Ensuring the Success of Self-Service Portals

Portal technology has revolutionized human resource departments on college campuses. Self-service is now the name of the game, enabling employees to access electronic forms and services from any Web browser. Replacing paper forms and labor-intensive processes with automated services provides institutions with significant cost and time savings. At the same time, for self-service to succeed, the system must be reliable, accurate, and available at all times. Users must feel confident that the forms they submit online will arrive at their destination quickly and securely.
As Arizona State University began building a portal to provide students, faculty, and staff with personalized online service, its Human Resources Technology Group worked to ensure that the services would be always available. ASU's three campuses serve about 50,000 students and employ nearly 7,000 faculty and staff. It was critical that there be no delays or failure in the Web-based system and that the system be able to handle a large volume of traffic. Another issue was persistence: the department needed a system that would guarantee that users working on a form would remain connected to the same server through the entire process of completing the form, no matter how long that took. That way, users could complete the form without having to start over in the middle of the process.
ASU decided on a solution that included two servers, rather than one larger one, and a traffic management product that would guarantee the safe and consistent delivery of materials into and out of the servers. The servers, Dell machines running Windows NT and Microsoft Internet Information Server, would be monitored by BIG-IP HA+ from F5 Networks. BIG-IP provides automatic and intelligent management of Internet traffic and content, ensuring reliability, scalability, speed, and management.
"We decided against purchasing a single high-end server," explains Scott Hancock, support systems analyst for the Human Resources Technology Group at ASU, "because we couldn't be guaranteed 100 percent uptime or be assured it could handle any size load. Instead, we opted to invest in two lower-end, cost-effective servers and a load-balancing solution to provide the redundancy and uptime we required."
Traffic management products such as BIG-IP monitor, intercept, inspect, transform, and direct traffic to (or from) servers. In addition, BIG-IP helps prevent system failure by quickly detecting server and application problems while directing traffic to functioning servers and applications. It also verifies that content is responding properly, thereby preventing users from seeing error messages. For ASU, this not only ensures that HR’s Web-based services are always available to users, but that the right services are available with the right information. The product conducts both health monitoring (checking to make sure that the server is operating correctly before sending it traffic) and load balancing. "If a server isn't sending correct information, BIG-IP automatically switches to the other one," says Hancock. This keeps traffic moving smoothly and gives the support team time to correct problems in the troubled server.
The first employee self-service application to be offered to ASU faculty and staff involves electronic forms. ASU HR will replace many of its paper-based forms—including job requests, applicant tracking, resource center materials check-out, and more—with a simple point-and-click Web-based process, thereby saving a great deal of time, materials, and labor. BIG-IP's persistence capabilities will ensure that ASU users who begin work on a form remain connected to that same server as they complete the form.

For more information, contact Scott Hancock, Arizona State University, at shancock@asu.edu.

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