CarahCast: Podcasts on Technology in the Public Sector

Modernizing Web Experiences For the Navy: How Liferay Boosts Site Performance

Episode Summary

In this podcast, Chris Robertson, Chief Software Engineer, IBR discusses the advantages of using Liferay to deliver a one-stop shop for Navy career management.

Episode Transcription

Rich Savage: Hello everyone. This is Rich Savage with the Liferay team at Carahsoft. and I'm here with Chris Robertson, chief software engineer for My Navy Portal to talk about how Liferay was able to help the US Navy. Chris, thank you for joining us today.

Chris Robertson: Thank you Rich for having me here.

Rich Savage: Very good. Chris, do you want to maybe just give the audience a little bit of a background on yourself and the company you work with, IBR?

Chris Robertson: Sure. As you mentioned on the chief software engineer for the My Navy Portal program at IBR. IBR is a software development company located in Orlando. We have commercial and government programs, but our largest program is the My Navy Portal program. And it's one we're very proud of because of how it's come along and progressed, and really evolved into a very large successful system.

Rich Savage: Very good. And that's absolutely what we're here to talk about today. We want to learn a little bit about that program and what IBR and Liferay's doing to make it a very good one. So, maybe we'll just dive into a couple of questions here. Can you tell us a little bit about the primary challenge the Navy was looking to solve when they brought you guys on?

Chris Robertson: Sure. What they had was, over time, they had created over 60 separate human resource applications for sailors. So, each entity onto itself, for instance, requesting leave for a sailor, created an application that solved their problem and, in isolation, that was a good solution. But, over time, we now had a ton of solutions that duplicated work and data. And so, it created confusion for sailors because they would have to know all 60 places to go. With the replicated data, it created problems because if data was updated in one system, it would never be reflected in other systems because, again, they were all written unto themselves. And the other issue the Navy was running into was the cost of maintaining these systems. So, they started to realize, "I'm paying to create an application, but I now have to pay developers to update those systems." And so they really wanted all of that fixed in one set solution.

Rich Savage: Excellent. Thank you for that. And curious about Liferay, I know Liferay is kind of the portal technology behind the scenes there. Can you help us understand why Liferay was that chosen solution, and maybe any other products that were evaluated in that discovery phase?

Chris Robertson: There were a few products that were evaluated, but what Liferay offered was out-of-the-box instances in concurrence with limitless customization. So, the customer wanted something today and Liferay offered that where they could get out-of-the-box functions with message boards, web content displays. And the Navy has hundreds of teams out there that want a site today. And this really gave them that. It wasn't a situation where they wanted to say, "Okay, here's all of our requirements, come back in three years and let us know what happens." It was, "Give us something today. And then, we'll build from there." And Liferay was really the solution that, again, gave them everything upfront, but didn't limit what we could develop because we had higher level languages that we could make custom modules in, such as Java. And we were able to tie it into web services.

I mean, over the five years, we've gone into all different kinds of transactional processing for them. But, again, that first release was just this content, and they were immediately able to use it. The admins came out-of-the-box, so they didn't have to pay software developers to make their updates. And this was really what they were looking for. And when you tied that in with their security desires of role-based users, group based users, users can commit certain actions, not search an action. And Liferay really, again, it gives you that out-of-the-box where I can hide a single web content display on a page based on a user. And even the user groups and be managed by a non-developer. So, we can hand that off to the Navy and the cost is finite. You want me to develop this system, I 100% hand it over to you and you don't have to come back to me. And that was really what sold it to the Navy.

Rich Savage: Having a great tool is definitely a component of a successful program, but we know that a lot of that work is done in the implementation of that tool. Can you tell us a little bit about that implementation process and what the results were five years later?

Chris Robertson: Having done it for five years, I think, we have a very successful tool. We went from the sailors saying, "Why do I have to use My Navy Portal," to, "Why are these other functions, not in My Navy Portal because it's the easiest to use?" And we're still in the process of bringing them all in, but that is how that transition is happening. And a lot of that happened because of one, we were doing it agile, but we also changed our processes based specifically on this customer. So, when we originally came in, we were experienced developers, we'd done agile before. We would go get our requirements, then we'd go we'd create our backend databases, our interfaces, and then we'd create the user interface. And we did our sprint demos, but very often there wasn't much to show because we were doing the backend first.

What that ended up is when they saw the UI, they would notice things that were missing. So, "I don't have this function," or, "This field is required or not required." And so, we were really reacting late to things. So, we changed our process to where during the first meetings we send our SE team and a design team. So, we have a tool called ProtoShare. And so, the design team leaves the first meeting and creates a mock-up of a user interface based off what they've already heard. And so, they will attend all the design meetings and immediately show the user what the front end broadly looks like. It's not a fully interactive tool, but it gives them at least a feel of what things will be. And that has really helped us pull the requirements out.

