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Peopleclick and HR.NET - How can Web services and .NET work for developers today?

Peopleclick and HR.NET - How can Web services and .NET work for developers today?

Though often spoken of as a technology of tomorrow, it's important to understand that Web services are already proving to be a key component of some of the products and projects of today.

This month's article examines how Web services and .NET are becoming critical components of Peopleclick's enterprise workforce management product line. We'll also look into the evolutionary forces that have led Peopleclick to select Microsoft's .NET platform. Finally, we'll examine current Web service technologies and those being considered for future use.

Before we start, it's worth noting that this article is not meant to be a detailed technical study of a Web service architecture. There are no code samples and concepts are discussed solely at the overview level. More technical questions can be forwarded directly to the author.

A Little About Peopleclick
Peopleclick is a provider of enterprise workforce management services designed to help their customers recruit new employees, manage their existing workforce, and ensure compliance with the various affirmative action regulatory laws. All these services are Web-based and offered in an Application Service Provider (ASP) model. With over 300 employees of its own - and having recently achieved profitability - Peopleclick is getting noticed within its industry and in the ASP community in general.

The Workforce Management Suite
Peopleclick provides a suite of services designed to help companies manage all aspects of their workforce. The services focus on:

  • Recruiting: Peopleclick offers services that allow human resource (HR) managers to define and execute a custom recruiting process. Services include defining open positions, posting the positions on the corporate Web site and automating background and credit checks.
  • Workforce Planning: Once employees have been hired, Peopleclick provides services for the management of "human capital." The software tracks skills, roles, and personalities, facilitates performance reviews, and helps managers determine training needs.
  • Affirmative Action: Many companies emphasize diversity and compliance with affirmative action regulations. Peopleclick's affirmative action software allows companies to determine their level of diversity and manage it effectively.
The Development Environment
The Peopleclick development environment can be summed up in one word: Microsoft. On the client side, Internet Explorer 5.0 and above is supported for power users of the system. Technologies such as Javascript, XML, XSL, and the Microsoft XML-HTTP control enable the application to have a robust desktop-like user interface.

The middle tier is composed of several "Web farms" running Internet Information Server (IIS) and a thin layer of Active Server Pages that invoke COM+ components performing core business logic. The COM+ components are primarily built in Visual Basic but also have been written in C++ and C#. These components are responsible for all data retrieval and processing using ActiveX Data Objects (ADO), the Microsoft XML Parser, and general file I/O. The entire middle tier runs on Windows 2000 on various Intel based computers.

The third tier is a mix of SQL7 and SQL2000 running in a clustered mode on 4-way Intel boxes. Third-tier servers also provide services such as message queuing using MSMQ and content searching using the Microsoft Indexing Service.

A Web Services Evolution
As we've seen, Peopleclick has incorporated many facets of XML and NET technology into their solution. This isn't the result of a desire to be "buzzword compliant" by keeping up with the latest technology fads. Instead, each of these technologies has been adopted to solve challenging real-world issues.

Starting With XML
Peopleclick's initial move towards Web services was their rearchitecting of the suite around XML technologies. As the first version of the Peopleclick suite was developed, it became clear that both flexibility and configurability were essential to the product's success. The system was redesigned using XML to represent core business objects and for customer configuration. David Anderson, Director of Technology, says "As a Web services provider, offering a high degree of configurability without changing your core code on a per-customer basis is essential in scaling the business. Using technologies like XML, XSL, and XML RPC requests has given us a powerful and flexible user interface and has enabled us to offer the configurability our enterprise customers demand."

One of the key features was the use of the XML-HTTP control by the Javascript in the browser layer. This allowed the UI to request data that was returned as XML and then parsed and/or styled, which enabled Peopleclick to offer a robust UI, and was in many ways a precursor to the use of SOAP in the product suite.

Standardizing on HR-XML
As Peopleclick began to formalize XML representations of their business objects, they realized that others in their industry were doing the same and so chose to extend their use of XML by helping to drive standards in the HR-XML consortium (www.hr-xml.org). The consortium's self-described mission is "the development and promotion of standardized XML vocabularies for human resources." These standards have facilitated a greater degree of integration with third-party systems like Internet job boards and human resource management systems.

