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Building the AITP Web Portal

Wednesday, October 08, 2003   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Mark Gilfand, CDP and Mark Kleine
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Shortly after the AITP Web portal was launched, a member posted an item in one of the AITP forums asking for information about the Web portal's architecture. The member also wanted to know about the challenges in developing the portal. With this article, the Web portal committee will attempt to answer that posting and give you some insight on how this project developed.

Background

The AITP Web portal project officially started early in the spring of 2002 when the AITP executive committee approved a plan to move forward with the project. The goal was to update AITP's Web presence - providing the public with more information about AITP and providing AITP members with a source of content and additional functionality.

Our Web site was old and tired-looking. It was confusing, hard to navigate and did not provide much functionality. The only way you could really find any content was to use the site map. And then, most of what you found were items of interest to chapter, region and association leaders (manuals and forms), but not of much interest to the individual member. Very few members knew we had a discussion forum. Therefore the forum was not widely used and because there were few postings, it provided minimal benefit.

The challenge with the Web portal was to build a clean and modern interface, moving AITP's Web presence into the 21st century. We wanted to make the Web experience easy for the member and non-member alike. We wanted to provide content and functionality that AITP members could really use. We knew we had to beef up the forums and showcase the benefits of AITP membership. We needed a Web site that allowed the public to see who we are and what we are about.


The Design

I would like to say that we sat down, wrote out detailed requirements, handed it off to a design and programming team, and out popped the portal. But it didn't happen that way. Instead we used an iterative style of development, using a series of prototypes to define what we wanted, what was possible, and what was practical to build at this time.

In an effort to reduce ongoing maintenance costs, one of the major requirements was that this portal should be administered by the AITP staff. When this is coupled with the fact that the membership database must control the access to the site, it was easy to see that this would have to be a custom-coded solution.


The Details

The AITP Web portal is running on a Pentium class PC server that is running Microsoft Windows 2000 server. The custom code that runs on the portal is written in Java and we are using JavaScript for the client side processing. The Java programs are being served by the Tomcat Java server that is running on an Apache version 2 Web server. In order to manage the tables that define the site and to handle the user database, we are using Microsoft SQL server.

Each evening, an extract of the AITP membership database is sent from AITP headquarters to the AITP Webserver database to be used for the next 24 hours. This database is used to create the user directories, display current information and control access to the 'members-only' sections of the portal.

In order to speed up the development process, we chose to use an open-source forum management tool called YAZD. This forum management tool is also Java based and allowed us to include the forum features while customizing the front end to keep the look and feel of the overall site.

In the MyAITP section, we are using a number of Java/JavaScript portlets that allow us to interface with a number of external sites.

The rest of the site is built using various tables that contain either the information or links to the information that is seen on each page. This table-based technology has allowed AITP staff to make online changes to the system in real time. New files can be uploaded to the portal and then content can be added to the appropriate area by a few simple clicks in the administration system. This method of updating the pages has allowed us to include the chapter level information. There are thousands of entries that control chapter-specific information and chapter officers in all of the chapters from across the country. Keeping up with all of these entries in a static Web design would be more than any Webmaster could keep up with. By the way, be sure to check your chapter to make sure that the information shown is up-to-date!

A Macromedia flash file is used on the home page to provide some splash and motion while not consuming great amounts of bandwidth.

This new Web site has been running for just over two months and in this time over 2,000,000 hits from tens of thousands of visitors have been recorded from all corners of the globe.


Future Enhancements

This Web portal is only a foundation of what is to come.

Planned technical enhancements include:

  • Upgrading the server to include Windows 2003 server
  • Using Microsoft IIS as the Webserver and using Jrun Java Server
  • Including Real Simple Syndication (RSS) technology to increase the number and quality of the MyAITP portlets


The Results

The result is a portal that has sections open to the public so they can see what AITP is all about and what benefits we offer. With the new Web portal, people can see our mission, vision, code of ethics, and standards of conduct and organization.

The chapter search was improved, providing a simple Web presence for chapters, even if they don't have their own Web site. People can now easily see upcoming events and the benefits of membership.

At the same time, we wanted to provide real content for just AITP members. The Members and Publications sections of the portal do just that. In these member-only sections, you will find nearly 20 discussion forums where you can converse with other AITP members on specific topics of interest. The AITP member directory is one of our most popular enhancements. And with the portal we introduced new functionality such as on-line renewals and a way to update your personal information online. These were 'must-have' enhancements.

Our goal was to provide members with real content that they could use both at work and at home. You will find that content in the Publications section of the portal. Here you will see a number of quality white papers on a variety of topics. And this is just the beginning. As AITP builds more and more relationships with other companies, we'll add more papers, case studies, newsletters and other documents to this area of the portal.

We knew we could not afford to create everything at once. Our priorities were to build something that would initially attract our existing members, the public and other organizations to AITP. But the portal was built with the future in mind as well. We also wanted an infrastructure that supports future functionality and more unique content for AITP members. Over time, we will enhance what has already been built and create new items and functions.

The launch of the portal is not the end of the project. Instead it is the beginning of an opportunity to build more applications, content, functionality and benefits for your AITP membership.


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