CERN's Electronic Document Handling application (EDH) is familiar to most people who work at CERN. It is the most heavily used administrative application developed by the IT department's Administrative Information Services (AIS) group; it has more than 10,500 active users, and at peak times easily exceeds 3000 accesses a minute. EDH initially supported only a handful of processes, but now there are more than 40 forms that cover almost every aspect of work at CERN.

EDH was originally developed in 1992 as part of a massive project to update and improve CERN's administrative computing. It was developed using the then state-of-the art Client–Server architecture. The server ran SunOS, and the data was held in an Oracle 6 database. The client existed for Windows 3.1, MacOS and SunOS.

Six years later, in 1998, the first web version of EDH was created. Now Web EDH is 10 years old and it's time to perform some "surgery".

Time for a face lift

When Web EDH was first created there was a huge difference between the capabilities of the various web browsers used at CERN. For that reason the developers decided to use only the minimum number of features to create the webpages. Over the past 10 years EDH has been extended and improved, yet many aspects of the user interface have remained frozen since 1998.

During this period there have been many innovations in web technology. With the advent of so-called "rich internet applications", such as Google Maps and Outlook Web Access, CERN users have grown to expect more from web-based applications. To that end a small team of EDH developers has been working hard during 2007 to create a new look for EDH, in time for general release in 2008.

The team has taken account of feedback from EDH users and has developed an extensible framework that takes advantage of contemporary web browser capabilities. At the moment most of the visible changes are mainly cosmetic, although the framework will enable the interface to evolve with more interactive features as time and resources permit.

As well as an updated layout (after 10 years of faithful service EDH green is gone), there is a new floating button bar, which is always available – even when the page is scrolled down. The Help system has been updated and it now suggests help automatically if you haven't recently used a form field. But the most significant change is the reduction in the number of "pop-up" windows that EDH uses. Most editing can now take place within the same page, which makes it much easier for users who wish to use the Tabbed Browser capability of most modern web browser software, such as Internet Explorer 7 and Firefox.

Initially both the old look and the new look will be available to everyone, and users can select the one that they prefer. It is planned, however, to phase out the old look in 2008. As of August 2007 the development team is testing the new screens on all the commonly used browsers. To minimize the impact of the change, and as part of this testing phase, members of the IT department will have early access to the new look, most probably this November.

Heart replacement

As well as the more visible changes to the user interface, EDH will also undergo major changes below the surface with the replacement of the routing engine (the component that decides who should approve an EDH document). The current routing engine was introduced in 1999, based on a commercial product called Oracle Workflow. Although the tool has served well over the years, processing almost 1.5 million documents and sending nearly 4 million emails, it is no longer supported by the manufacturer and so it is time to change.

After much research, a more modern replacement engine has been selected from a relatively small American company called Active Endpoints. The product, ActiveBPEL, is a modern process orchestration engine, based on the Business Process Execution Language (BPEL) standard. Although the engine is available as an open-source project (see, EDH has opted for the Enterprise edition to benefit from commercial support.

The selection of ActiveBPEL as the replacement workflow engine for EDH is a vital step: it will pave the way for a more open architecture and enable other CERN applications to use EDH services.

As well as replacing Oracle Workflow, the BPEL engine will enable the support of several new features. Most notably it will support services that operate as a pool of users, where any member of the pool can process a document that arrives at the service. This is especially useful for claims processing (school fees, travel etc) and registration documents.

Throughout 2006 and 2007, EDH developer (and Marie Curie fellow) Tommi Juhani Heikkinen has been rebuilding the workflow engine using a new, open and modular service-oriented architecture. Since January 2007 the BPEL-based engine has been operating in parallel with the existing workflow engine. Automatic jobs compare and highlight any differences between the routing decisions. Once the team is confident that no errors have been introduced during the reimplementation of the processes, the BPEL engine will take over completely and the old system will be switched off. Progress to date indicates that this will occur during the Christmas shutdown this year. It is a pity (at least for Tommi) that, if everything goes well, hardly anyone will notice the switch-over to the new system.

The future

We hope that with all of these changes EDH will continue to help CERN users spend less time trying to understand how CERN's administrative processes work, and instead focus their energies on understanding how the universe works.