On January 10, 1997, Universal Tax Systems launched SecureTax (http://www.securetax.com), a public web site which allows users to compute, prepare and file their taxes online. SecureTax provides users with the functionality and processing capabilities of sophisticated tax software applications while handling all computation and data exchange on the server-side. SecureTax is one of few sites on the web today that features a real-time application that can be accessed and utilized by any computer in the world with an Internet connection, regardless of its operating system. Using Delphi and WebHub, the developers of this system web-enabled a comprehensive personal tax product in less than six months.
Universal Tax Systems Inc. (UTS) was founded in 1983 by Steve
J. Safigan. The companyís original and flagship product,
TaxWise, is a full-featured professional tax preparation and electronic
filing program used by more than 5,000 CPAs, accountants and tax
professionals throughout the world. UTS was recently awarded a
five-year contract to provide the Internal Revenue Service with
more than 15,000 copies of TaxWise. These packages are utilized
in IRS offices worldwide. Several thousand tax returns were prepared
and electronically filed at sea by U.S. aircraft carriers using
TaxWise. UTS has grown exponentially during the 14 years of its
existence. For the past three years, UTS has been named to the
Inc. 500, a list compiled annually by Inc. Magazine to recognize
the fastest growing, privately held companies in the nation. Located
in Rome, Georgia, UTS employs more than 200 people.
After achieving significant success with its TaxWise professional
tax package, UTS sought to transfer its software expertise toward
penetrating the personal tax market. If UTS was going to develop
a personal package, it would also have to develop elaborate distribution
systems to compete in an already crowded marketplace. In the emerging
World Wide Web, the developers of SecureTax found a far more democratic
channel for penetrating the personal tax market.
"The beauty of the Internet is that it has no shelf space,"said
UTS President and chief SecureTax architect Steve Safigan. "From
a marketing standpoint, the Internet levels the playing field.
Because of this, we could cost-effectively reach our markets while
utilizing the majority of our resources for product development."
The SecureTax development team sought to further exploit the Internetís
inherently direct path to customers by offering an alternative
to platform-specific computing.
Said Safigan, "We did not want to develop a shrink-wrapped
application for customers to download and use on their own machines.
Instead, we wanted to create a real-time application that could
be used online by any computer with a browser and an Internet
For UTS, this development strategy appeared to have major benefits
for both the company and its customers. UTS would not have to
worry about the traditionally high overhead costs of distributing
software and upgrades. It could direct its resources toward continuous
quality improvement. For the customer, a real-time application
would provide simple, instant access to a comprehensive tax preparation
system. It would eliminate the hassle and technical issues of
installing a once-a-year program and would make product updates
Web-enabling a personal tax package had several undeniably strong
business advantages. The challenge for UTS was to find a framework
that could help realize this objective.
After searching the web tools market, UTS found WebHub, a solution
that would play an instrumental role in bringing SecureTax to
market. UTS had been using Delphi since it began shipping in 1994.
WebHub was therefore a natural extension to the companyís
core programming environment and skill-set. It gave UTS a flexible
framework in which to build a highly customized application. Additionally,
WebHub offered critical solutions to such common web challenges
as state management, web server interfacing and scalability.
SecureTax was conceived as a full-featured application that could
perform a broad range of tax preparation services, including multiple
state returns, form generation based on taxpayer input, and online
auditing functions. Such customization required a development
environment that would place no limits upon the kinds of features
that could be included in the SecureTax system.
As a set of Delphi components, WebHub provided UTS with the necessary
flexibility to web-enable a custom application and give the developers
complete control over the project.
The SecureTax application is a powerful demonstration of true
flexibility. More than an interactive site filled with dynamic
"cookie cutter"features, SecureTax is an entirely customized
application whose operating system happens to be a browser. WebHubís
extensible architecture made such customization possible by extending
the developerís programming skills and code to the web.
The decision to build a web-centric application brought several
Internet-specific challenges, including state management, interfacing
with web server protocols and handling high volumes of surfer
traffic. Beyond a flexible framework, UTS required particular
solutions to these common web barriers.
