Preparing to provide more services to more people was essential to the future of nonprofit Big Thought—but its client-server system stood in the way. So it turned to a solution built with Microsoft® Visual Studio® 2008. Big Thought expects to combine Web-based scalability with client-server responsiveness; to support self-service, online features that boost productivity; and to enable new business models that extend its reach.
Big Thought coordinates and delivers creative programs for children, helping them achieve academic and life success. The organization partners with school districts, city governments, library systems, more than 70 art and culture providers, and other community organizations to make this possible. As it grew, Big Thought needed to support its staff and partners with a system that could coordinate logistics, support workflow, track the delivery of services, and manage funding.
For years, Big Thought had been using a series of custom client-server applications called ArtBiz. The applications were never meant to scale to support the 100 or more simultaneous users now using them, with the result that the system often slowed or locked users out of records when it reached capacity.
Beyond providing better support to users, Big Thought wanted to move to a self-service model in which users could manage many aspects of their relationships with the organization by themselves, rather than having to depend on Big Thought staff members to interact with the system for them. The result would be faster service for the users and more productive use of staff time, freeing up staff members to support Big Thought’s growth and innovation.
The organization’s success led to requests that it help other arts organizations to offer similar services. Big Thought wanted to support these organizations through its own technology system—but that system could not scale sufficiently. Big Thought needed a new solution, and as a nonprofit organization, it needed the most cost-effective solution possible.
“A new solution that would run most of our systems was mission-critical to our growth,” says Karim Virani, Director of Information Technology, Big Thought.
Big Thought wanted ArtBiz to combine Web-level scalability with client-server responsiveness. To achieve that, it turned to Microsoft® Gold Certified Partner Pariveda Solutions. And Pariveda turned to the Microsoft Visual Studio® 2008 development system and the Microsoft .NET Framework version 3.5.
||As a nonprofit, we are diligent with regard to spending money wisely on our mission. Visual Studio 2008 is helping us to do exactly that.
Director of Information Technology, Big Thought
As an example, the new ArtBiz will use ASP.NET AJAX on the forms that clients, such as teachers, use to calculate the cost of an event or booking. Entering information such as the number of students and teachers attending an event will trigger ArtBiz to return cost figures on the form without having to refresh the entire page. “That would be jarring to the teacher,” says Virani. “This will be seamless.”
To help make development of the new solution fast and cost effective, Pariveda is using another technology available through Visual Studio 2008, Language Integrated Query support, which replaces direct or embedded SQL statements with native queries in C#, providing a consistent programmatic approach for managing and using data.
Both to speed the current development project and to lay the groundwork for delivering customized versions of ArtBiz to other arts organizations, Pariveda is using the Master Pages functionality in Visual Studio 2008. Master Pages provide a pattern for maintaining a consistent look across an application with no duplication of effort or code.
Big Thought expects to gain a more scalable, flexible, and functional solution that provides critical support for the bulk of its operations.
“By moving to a Web-based solution, we will more than support our current requirements, and we can always scale out cost-effectively by adding another server,” says Virani. “By moving to Visual Studio 2008 and .NET technologies such as ASP.NET AJAX, we’ll retain responsiveness in screen interactivity that our internal users expect from client-server technology.”
Beyond supporting more users, Virani sees the reach of the Web and the responsiveness of a client-server solution making it possible for Big Thought to add entirely new capabilities to ArtBiz. For example, the solution will enable art and culture providers to manage and update their own availability and programs online. It will also enable schools and others to place orders for programs online. In the past, Big Thought staff members had to facilitate these processes. The new solution will free Big Thought staff members to address more strategic functions and to focus on providing higher levels of customer support when needed.
It will also help prepare the organization for the future. “We are not only growing, but we intend to provide our services to new audiences in new ways—and the new solution will facilitate that,” says Virani. “If we want to offer customized versions of our solution that other agencies can use with their own branding, that’s now possible. In fact, when we put the new ArtBiz into production shortly, we will actually launch multiple portals separately branded for different programs and partnerships. Visual Studio 2008 is making this extremely easy to do.”
By combining the new data-access technologies of Visual Studio 2008 with an iterative, agile development methodology, Pariveda estimates it will complete the work at 20 percent of the traditional time and cost, saving Big Thought approximately U.S.$90,000. “As a nonprofit, we are diligent with regard to spending money wisely on our mission,” says Virani. “Visual Studio 2008 is helping us to do exactly that.”