It was a major win for the IT group in realizing how we could help the company reduce cost while earning more respect from upper management.“
- Rob Weis, CIO, North Wind
Interview with North Wind
Rob Weis, CIO of North Wind, discussed his company’s experience developing a portal and collaboration tool using Drupal with AIT Profiles.
Drupal is an open source content management platform. It offers a free software package for publishing, managing and organizing a wide variety of content on a website.
North Wind, an Alaska Native Corporation based in Idaho Falls, Idaho, provides environmental, engineering and construction services to governmental, commercial and industrial clients.
AIT Profiles: Let’s go back prior to the installation. Tell us about the challenge your company was facing at the time.
Rob Weis: I noticed early on that our corporate intranet was a mess. It was running on a free version of SharePoint that was outdated, unpatched and living on the DMZ. All the while, it was completely accessible to anybody on the planet if you could get past the basic NT authentication. The intranet contained sensitive data about many government projects. This became a major security concern for the company and we decided it was time to look at a full upgrade and moving this system inside our network.
AIT Profiles: And how did you go about looking for a solution?
Rob Weis: We carefully evaluated our upgrade options by evaluating several COTS (commercial off the shelf) vendors, the latest version of SharePoint Enterprise edition and the option to develop the system in-house. Our criteria for selection were based on cost, flexibility, user interface and integration with legacy systems.
AIT Profiles: What did you select?
Rob Weis: We decided to leverage our internal software engineering team’s expertise. The team and I believed there was a huge potential for major cost savings in attempting to reproduce SharePoint, function by function. The new project was now on the high priority list and was rebranded with the name “Portal.”
North Wind had previously adopted an open source content management system, called Drupal, for several scientific applications and project collaboration websites with great success. The first appeal in using Drupal for our scientific applications was the insanely rapid application development it offered. Often times we had a working prototype for our customer by the close of business on the same day! For our new Portal intranet, we looked at this and said, “Let’s see how far we can get in 24 work hours of development before we commit fully.” After about 24 hours of work, it was pretty shocking that we had replicated a significant portion of SharePoint functionality. This gave us a confidence boost to move forward with Drupal. However, there was a lot of work to do in terms of higher hanging fruits and a fairly large data migration/cleanup.
AIT Profiles: Beyond cost savings, did you see other benefits to using Drupal?
Rob Weis: The other appeal I saw for the team to leverage Drupal is it would be a great way to invest in our own team to learn more about the software. It meant discovering new modules, integrating with Active Directory LDAP and other systems, building SharePoint equivalent functionality and finding solutions to a slew of other challenges. All of which, we could use in the future for our other Drupal installations for our customers without needing to charge them a dime to spin up for the knowledge.
AIT Profiles: So how did the Portal project turn out?
Rob Weis: When the Portal launched to the company and the project was completed, we estimated the labor cost of the project and believed we had broken even in labor cost compared to purchasing SharePoint Enterprise for one year of licensing. It may not sound like much, but the SharePoint software would have cost each year what it took to build the Portal once. Additionally, we now had the internal capability to say “Yes, we can add that feature,” instead of the previous answer “No, we’re not sure how to do that.”
Shortly after the launch of our newly launched “Portal,” we had a request come in from our CFO to automate our pay stub system. It was a manual printing process that was very costly. We did an analysis and the current process was costing about $80,000 over 5 years in time and materials. We added a small piece of custom functionality to the Portal user profiles that would connect to our accounting system and display pay stubs to the user. This small feature amounted to a savings of approximately $70,000 over 5 years! This alone paid for a significant chunk of the Portal development costs. It was a major win for the IT group in realizing how we could help the company reduce cost while earning more respect from upper management. It was at about this time that the team and I recognized we had made the right technology decision. The investment was already paying itself back and we had just begun!
AIT Profiles: That’s a big savings. And how has the Portal affected your organization?
Rob Weis: With the new Portal system, we’ve had a completely new cultural experience for the company. The news is up to date, employee hires are immediately in the directory, and each division and employee has their own page with useful information for everyone. The Portal has features like: search, calendar, classifieds, reservation system (conference rooms, vehicles, GPS tools, drilling rigs, etc.), rotating graphics for seasons and special events (charity work, golf tournaments, etc.), profile self-marketing (resume, biography, etc,) and several other features to keep the content fresh and alive. It’s hard to put a value on all these features and the cultural impact, but we’re betting that it may contribute to improved morale, less turnover, more involved and efficient employees, and better communication across the company.
AIT Profiles: Do you plan to build upon this system in the future?
Rob Weis: Our last major phase of the Portal project is currently underway. We’re on the cusp of launching a collaboration system for corporate groups and projects. We’ve been beta testing with several internal teams and have had success in using a software add-on for Drupal called Open Atrium. The collaboration pieces and the several other “wish list” enhancements to the Portal are sure to make a major impact to the company over the next several years. We’re helping our software development team grow with Drupal, our employees to be more efficient and excited about technology, improving our security and reducing costs to make our rates more competitive.
AIT Profiles: It sounds like developing the Portal with Drupal open source software has been a good experience. Do you have any final thoughts or advice for our readers?
Rob Weis: If you haven’t considered open source in the past, now’s the time to take a deeper look at what might be possible for you or your company.
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