Like many organizations, ComputerJobs.com reduced its tech staff this year. But that hasn't stopped the popular online job site from moving forward with new technology initiatives, including a graduated plan to rebuild its Web site using Microsoft's .NET platform.
In a few short months, and with minimal cash outlay, the company has already seen a payoff from its move to .NET. Server efficiency is up 400 percent, and the switch to .NET has increased developer productivity tenfold.
That level of ROI is exactly why the development platform is getting more attention these days. Not only does .NET help with server utilization and productivity, it's also more scaleable, more extensible, and easier to maintain than ASP, according to .NET expert Jesse Liberty, author of Programming ASP.NET and Programming C# (O'Reilly & Associates).
Site challenges prompted the move
Prior to starting its .NET initiative, ComputerJobs.com had experienced a gradual decline in back-end systems performance (the back end was built with ASP and Cold Fusion). During high traffic times, for instance, the support staff had to cycle the front-end servers twice a day, explained Rob Epstein, technical product manager. To keep up with the workload, the company was adding three new servers every quarter. Akamai and Inktomi servers were both brought on board to distribute the heavy server load.
Confident that the .NET platform could help ease the issue, ComputerJobs.com acquired the .NET software licenses free of charge through its MSDN Universal Subscription. Company leaders set development priorities based on business opportunities, putting projects that increased revenue or saved money ahead of the rest.
After evaluating the project scope, the reduced size of its development team, and its development priorities, the company decided to rebuild the site piece by piece.
"The ability to convert the site overnight was just not practical," said David Melcher, ComputerJobs.com's VP of product development and technology.
In the spring of 2002, ComputerJobs.com began a pilot .NET conversion on one of the site's e-mail distribution tools—the first priority identified during project review. The old system had been troubling the engineering staff because they were forced to specifically schedule bulk e-mails due to slow server performance. Following the project's launch, server performance improved so much that engineers no longer had to intercede in the e-mail process.
Next, engineers tackled the part of the site directly tied to revenue—the “dashboard” for employers who wanted to add jobs and search through the lists of potential employees. ComputerJobs.com already had plans to enhance the existing site with new features and wanted to renovate the site's look and feel. The employer section became the second priority to undergo a .NET overhaul.
Move to .NET created savings
Shortly after the official .NET project launched in mid summer, the company experienced a dramatic increase in server utilization. While this would have formerly required adding more servers, the company was able to pull servers from the server farm and freeze its hardware budget. That’s because the boxes running .NET applications now have utilization as high as 90 percent compared to 20 or 30 percent before .NET, according to the company. Execution times are faster as well.
Load balancing between the servers has improved, too, which is prompting ComputerJobs.com to reevaluate its need for third-party load-balancing tools, a potential change that could bring additional cost savings.
Cost savings aren't limited to hardware and software expenses. .NET has created new efficiencies on the IT staff. Engineers who serviced the once shaky server farms now spend more time on other projects, like increasing firewall security. Developers are working more efficiently due to a feature in VisualStudio .NET that allows them to create and pull code documentation on the fly.
"It's a very developer gee-whiz buzz thing," said Epstein. The feature lets developers call a function against an object along with a tip that notes what the function does. "As far as developer productivity goes, VisualStudio .NET is unrivaled."
Project success factors
ComputerJobs.com attributes its successful .NET conversion to its highly skilled staff and training approach. To get the developers ready for the conversion, Melcher and Epstein educated the development team in-house. Epstein, who is also the lead developer, took two weeks to bone up on .NET's capabilities. The company also sent two members of the five-person development team to .NET training, which cost $1,500 a person. The developers came back and taught the rest of the staff the ins and outs of .NET.
The strategy paid off because ComputerJobs.com's engineers are all highly experienced in object oriented programming, noted Epstein. "Everyone just picked it up and ran with it."
Melcher cautioned that the training approach might not work as well for other companies, especially if they don’t have the appropriately skilled staff and rush the training. Melcher advised CIOs to select developers already familiar with C+ and who are adept at object-oriented programming. They must also have enough time to pick up the new skills, he added.
"In the beginning, you spend time learning," said Melcher. "Over time, you learn what works well and what doesn't work quite as well. We're no different than anybody else. We had a learning curve. And now we're really reaping the benefit of that." Throwing everyone into class and then expecting them to build something is asking for a train wreck, he cautioned.
Due to the successful .NET projects, the company plans to move forward with converting the public areas of the site, as well as the members-only section and back-end site administration features, to .NET. While the project schedule isn’t set, the company is looking forward to the day when its hodge-podge of Cold Fusion, .NET, and ASP is gone.