Another thing that has come along is, again, with the customer they've learned agile us. So, I think, at the beginning they were more still waterfall driven. So, we would show them the demos, but they really wouldn't give feedback. It was more, "Thank you for showing me the demo." And so, we were able to pull that out of them and show them, "I'm showing you this, but I can change it." And I think that came a long way to making them much happier than they would have been.

Rich Savage: Thank you for that, Chris. And maybe let's take a minute and look forward and say, what does a roadmap look like for My Navy Portal? You mentioned some of that already with the sailors looking for more features. Can you give us an idea of what some of these features might look like in the future, and what these sailors might be able to get access to?

Chris Robertson: There are a lot of systems out there. So, we are currently working on some of the performance systems. And this is more, it's a sailor performance. So, their exercises are they do they get waivers for passing certain physicals and things like that. And that is just currently today. But we have many other of the HR systems coming in, a lot more of the training systems, more of the scheduling systems. But one of the things that I've enjoyed is we've expanded past what the initial goal was. So, even though we haven't merged them all in, they've seen what we can do and they want to go further. And one of the largest areas that they want to do this in is public access.

So, currently, the entire system is private and you need a [C-AC 00:07:21] sailor access card to access the system. And they realize a lot of the content isn't private. So, it would be nice for the spouses or the families to see this data. And it would also help them. New to the Navy, retirement. I mean, this information is helpful for more than just the sailor themselves. And so, that is one of the key factors moving forward is they want to have one system on a private side where you administrate the data, but that some of it will go to the private side, and then other of it will go to a public access side. And so, I think that's the largest roadmap we have is splitting that forward.

Rich Savage: That's great. So, it looks like a lot of great things to come for the folks in the Navy, and lots of great new features that they should expect to receive in the future. Is there anything else you'd like to share with us? I mean, you've had hands-on experience with this program for five years. I'm sure there's plenty of stories to around. But anything else you'd like to tell our audience, maybe about your experience with working with the Navy and working on this great program?

Chris Robertson: One of the things that I think has come about is that there's been many, many challenges working with a group this large. So, we have over 500,000 customers. So, the functions vary greatly and what is desired varies greatly. And so, this is where I really have to push some credit onto Liferay, where we're not a typical user of their product. And so, we expand past the norm very often. And so, we will contact Liferay, they will say, "All right, we can try this. We can try that." They'll replicate what we're trying to accomplish. And they'll give us patches, they've helped us numerous times create certain goals.

A for instance, when we first delivered our first product, it got half glowing reviews and half not. The half not were because the sailors that were on ships have, basically, dial up speed. Now, there was no requirement for us to support a speed that slow but, in reaction, we've created a low bandwidth mode. So, every user interface we have a high bandwidth mode for everyone that's hardwired they add a base, and they're ready to go. And we have a low bandwidth mode for the sailors on ships, where you might get 32K a second. So, what we did is we have to remove all the libraries, we have to remove all the images, we have to never pre-fetch data. But that also, again, went to us contacting Liferay to say, "What libraries are you expecting the client to have that we can hide?" So, we need to shut off everything Liferay doesn't absolutely need to show this data. And so, again, they helped us out there, and the Navy has been very happy with the results since we started doing that.

The other area where I would say we run into the most difficulty is security. So, the Navy owns the servers that we work on. That means they control when the software's updated, they control what patches, the versions, all the security settings. And we have no control or say when they are updated, or what the ramifications will be. And, again, this comes into where we often have to work hand-in-hand with Liferay because they will flip a setting, and we lose functionality. An example I'll give is on the Navy laptops, a year in, all of the icons got blocked by security. So, there were no icons on the site, whether default Liferay behavior, or our custom applications. And this was really a point where, to me, Liferay could have said, "That's not our problem. It's your client, they're turning it off. You guys figured it out." But it was nice of Liferay to work with us to come up with a solution where we were able to get all our icons back and pass all our security settings.

Rich Savage: Very good. That is excellent, Chris. And thank you so much for your time. That's about all that we have for today, but we definitely appreciate your time and the insights that you're able to provide today for our audience.

If you want to have more information about Liferay and My Navy Portal, we have a case study up on the podcast landing page that you can check out. And if you need additional resources or information, you can visit the Liferay Digital Experience hub linked on the landing page as well. And we have a Liferay team at Carahsoft. That's the that you're welcome to reach out to your account representative and talk more about this great program, and other potential ways you can use the Liferay. So, once again, thank you very much, and glad everybody could join. Chris, thank you. Great job. And we'll see you all next time.