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Apache Web Server: Article

Metadot Uses LAMP to Create a Popular Portal Application

Easy-to-use and feature-rich interfaces

Trade publications, news magazines, and blogs are filled with secrets and solutions for easily and cost-effectively building Web sites, intranets, and the like. Recipes like these are great but, in reality, how do we make it happen?

Open source software company Metadot Corporation has utilized the increasingly popular LAMP technology platform - Linux, Apache, MySQL, and Perl - to develop its Metadot Portal Server, an open source portal application that enables individuals to easily create and maintain intranets, extranets, corporate Web sites, and project and community portals.

LAMP has been an outstanding technology choice for Metadot because it provides fast development cycles, plenty of library on which to capitalize, high scalability, good reliability, excellent technical support from the open source community, and good software management and testing tools.

Another advantage of using LAMP is that the AMP part is 100% cross-platform so Metadot also runs on Windows (WAMP), Mac OS X, Solaris, and all other Unix flavors, as well as the original LAMP target of Linux. Once the Metadot Portal Server has been set up, an organization's IT department can delegate content management to its individual departments. From then on, the IT department makes sure the software runs properly and securely on approved corporate servers and the individual departments are responsible for taking care of their content. This is the ideal world: a clear separation of responsibilities that makes everyone inside an organization not only happy but more efficient.

How did Metadot achieve this ideal separation of responsibility and empowerment? The cornerstone of the Metadot Portal Server is its ease-of-use. Its content management and collaboration features were designed to be so easy that anyone can use them. If someone is capable of using Word and surfing the Web, he or she can create and maintain a Metadot Web site. Metadot enables end users to edit and maintain Web site content so IT staff can focus on running servers, software, and networks.

Metadot focuses not on technology but on easy-to-use and feature-rich user interfaces that empower end users. The Metadot Portal Server can run an organization's intranet, extranet, corporate Web site, community portal, and project spaces. It's being used by organizations such as MIT, NASA, University of California-Berkeley, Schlumberger, Lockheed Martin, Bond Bank, Guaranty Trust Bank, Intellicad, and other smaller businesses. Many of these organizations chose Metadot specifically because they were seeking an open source solution. Burned by commercial alternatives in the past, they sought a product that wouldn't eventually be phased out by its developer as well as something that they could afford.

Organic Valley: Collaborative Intranet
Organized in 1988, Organic Valley represents 689 farmers in 20 states. It's the only national organic brand that is 100% farmer-owned, and the only independent national organic dairy cooperative in the United States. In the past year alone, the cooperative achieved record success both in sales (up from $156 million in 2003 to $206 million in 2004) and in farmer recruitment (133 new farmers). The Organic Valley brand is the top-selling organic milk in both mainstream supermarkets and natural foods outlets along the entire Eastern seaboard. Using nature as their teacher, Organic Valley farmers produce more than 130 organic products.

Organic Valley used the Metadot Portal Server to create, edit, and maintain its password-protected intranet. According to IT special projects manager David Whited-Ford, they evaluated various content management systems for a year before trying Metadot's open source Portal Server. Now 300 employees strong, the company uses its intranet as its main internal communications tool. They use many of the product's built-in features, such as calendaring tools and form templates (see Figure 1).

Cost was a significant factor when choosing Metadot because Organic Valley believes in sending as much money as possible back to their farmers. By keeping a close eye on their expenses, they are able to help their farmers financially.

Upon deciding that they want an open source solution, many Metadot customers also wanted a product that could be maintained by the actual users so that the IT department could focus on critical business tasks, and not continually update Web site content. In addition to its affordability, another key component of Metadot is its ease of use. The only thing a user needs to know is how to find the "enable editing" button that is located on every page of a Metadot Web site. This button is visible only for users who have the appropriate rights to edit the site. Once the Enable Editing button is pressed, the edit interface is loaded with the same screen shown in Figure 2.

MIT: Departmental and Project Web Sites
MIT is a prime example of a sophisticated organization that has taken advantage of Metadot's ease of use. Since MIT is a highly decentralized organization, each MIT department is free to select its portal solution, intranet, and project Web site. Some of them, like the Civil Engineering and Environment department (CEE), have chosen to use Metadot for their department Web site and intranet. The public MIT CEE Web site is visible on the Internet at http://cee.mit.edu (see Figure 3).

MIT's CEE department rolled out Metadot in several phases, starting with a new look-and-feel design, information architecture, and content migration. The Metadot look-and-feel templates are bundled together into a skin. Skins, which contain images, cascading style sheets (CSS), and template toolkit files, are very popular in the open source community because they allow unlimited look-and-feel creativity (since they separate the look and feel and code logic).

