Upgrade of technology systems behind a CMS - TARA Interactive

Upgrade of technology systems behind a CMS

Challenge

The client is a company that offers expertise and consultancy to multiple industries, such as aerospace, automotive, education, energy, environmental, financial services, infrastructure, pharmaceuticals, transportation and more. In order to do this, their website is hosting articles and a database of experts in a CMS – content management system.

Since the offering is expertise into different industries, the articles and experts are highly specialized, with a technical language on the insights section. The website features a way to search these experts by expertise, industry, country or name. The internal website search must deliver a custom way of searching – with insights showing up first, followed by the experts.

The system behind the CMS had to be kept up to date with the latest version, to avoid security and speed issues. When the project reached TARA, the client had tried to make the upgrade with another provider, but they had promised it would happen in 1 month. However, 2 months later, the upgrade hadn’t happened, so the client was frustrated with the current provider and looked for a different one.

TARA was not working directly with the client, but was commissioned by the IT integrator who was offering several solutions to the client and subcontracting IT providers based on needs. The integrator trusted that we can turn around this relationship that was becoming tense, knowing that TARA can scale the team as per the project requirements, to reach its objectives.

Solution

We started an analysis process, which lasted for around 6 weeks. In it, we got access to the website, started getting familiarized with the website and assessed how much was already done. We estimated the upgrade was about 2% completed, due to the previous team underestimating the required updates to be done.
This was not ideal for the client, who had an expectation that it would be 100% done in 1 months, which was not possible due to the complexity of the project. Our new (more realistic) estimates said it will take around 12 months, so one of the first challenges was to communicate this with the client and keep them in the loop.
To make sure we run as much of the work in parallel, we configured multiple servers for people that worked on the project, so that several people could work at the same time. The changes done in parallel by the developers were then merged and evaluated in 3 stages:
Dev (internal to TARA) – where we tested if the solution was functional
Stage (user acceptance testing environment, accessible to TARA and the client) – where the client could view and test the solution
Production (accessible to the large public) – once the changes were agreed, we made them live on the website
The resources were allocated as per the project scope.

Technologies

The old system was functioning on Drupal 7 and had to be upgraded to 8.9. Unfortunately, there was limited documentation from the provider who had implemented the previous version of the CMS and search functions.
Drupal 8.9 has a different core technology (Symphony and Twig) compared to Drupal 7 (PHP), which meant that the process was more complex than a simple upgrade. This meant that the programming syntax had to be rewritten, due to existing conflicts between the 2 core technologies.

Every widget, plug in and page template (some of which had multiple conditions in it) had to be replanned. The overall structure had to be maintained, since this had been planned by the marketing team and the client didn’t want to lose Google rankings.

TARA had to rewrite the custom functionalities. Each type of content hosted on the website received a ranking, which the internal search function had to display based on the ranking. We worked on 45 custom functionalities. The launch took around 10 hours to ensure all services were connected and functional in the website. We avoided having any downtime by running the old website and new website in parallel and updating the DNS when the new website was fully functional.

We also chose to do the documentation on the project, where we put together the custom functionalities of the website that weren’t previously added anywhere. The documentation currently contains explanations about the code and how this is translated in the user experience flow. In the future, this will enable easier upgrades to the systems in the future, since custom functionalities are documented and don’t need to be discovered as the IT team works on them.

Process

As mentioned before, TARA was approached by the IT integrator to be subcontracted for the unhappy client. For the integrator, the client was a big account and it was important to work with a partner that had a good communication flow and that could deliver on the end results.

The first challenge was to create new expectations, given the past deadline. In order to ensure that the client received frequent communication, we reported bi-monthly, mixing agile and waterfall to ensure that the client is kept up to speed. Every widget and template had to be planned and communicated to the client in a waterfall system. We then worked in sprints of 2 weeks, after which we had meetings with the client in which we communicated status and gained information or access that we were lacking.

In the first few weeks after starting, the relationship with the client turned from tense to smooth. This was helped by the constant communication, the updates that were happening on the project and the fact that our project manager has extensive technical knowledge. All of these helped in gaining back the trust of the client.
The new deadlines were always respected and to a high quality – we constantly tested the code before having it delivered to the client.

Results

The final duration of the project was 1 year, including the analysis part. We had several people working in parallel to ensure progress was done in the 2 weeks sprint we work in.

The client was happy and remained working with the integrator. They were so pleased with the work we’ve done that they continue working with us on further upgrades and in February 2022 we are working on the upgrade from SOLR 3/4 to SOLR 7. This will ensure that the security of the server is enhanced, that the website runs continuously, without having down time issues and that the search function provides more tailored results for the user, also giving more complex statistics about searches in the backend.

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