Switching to open source software has allowed Sesame Street to create, manage and continually refresh its Website—and win several impressive awards.
By William Atkinson
A nonprofit organization, Sesame Street has to compete with "the bigger boys with deeper pockets," such as Disney and Nickelodeon. Not only does Sesame Street lack the millions of dollars necessary to develop and maintain its Website, it can't generate revenue via advertisements and it can't sell toys or apparel, since all of its e-commerce must be specific to the nonprofit's mission, which is enriching the lives of children.
To achieve Sesame Street's goal of making its Website as innovative as possible, it decided to use open source software. "We started the process in late 2005," says Noah Broadwater, Sesame Street vice president and chief technology officer. "Our website at the time was a jumbled mess, and it was extremely static. One reason was that we were involved with a company that we had to pay to even make a new page."
As Sesame Street looked at investing heavily in the Web and ensuring that it had a strong online presence moving forward, it decided it wanted to work in an environment where it, not the vendor, had control. "However, being a nonprofit, we didn't have a ton of money to pay the big companies to do this," says Broadwater.
The organization began by considering about 25 vendors before whittling that number down to 10 and eventually to five. "With the remaining five, we did 'proof of concepts' and also found out what else they could be able to do for us," Broadwater says.
Ultimately, Sesame Street ended up with a two-tier solution, working in combination with Alfresco and Liferay. "We took the content repository strength of Alfresco and the portal front-end strength and publishing strength of Liferay," says Broadwater. "We found a way to merge them and then link them into our digital asset management systems."
What the nonprofit particularly likes about Liferay is that it is an open source-based company. "We truly believe in the reciprocity concept," Broadwater says. "We have a strong commitment to the idea of giving back to the community and also benefiting from a community of developers. We also liked the fact that Liferay was very flexible, that we could do a lot of different things with them. In addition, we could actually code and make adjustments on our own."
Sesame Street launched its new sesamestreet.org site in 2008. "We have made continual improvements on the site since that time, working with Liferay and some of Liferay's partners," Broadwater says. Sesame Street runs the site, and communicates frequently with Liferay about adding features, as well as handling bothersome bugs. "Liferay works directly with us as we think of new features," he says. "They help us think about new ideas to make sure that they end up being technologically strong."
The organization has also compiled other open source options to work together for an agile Web experience that is attractive to the youngest of online users, many of whom will use sesamestreet.org as their first Website ever.
Sesame Street is happy with the Liferay arrangement. "Every time we have had a need, we have found a way to do it, because the platform is extremely extensible," Broadwater says. "We designed the site to provide content to our audience, so they can enjoy and learn from it, and the site has been very successful in doing this.
"We have also been able to build out multiple other Websites on the same infrastructure, without having to buy new hardware or add multiple sets of environments," says Broadwater. "We are able to run multiple websites that look completely different on the same infrastructure."
In addition, the Website has won several prestigious awards, including an Emmy, Peabody and Webby. "It has been hailed for its flexibility,” says Broadwater, “and has also been hailed in the open source community for taking things that were meant for almost bland document management and turning them into a robust media platform.”