SOAP for B2B Communication
As the product suite matured, Peopleclick was driven to find the best way to exchange business objects and data to enable B2B communications with several partner companies. They turned to the then emerging SOAP Toolkit from Microsoft and began to integrate SOAP into their applications. A portion of their suite utilizes the SOAP Toolkit to enable B2B communication with several of their business partners that offer value-added services. In one case, Peopleclick offers its customers the choice of sending their postings to third-party job sites like Monster.com and Dice.com. Rather than build this functionality in house, Peopleclick integrated its suite with E-worker Technologies' (www.eworkertech.com) posting engine using SOAP enabled transactions (see Figure 1). Rick Purcell, CEO of E-Worker Technologies, states: "The use of SOAP as a data exchange model allowed E-worker and Peopleclick to trade value and services quickly and with a minimum of technical hassle. SOAP drastically reduces the overhead needed to exchange data and services." This model of rapid integration with third-party services is allowing Peopleclick to expand its product offering with lower engineering investment.

Moving Towards C#
Peopleclick is currently developing products using C# and the .NET development suite. The affirmative-action portion of the product suite is being rearchitected using C# as the core development language. Visual Basic has served Peopleclick well in this regard, but has some fundamental limits in threading and networking that make C# very attractive. The C# portion of the suite is expected to be in production by the summer of 2002. Peopleclick expects that many future projects will be developed using C# and VB.NET.

The Evolutionary Environment
As described above, Peopleclick's use of Web services technology was an evolutionary rather than a revolutionary process. It seems worthwhile to review some of the factors that Peopleclick described as key to success in this area.

Peopleclick credits in-house expertise and individual initiative with much of their success. Some developers became initial contributors to the HR-XML consortium while others have become industry recognized leaders in C# development. These efforts have made it possible for Peopleclick to examine emerging technologies early and to develop the expertise to train and mentor additional staff.

Another key factor is Peopleclick's strong relationship with Microsoft on many levels. Peopleclick's developers are part of the Microsoft Developer Network (MSDN) and participate in a number of beta programs for SQL Server, Windows .NET Server, and Visual Studio.NET. And as a member of Microsoft's Premier Support program, Peopleclick has the access it needs to Microsoft resources. Peopleclick CTO Jim Grundner states, "Our relationship with Microsoft is mutually beneficial. They provide us with excellent advice and consulting, while we provide them with a software platform that challenges and advances their .NET vision." Additionally, Peopleclick works closely with Microsoft's consulting arm to understand, prototype, and implement emerging technologies.

Whatever the method, getting started early and having access to expert advice is critical to incorporating new technologies into an existing product in an orderly manner. Remember that Peopleclick, as an Application Service Provider, must be able to upgrade its suite for all of its customers at the same time with little or no downtime. Peopleclick's evolutionary environment is founded on a history of success that has allowed experiments and individual initiative to shape their product for the better.

What's .NEXT ?
As the Peopleclick suite evolves, it seems that its ties to .NET and Web services will only deepen. One direction being considered is making use of Microsoft's Passport for user management and profiling. The benefit of outsourcing this service and offering single sign-on to Passport members is compelling. Another technology under consideration is the evolving BizTalk server for B2B messaging and transactions. Additionally, Microsoft's service management suite Application Center is also being considered as a way to ensure that existing and future Web services are well managed and monitored. Whatever products are eventually selected as part of the Peopleclick suite, we can be sure that Web services and .NET will play a critical role.

Summary
Peopleclick is a successful provider of enterprise workforce management products and they're betting that Web services and .NET will be a part of their continued success. They've been using XML and related technologies for over four years. Now they're starting to Web service-enable their products and are already reaping the rewards of lower development costs and faster time to market. The process of incorporating Web services into its products has been facilitated by strong vision, individual initiative, and excellent relationships with their technology providers. Peopleclick views its use of .NET and Web services as a strategic advantage and plans to continue to invest time and energy in this direction.

More Stories By Michael A. Sick

Michael Sick is the Founder and President of Serene Software, a Jacksonville, Florida firm specializing in Enterprise Architecture (EA) via IT Strategy, IT Governance, IT Budgeting, Service Oriented Architectures (SOA), and IT Legacy Planning services. With over 15 years of experience, he has served as VP Development, Enterprise Architect and Lead Software Architect, while providing expertise to organizations like BAE, Sun Microsystems, Badcock Furniture, Raytheon (Future Combat Systems), the United States Air Force, USDA, BearingPoint, and other firms. Areas of interest include: SOA, IT budget optimization and planning, cloud and distributed computing, and process optimization.

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