.NET Apps, WebSphere Portal, and Linux Servers in the Same Sandbox
Published: September 5, 2007
by Dan Burger
Interoperability may be the most used word in an IT industry that was built on proprietary systems. It's the ultimate insult to be labeled proprietary--the equivalent of inflexible. The scarlet letter is "P." So it may come as a surprise to many who keep a keen watch on interoperability issues that the IT department of a large hospital, which uses Microsoft .NET as its application development environment, is deploying an IBM WebSphere Portal on Linux servers.
The pieces of this puzzle have fit together quite nicely so far for Bart Sijnave, the chief information officer at Belgium's University Hospital of Ghent. When he stepped into his CIO role approximately two years ago, the application environment was a hodge-podge of inconsistency. There were more than 100 applications written in Java, C#, Visual Basic, FoxPro, and many other tools. Maintenance on this mixed bag was a nightmare. Because he had more developers with skills in .NET than any other language and because the pressure was on to quickly develop new apps, Sijnave made future app development projects focus around .NET.
That was fine until two additional hospitals joined the University Hospital system and brought their own messy IT pasts into the mix. To try to unify systems and to build in the type of functionality needed for the future, the hospital made the decision to build a portal environment with the goal of becoming a self-serve information center for 5,000 staff members, students, healthcare professionals, plus more than 380,000 patients and their families that visit the hospital each year.
Given that Sijnave's application team was .NET oriented, the justifiable choice was to deploy Microsoft's SharePoint.
"When shopping for portal technology," Sijnave explains, "we narrowed the search to IBM WebSphere and Microsoft SharePoint. The logical thing to do was choose SharePoint because we are developing in .NET. But when we compared functionality and stability, it became clear we needed WebSphere."
Uh-oh. Getting dogs and cats to play together would be easier than getting .NET apps to interoperate with WebSphere. To say that Sijnave's lead .NET developer was skeptical was a colossal understatement.
"I had to make the decision whether to hire some Java developers or look for another solution," Sijnave says. "But IBM came up with the alternative solution, and that was our introduction to Mainsoft."
Mainsoft's .NET to Java software recompiles (Mainsoft prefers the term "cross-compiling") .NET-based code into Java executables that run locally on WebSphere Portal and WebSphere Application Server running on top of Unix and Linux operating systems. According to Mainsoft literature, more than 150 businesses are using its software, which is referred to as Mainsoft for Java EE Portal Edition.
The project at University Hospital, which is just getting under way after successfully testing the Mainsoft software, involves the integration of its existing .NET application framework, 15 strategic .NET applications, more than 5 TB of data stored in an Oracle database, and an LDAP (Lightweight Directory Access Protocol) repository into the WebSphere Portal environment running on Linux. The WebSphere Portal will run on Linux-based Dell PowerEdge blade servers.
During the WebSphere versus SharePoint debate, Sijnave says there were no references for SharePoint that could compare with the portal project that University Hospital was undertaking. "WebSphere had a track record of big references--scalable and proven technology, and contained the functionality that we needed," he notes.
Testing of Mainsoft for Java EE Portal Edition's cross-compiling capabilities led Sijnave to estimate a conversion rate of 95 percent.
"It depends on how the applications were originally written," he explains. "If they are written with a lot of native Windows functionality, there will be some problems. When the applications are written as independently as possible, and there are tricks in which to accomplish this, then the processes are much easier to integrate. In our case the integration went quickly because the components are written in a way that they can be more easily migrated into a Java environment. We did a very thorough test. We took one simple menu application and migrated it to the portal and it was very easy. Then we took some complex applications that made links to our patients' appointment software and that went quite well."
Sijnave is optimistic about future cross-compiling efforts, but realistic when he admits that "going forward, it is difficult to say whether other applications will be as easily recompiled."
The portal project is in the early stages of planning, and IBM has a contract to help set up the global context for the portal. University Hospital has a maintenance contract with IBM to fine tune the portal project as well. The project will be built and installed in stages. Phase one will be the online implementation of the Internet portion of the Web portal, which can then be used to communicate informational updates using a Web content management system. During the second phase, which is expected to be completed by the end of 2008, the electronic patient data exchange and content management will be expanded with search functionality, access control, and single sign-on to existing applications, transactional services, services for content and knowledge management, and security. The final stage will integrate the portal with affiliated hospitals.
Sijnave expects more details of the structure and layout to be approved early this month. He confirmed that plans for future application development will continue with .NET. "If I were to get ten new programmers, I would probably make the choice to have five of them be Java programmers," he says. "For now, I have to survive, and to survive I have to them all working in the same direction."
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