"The technical issues of developing web-based applications
are very different than those involved with desktop applications,"said
Safigan. "With WebHub, we worked within a framework where
most of those issues were automatically resolved. WebHub helped
us bridge the gap between conventional client/server and web-based
One of the fundamental requirements for any application is state
management. In order for data processing to occur, the application
must be able to remember and restore user input and, in doing
so, "save state" for a particular individualís
interaction with the software. This state management creates the
cohesive relationship between the user and an application.
For web-based applications, saving state is a particularly difficult
challenge. Using traditional CGI methods, developing a save state
mechanism for a web application can take weeks of programming
time. And even when the mechanism is completed, it cannot be reused
for subsequent projects.
The WebHub architecture is designed to address the saving state
challenge automatically, allowing developers to optimize their
programming time and focus on the applicationís core functionality.
Said Safigan, "With WebHub we built our application the way
we wanted it to work and WebHub took care of saving state, providing
a cohesive, cumulative experience for the surfer."
WebHubís saving state mechanism derives from its distinct
surfer-tracking capabilities. Applications built with WebHub track
surfers from page to page by assigning a unique, anonymous identification
number which stays with the surfer (as part of the URL) for the
entire length of a session. This provides the essential information
necessary for retrieving and restoring surfer-specific input.
The developers of SecureTax extended WebHubís tracking
feature in order to retain surfer input for up to one full year.
In addition to assigning a unique identification number, SecureTax
also asks the user to provide a personal password, giving further
security to the interaction. By extending the capabilities of
WebHubís surfer tracking mechanism, SecureTax can store
taxpayer information and save state beyond individual web sessions.
This allows taxpayers to access and prepare forms during subsequent
visits. The information entered during previous visits is automatically
restored for up to one full year, further simplifying the filing
Low-level Web Server Interface
UTS utilized WebHub to solve a primary technical challenge of
building a web-based application: establishing an interface between
the application and the web server. WebHub addresses this challenge
by providing an additional layer ("runner") between
any major Windows-based web server (ISAPI, CGI-win, CGI-bin) and
the rest of the application.
"We were absolutely impressed with WebHub's ability to handle
the peculiarities of the ISAPI interface,"Safigan added.
"We never had to see it. WebHub took care of it for us."
Scaling Up for High Traffic
The SecureTax site is designed to serve thousands of users per
day. Twenty-six instances of the same SecureTax application reside
on an equal number of Pentium machines, all equipped with their
own web server and connected by a Tricord file server. UTS utilized
WebHubís scalable architecture to direct traffic, queue
surfers and direct users to the least busy instance of the application.
In this way, WebHub functions as a traffic officer, directing
surfers from box to box and ensuring that the system is not overloaded
during peak times.
According to Safigan, "Scalability was definitely an issue
for us. We found WebHub extremely easy to scale across multiple
servers. Our system now has the backend architecture in place
to serve a virtually unlimited volume of customers."
The recent emergence of the world wide web as a practical tool
for business communication and commerce carries new paradigms
for broadening existing markets and reaching new ones. SecureTax
is the realization of these new paradigms. Using the most advanced
object-oriented development tools, UTS has successfully fulfilled
the promise of web-centric computing. Moreover, SecureTax has
created a better way to market tax software.
WebHub was the key to publishing our application on the web.
We needed a tool that would allow us to replace our DOS/Windows
user interface with an HTML interface. WebHub is the only tool
on the market with the flexibility and robustness to accomplish
this. Using WebHub, we were able to adapt our tax program to run
across the Web as if it was running on a local computer. WebHub
gave us the head start we needed to develop a true Web-centric
President, Universal Tax Systems
|Operating System||Windows NT Server 4.0|
|Web Server||Microsoft IIS 2.0|
|Database||Interbase Server 4500, by Borland|
|Hardware||26 P90 Machines linked by Tricord file server
Compaq to host Interbase commerce database
|Tools||WebHub, by HREF Tools Corp.
Delphi 2.0, by Borland