Workopolis .Nets itself a winning Web site

Patrick Sullivan learned the definition of “growing pains” when his company, Workopolis, tried to launch a new Web-facing infrastructure on its own.

The president of the Toronto-based Web site that bills itself as “Canada’s Biggest Job Site” was getting too big for its own good.

Growing from 100,000 users per month in 2002 to close to four million per month in 2007, Sullivan knew it was time for an upgrade from an Oracle-based Web architecture, vintage 1998.

“Our mistake was to move forward a bit too quickly, without planning appropriately,” Sullivan says. “We tried to go down the path alone and it wasn’t working for us.”

In the summer of 2007, Workopolis attempted to launch a site to support three million monthly visitors. But the results weren’t good – the site was slow and unresponsive – it was time to call in some expert help, Sullivan says.

So Workopolis turned to imason Inc., a Toronto-based IT consulting firm. The Microsoft Gold Partner provided a team of experts that worked alongside Workopolis staff to train them on .Net development for the Web-facing component.

A one-year plan was mapped out for Workopolis to handle up to five million job seekers per month. A plan that is being accomplished with help from imason’s planted staff, and Microsoft’s Team Foundation Server and Visual Studio software.

“Our goal was just being able to serve the ever-growing audience that Workopolis has,” says Scott Howlett, co-CEO at imason. “They are one of the biggest dot-com properties in Canada.”

Before the upgrade, Workopolis was running their Oracle-based Web applications on two large Sun Solaris servers that ran at 80 per cent capacity, Sullivan says. That meant they couldn’t afford having one crash. With the shift to .Net, Workopolis moved to two larger IBM servers.

With the new servers, and some help from .Net’s ability to decrease capacity load, the Web site is now much more durable. Workopolis still uses an Oracle database, its foundation since starting up eight years ago.

But using the .Net platform to revamp its Web site isn’t as important as the fact that Workopolis had the help of an expert developer that was comfortable with the code base, says Howard Kiewe, senior research analyst with London, Ont.-based Info-Tech Research Group.

“If you’re the company that’s getting the site built, it’s sort of like getting your home renovated,” he says. “You don’t care what brand of hammer the builder uses, you just want the job done right – and if the carpenter loves the hammer they use, that’s good for the customer.”

As a Microsoft partner, it is no surprise that imason claims .Net is the best approach to a Web-tier technology, the analyst adds.

Placing a small team of workers inside the client’s company is business as usual for imason, Howlett says. The company hires employees that enjoy the challenge of switching teams and working on different projects often.

“We helped Workopolis identify some gaps they had on their team and then helped provide some people to fill those gaps,” he says.

The largest number of employees lent to the job search site was eight at a time, and five currently remain on staff. Positions provided by imason included architecture, project management, quality assurance, technical and interface design specialists. The embedded employees play a big role in training the Workopolis developers on their new code base.

“Our developers were a bit lost until we managed to get some experts in .Net,” Sullivan says. “When those folk came in, they were very enthusiastic about learning a new language.”

Microsoft also provided training support, he adds.  
Microsoft has a reputation for supporting its business products well, Kiewe says. Users can find well-organized, accessible documentation, and can call on a person for help when necessary.

Workopolis has achieved “great growth” over the past several years, the analyst adds. Its current project shows they may continue that trend, having gained the ability to more frequently update the source code of the Web site.

“Users have so many choices about where they can go and what they can do, so you just need to keep things moving,” Kiewe says.

Using Team Foundation Server has allowed Workopolis change from manual to automated code updates with the ability to generate reports, imason’s Howlett says. The system is now being used to manage all source code on the Web site. It also has features that allow a project manager to keep updates well-organized and flexible.

“If there happens to be a problem with your code, there’s a feature that allows you to go into the code and release a hot fix that’s outside of the normal release schedule,” says the imason co-CEO.

Workopolis now updates its source code twice as often as before, Sullivan says. Updates are deployed every two weeks. The tool saves developers time on writing code by allowing pieces of code to be shared amongst developers and used again more easily.

“The updates are done with much less work and effort,” the president says. “Certainly less overnight shifts have been needed.”

According to Howlett, the automated features also remove the chance of human error ruining an update. Organization for completing code updates was done manually before, but now a reporting feature could show all of the individual changes made to the source code before it is made live.

“A person can review it and decide if it meets the plan, or identify areas that weren’t meant for release yet,” he says.

Workopolis is wrapping up the project at year’s end, but about three-quarters of the work has already been done, Sullivan says. That will mean the Web site is ready to handle the 20 to 30 per cent traffic boost they normally get in January.

“Our goal would be to get the capacity to five million [visitors a month] for next year,” he says. “It seems to be that everyone looks for work in the New Year.”

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