to Jeffrey Hewitt, an analyst with Gartner Inc., in Stamford, Conn. "These are new applications and sometimes represent additional horsepower added in parallel to existing systems," Hewitt said. According to his research, 22 percent of companies polled are deploying open-source systems not to replace older technology but to deploy new applications.
Regardless of the strategy, Linux is earning high marks not just as a technical solution but as a financial one that results in immediate and significant cost advantages.
"The Linux open-source route provided us with a way to avoid license fees and learn from a vast community of developers and users with issues similar to ours," said Vigilante.
That's a theme that's echoed in disparate users, from off-the-leading-edge, paper-based organizations such as the UFT to next-generation Web-based startups. For example, Feedster Inc., a San Francisco search engine and syndicator of XML Web content, would never have gotten off the ground if not for the savings achieved by implementing Linux.
"It didn't make sense to us or our investors to pay huge Windows and [Sun Microsystems Inc.] Solaris license fees and buy expensive support contracts," said Feedster CEO Scott Rafer. "And for the price of a single Oracle license, we got the top-tier MySQL product, direct access to the people who developed it, and a worldwide community ready to help anytime."
Those licenses were nearly a showstopper. With its entire operationand its lawyersbased in New York, the UFT refused to sign contracts whose terms would be governed by the laws of any other state. Red Hat, for example, is based in North Carolina. "For large enterprise corporations, this isn't a problem," said Vigilante. "But as a labor union, we were ready to walk away if vendors would not change their terms for us." Change them they did.
Next Page: UFT faced significant challenges.
A significant challenge faced by UFT was maintaining high Web site availability after migrating hosting and operations from a third-party service provider to UFT's own network.
Outsourced in 1997 to offload management choresa skill that did not yet exist at UFTthe site offered only static, nontransactional general content.
Updating the site with important news for its members often took hours, which is typical when management is performed by a third party with many different customers and priorities.
All Web services now operate from redundant servers installed on-site. Page templates were designed using Macromedia Inc.'s Dreamweaver, according to Bill Stamatis, UFT's Web content manager. Running Red Hat Linux, the Web servers also host Krang, an advanced open-source content management and Web publishing system.
Krang provides a story and media-editing environment, letting Perl programmers customize it to control the data entered in its content editor as well as the way templates and content are brought together to build output. Krang supports the Red Hat, Debian and Gentoo versions of Linux; the Fedora Project, and FreeBSD. With Krang handling content management, the content itself resides in a MySQL database from Sweden's MySQL AB. Web pages are served by Apache Software Foundation's Apache HTTP Server.
"We're not a [24-by-7] shop, so we needed to plan, build and test a redundant environment with automated failover to accommodate any outage," said UFT's Vigilante. Working with Plus Three LP, a technology provider specializing in solutions for labor unions, based in New York, UFT established a notification system that alerts key personnel of any Web outage and initiates automated failover to the backup servers. "We hope never to use it," Vigilante added.
Choice of platforms
In moving away from its static Web site and paper-based system of membership services, UFT and Plus Three crafted a three-phase approach. The key to success, according to Deirdre Hannigan, Plus Three's vice president of client services, was to move cautiously and maintain tight budgetary control.
"Phase 1 was homework, learning their processes and analyzing the current technology environment," said Hannigan. "In Phase 2, we installed hardware and the Krang content management platform to relaunch the Web site. We're now in Phase 3, bringing member services, health care and teacher resources online."
UFT chose Red Hat Linux, based on recommendations from both IBM and Plus Three. In contrast, Feedster followed a different path, deploying Novell Inc.'s SuSE Linux on some servers and Gentoo Linux from the Gentoo Foundation Inc. on others.
A startup, Feedster had no legacy systems baggagea rare luxury. UFT, with all its data residing on the AS/400, wasn't so lucky. IBM, however, offered what Vigilante considered a perfect solution, allowing the AS/400 to stay put while integrating it into the new open-source environment.
IBM's Toolbox for Java and JTOpen is a library of Java classes that can be used by Java applets, servlets and applications to access AS/400 or iSeries server data and resources. The toolbox provided everything that Plus Three and UFT needed to develop communications conduits and file access.
As part of its goal to foster educators' professional development, UFT's educational programs, in affiliation with local colleges and universities, offer a full spectrum of workshops and graduate-level courses to some 10,000 members each year. In the third phase of the project, the Web site will be the place where teachers can learn about and register for these courses.
And the union's nationally acclaimed Dial-A-Teacher program, in affiliation with the New York City Department of Education, offers homework assistance to more than 60,000 public school students and parents every year. The program uses the Web site as a starting point for matching students' needs with specific teachers; the goal is to make a wide range of content available in as many as 12 languages.
"The Web site averages 30,000 visits per month. But the average visit length went from 30 seconds to 5 minutes," said Stamatis. "Members are downloading materials and even reading online. And now that we post news daily, we've created a compelling reason for teachers to visit and stay."
In addition to being light-years more efficient than the UFT's previous paper-bound methods, the union's new interactive Web presence also conveys a friendlier persona to the organization's 150,000 members.
"There's no way the president of a union organization of our size can do a traditional reach-out to its dues-paying membership," said Vigilante. "What we've tried to do is design the site and its services to provide an 'electronic handshake' to members. We're there all the time, and we've worked to provide immediate response or have the information they need just a click or two away."
The UFT, it seems, has learned its own lessons.
Technology journalist Joel Shore is based in Southborough, Mass.
Next Page: Road map of Open-Source Implementation at the UFT.
Open-Source Implementation at the United Federation of Teachers
UFT'S Software/ HardWare Stack
Java Application Server
Distributes services across a cluster of servers
Daemon identifies problems and notifies administrator
Fully redundant hardwaretwo proxy servers, two application servers, two database servers and two e-mail servers; there is redundant hardware in the servers as well: dual power supplies, dual network cards with bonded interfaces and RAID cards with redundant drives.
Phase 1: Requirements gathering and training
Beginning with a discovery initiative to understand its business processes, UFT developed a plan for various services to start at different times. UFT also specified training for staff on the forthcoming open-source applications.
Phase 2: Web site, initial integration
Taking a phased approach to development and deployment allowed the UFT and Plus Three to focus on setting up the tools that form the basis of future development. Integration with the AS/400 and member database allows the UFT to provide members-only areas targeted to member types.
Phase 3: Online member services
Currently in progress; UFT is launching member services that use the infrastructure deployed in Phase 2. Teachers will be able to register online for courses and access enhanced member services remotely for the first time.
Source: Plus Three, United Federation of Teachers
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