Drop the Mouse. Put Your Hands in the Air. Back Away From the UI.

Our intrepid CIO, Justin Webb, has far too much common sense for his own good. He’ll never make it in this town.

Seriously, Justin and I were here together in 2008 for the coming of Sharepoint (before he was CIO). He and I slogged through the implementation of that baby over an 18-month period that felt like it would never end. It gave birth to a bouncing baby EagleNet.

Since November of 2009, EagleNet has been our University’s portal. “Portal” is one of those words that sounded SO sexy in 2003, but by the time we got to Sharepoint, we had seen the communications, training, and maintenance headaches that portals can bring. The dream of aggregating communications based on ERP data about a person’s role is a good one. The problem is, the companies that deal with data should be told to, “Drop the mouse. Put your hands in the air. Back away from the UI.” (and no one will get hurt).

Sharepoint is one of those nifty all-in-one tools that aggregates, collaborates, authenticates, productivity-ates, and gets-us-cute-prom-dates. It’s another of those motherships that promises all things wonderful.

The best thing about motherships is that they are, out of the box, pretty robust and sturdy. The trouble with motherships is that they are very, very hard to steer. That makes them GREAT for corporate environments with few differentiating factors within internal audiences. A single, sturdy, homely UI works okay in that mediocre kinda way when you stick with a vanilla installation and provision using the delivered tools.

But higher ed audiences are nothing if not idiosyncratic — not just within a University, but between universities. Student populations can be undergraduate, residential, international, non-traditional, in any number of major programs. And that is just one audience group. Throughout the year, each of these many audiences requires a clear way to get to information.

So the object was to use Sharepoint as a layer of targeted communications over the portal, essentially mimicking what we had with Luminis, providing single sign-on to our Banner SSB for students in the bargain. This involved a LOT of customization, including some pretty complicated code for maintaining a Banner session within the Sharepoint authentication scheme. The developer who did this (no longer with UMW) was truly a genius in getting this to work. But, not everyone has a genius on staff.

Bottom line: We twisted Sharepoint into a pretzel to make it do what it’s doing. And here’s what it’s doing:

  • Complicating getting directly to Banner SSB,
  • Delivering 3 widgets of targeted/authenticated information for the new incoming student, useful for 3 months out of the year, and too complicated to manage to allow for distributed content authorship, so content management stays within IT.
  • Delivering about 9 widgets of personalized information from Banner SSB to all audiences.
  • Hosting unused personal pages, called “MySites,” for all students, faculty, and staff.
  • Delivering a collection of about 80 or so collaboration sites, of which a handful are being used actively.
  • Serving as a pretty spiffy scalable reporting tools platform.

Other than the last two bullet points (in bold above), EagleNet doing very little for all the development and maintenance costs, not to mention the development and testing work involved every time Banner or Sharepoint is upgraded. Well, Banner SSB has an all new interface called Cascade, and Sharepoint is moving from 2007 to 2010. Time to commit to hiring more .NET programming skill for more customization and retooling of this enormously complicated environment for little UI benefit, or cut bait.

Then there is mobile. Delivering itty-bitty widgets of information just doesn’t cut it in a mobile UI. On mobile, you want to get the info, and get out, because, let’s face it, you’re driving.

Snide remarks aside, I would argue that this notion of having a web-based UI that provides pertinent GROUP and PERSONAL messages and data is a viable one. So, how to extricate that essentially sound idea from a UI that was developed in service to the infrastructure, rather than the user? I thought you’d NEVER ask.

Enter the work Curtiss and I have been doing on Banner and Active Directory data in WordPress, using Banner Web services. It is a lightweight infrastructure, without all the vendor lockin nonsense of a “systems-based” delivered UI. It is the notion of small pieces, loosely joined, coming to fruition in a very big and profound way. Here’s what we are going to begin developing (implementation quite a ways down the road, so don’t panic!):

  • Use WordPress for the UI.
  • Aggregate targeted web content from posts throughout the university Multi-network environment using RSS feeds, FeedWordPress, and our own Cross-Site Featured Posts plugin.
  • Deliver Banner Web Services (already doing that) to WordPress based on AD authentication (already doing that, too). That allows the viewing of targeted (WordPress aggregated) and personal (Banner Web Services) content upon login.
  • Implement a Central Authentication Service (CAS) server to maintain a session between authenticated WordPress and Banner SSB.

Here is what you get at the end:

  • A flexible, accessible, responsive, mobile-friendly UI that leverages skills on staff AND within a broad WordPress community
  • No more Rube Goldberg authentication code in .NET that needs to be retooled every time Microsoft or Ellucian¬†decides to improve on their products, dragging their clunky, afterthought UI’s along for the ride.
  • Banner screens break out from frames and use standard form layout, minimizing re-styling and customization.
  • IT concentrates on security, authentication, hosting and data delivery.
  • The Web team concentrates on aggregation and UI.
  • University Relations and the rest of the University continue to deliver content to their stakeholders through WordPress, as they are already.
  • Open standards, application-agnostic methods for authentication and session maintenance that could potentially apply to any number of apps and aggregation layers in the future.
  • Complex, compulsory, EagleNet portal layer is replaced by an opt-in Sharepoint installation that continues to support its core functionality: internal collaboration and reporting tools.
  • No more supporting thousands of abandoned, hard to manage “MySites”. UMW Blogs and a Domain of One’s Own are, after all, the most useful personal web publishing platforms we have in-house, and the internet is lousy with cheap or free personal web publishing environments that people can share with the WORLD, not just internally, as MySites do.
I know this is a lot to swallow in words. I have a way to illustrate these changes in simple pictures but, for now, I’ll leave it at the above. I’m pretty jazzed — it’s so nice to be around so long that you can break the stuff you helped to build, and build it better. Also nice to have Justin Webb as a CIO who is interested in solving problems, minimizing costs, being willing to kill a darling or two in ¬†support of the UMW mission in the bargain. Justin Webb (IT champion of the Domain of One’s Own) is an unsung hero — oh, and a Mary Washington alum, by the way.