The CEE site is managed by the department's communication officer, who doesn't have a technical background. In addition, the department is making space available on the Web site for students so they can take advantage of the program's power and flexibility to suit their own purposes. Today the CEE site has three main functions:

  1. The official public-facing Web site for the department.
  2. To provide researchers with their own personal Web site so they can publish information and research about their projects and share their papers.
  3. To provide a collaboration area for recruiting where the MIT employees can obtain information and share feedback on prospective candidates. In a collaborative area, they post candidate information, such as CVs, letters of reference and comments from people who have interacted with the candidate. This highly dynamic site allows the faculty to actively participate in the department's hiring process.
In the future, MIT's CEE department plans to migrate existing databases that are not Web-enabled into the Metadot Portal Server, thus providing a central point of Web entry to the entire organization.

Gadgets, Gizmos, Web Parts - Call 'Em What You Want, They're Important
Every portal server uses different terms for their little drop-in applications, which are vital elements in the design and functionality of portals. Plumtree calls them gadgets, Sharepoint uses Web parts, Java portals call them portlets, and for Metadot it is gizmos. Gizmos are key to Metadot because they are small applications that hold content and are placed by the users on a page. They dictate how the content is handled. Metadot provides the following gizmos: Calendar, file and link management, online forums, news items, polls, document management with version control, link management, RSS, and many more. Adding a gizmo to a page is very simple. Given a user has the appropriate rights, he or she just needs to click "Enable editing," then select the appropriate gizmo from the "Add a Gizmo" drop-down menu.

Metadot gizmos are developed in Perl and use Template Toolkit for the user interface. It takes very little code to create a gizmo since Metadot Portal Server provides many high-level functions such as user and permission management, persistent storage, form creation, form validation, and advanced caching.

Did you ever want to provide your very own "My Yahoo" to your organization? At Metadot's "My News Page," users can read news from the Internet (RSS feeds), news published from the Metadot-powered site, or from internal discussions. Users can personalize content based on their needs and choose to receive the latest news by e-mail or a cell phone. My News Page is a personal page, so no one other than the owner of the page can read it and it can't be shared. In addition to providing news, My News Page can have small customizable applications such as stock quotes, weather information, calculators, search engines, or a UPS tracker.

For technically minded people, Metadot uses Perl modules (see them all at CPAN.org) to fetch RSS files and extract the XML and RSS information. Afterward they are cached on the local server so displaying them is very fast.

My News Page is a powerful tool because it can centralize all the information someone needs for a job in a single page. For example, say you are an engineering manager in a computer company, you can set up your news page with the news from the computer industry, add some news published by your colleagues, and you may also want to monitor a few technical discussions that interest you. The value of having such a central place is tremendous, see Figure 4, for example.

Whereas My News Page cannot be shared, Metadot also offers "My Website," which is a personal space where users can publish and share information and collaborate with other users (see Figure 5). It's a mini-Web site for each user. My Website includes all the Metadot capabilities so a user can create custom pages for his or her projects as needed and add discussions, calendars, file downloads, etc. They can also add private pages so only authorized people or groups can access them.

In addition to collaborative areas where users can communicate and share information, the Metadot Portal Server offers an easy resource for storing personal information. For example, My Stuff is the place where users can update their passwords and profile information, read, and send Metagrams. Metagrams are small messages than can be exchanged among Metadot users, and manage their groups and their subscriptions. My Metagram functions like a mini e-mail system among Metadot users, but all messages stay in the portal. The goal is to send site-specific messages since e-mail communication has become fairly inefficient due to many reasons such as spam, phishing e-mails, and the amount of messages we receive, combined with the inability of e-mail software to keep important messages somewhat visible on the screen so we don't forget about them!

The Metadot user directory allows organizations to search people by expertise, geographical location, and, obviously, by name and other common criteria. From the directory search result you can choose to see more information about the user by clicking on the appropriate link. For example, the Attorney General Office of Arizona uses the Metadot directory to identify experts in a specific area.

There are many, many options available for users seeking portal solutions. At this point you have learned a lot about what Metadot can do for an organization, but your knowledge of Metadot would be incomplete if you didn't know why Metadot's mascot is a Dalmatian. To discover this, go to www.metadot.com and click on the nose of the dog.

More Stories By Daniel Guermeur

Daniel Guermeur is founder, president & CEO of Austin, Texas-based Metadot Corporation. He can be reached via email daniel@metadot.com.

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