Championing Linux

Since CN Railway saved a quarter of million dollars in licensing fees by switching its workloads to Linux five years ago – the first high-profile Canadian organization to widely deploy the open source operating system – Linux has become an integral part of many network infrastructures.

Despite this, North America – Canada included – is considered a late adopter of Linux, in part because it is located in Microsoft’s backyard. Yet more Canadian companies are turning to Linux seeking the operating system’s renowned stability, freedom from the Windows environment and the savings that come along with it, said Matthew Rice, vice-president of Thornhill, Ont.-based Starnix Inc., a consulting company that specializes in Linux.

Rice said users who migrate to Linux are generally moving over workloads that do not require a lot of end-user intervention such as network services, Web sites, print and file servers, or anything that needs to be automated.

George H. Young International Inc. (GHY), a 102-year-old family owned brokerage company with five offices in Canada and three in the U.S., first came across Linux eight years ago through a 19-year old hacker the company hired to do some work on Windows platforms, said Nigel Fortlage, vice-president of IT at GHY. This teenager ended up joining the company and bringing Linux with him.

“Like many companies, it started off as a back-end project,” Fortlage explained. “[Linux] made its first foray into the company when we implemented our very first LAN. At that point we didn’t know if we wanted to use Novell or a LAN server. Believe it or not, we took a crapshoot, rolled the dice and decided to use TCP/IP and run a native IP LAN. This was at a time when Novell was at its height – nobody did anything if it wasn’t a Novell network.”

Then last year the company went the extra step and transferred almost all of its workload over to Linux. Now it is even considering dropping Microsoft completely and converting its desktops to open source – just like the City of Munich, Germany did in May when it moved 14,000 of its desktops over to Linux.

GHY started using Linux for file and print sharing, then directory services. Next to be converted was the secure dial-in, and eventually this operating system – previously a “back-end project” – came to hold a cherished place in the company’s network. Soon the company had added e-mail and instant messaging to Linux’s roster of responsibilities.

“Then we starting building business applications on

it, and then we rolled over communications from Frame Relay to VPN,” Fortlage said. “Rolling over to VPN alone is saving us $5,500 a month, and we used Linux to build our routers at the remote end.”

Now, GHY relies on Linux for almost everything. Back in 2002, GHY’s lease on its IBM Corp. midrange 720 Unix server was ending, so the company decided it was time to try to resolve some of the issues that had been causing the department grief for quite some time.

Initially GHY had seven Intel-based servers, plus an IBM iSeries machine. Four of the Intel servers were running various versions of the Windows operating system, two were running Red Hat Linux and the other was running SCO’s Unix.

“It kept us very busy – trying to keep this whole mish-mash of stuff running,” Fortlage said, adding that his team of three, including himself, spent 95 per cent of their time maintaining the network infrastructure. This set-up caused GHY numerous resource allocation and resource utilization issues, he said.

“We were down to five tape drives, four tape formats, and we were restricted to incremental backup because our overall capacity had exceeded that of the drives we were using,” Fortlage explained. “I had zero confidence in our ability to recover in case of a major failure.”

In addition to backup headaches, this mixed environment caused Fortlage and his team problems with application integration. When GHY implemented a large project in January 2002, it had to put the front-end pieces on the Windows NT servers and had to use four other servers to deliver the back-end piece.

“The only reason we had to use four was because one had some disk, another had some processing power, another had the language and the other had the database. We just had to make it work as cleanly as possible,” he said.

Still, GHY’s IT team had to resolve technology squabbles amongst the different servers. For example, the Windows NT server wanted to own the domain, but the Linux server actually owned the domain. In addition, files were not passed seamlessly between systems, causing difficulties in data processing.

Devising a strategy

Faced with these network ailments, and with the lease running out on the iSeries 720, Fortlage and his team came up with three different scenarios – “good, better and best.”

The good solution was to take all the servers plus the iSeries and roll them over to a new technology. It would have required minimal financial and technological investment, and would have added a bit of resilience to the network, but wouldn’t fix the underlying problems, Fortlage said.

Better would have been to replace all seven systems. This would have left seven tape drives that were the same, but there would still would have been seven machines with seven different flavours and seven different ways of doing things, just on faster boxes.

The best solution Fortlage’s team came up with was to add nine Intel-based, fault-tolerant servers running Linux. In addition, they wanted to take all of the critical functions running on the two existing Linux servers and break them up into independent servers so that a failure in one would not result in the failure of all services, Fortlage said. This would have increased the server count to 17, and would have meant hiring three more IT staff.

However, when Fortlage brought this solution to management, they were not prepared to absorb the extra staffing costs. And at this point, Fortlage said he wanted to do it right or not at all. So Fortlage decided to seek outside counsel on the matter and turned to IBM’s consulting services. IBM recommended consolidating all the functions onto an eServer iSeries 270 and an eServer iSeries 820.

The solution

IBM’s recommended server consolidation cost $30,000

less than GHY’s nine-server set-up, and did not require any additional staff, so Fortlage went for it.

Now the iSeries 820 is running Red Hat Linux. It has four CPUs and is divided into 10 logical partitions. It handles GHY’s DNS, firewalling, e-mail and spam filtering.

“What we have found in our internal testing is that (one-third) of a processor runs twice as fast as our old IBM

Netfinity 3000,” Fortlage said.

The iSeries 270 is where GHY integrates the workloads from the four Windows NT servers and where it migrated Lotus Domino and its business applications.

Now Fortlage and his team spend only five per cent of their time administering the network, down from 95 per cent before the server consolidation and migration to Linux.

Moving away from Windows was easy, Fortlage said. Every time the company tried to implement a new project or find a new solution, his team would test it in a Windows and a Linux environment, and the Linux solution won every time. Linux was also already favoured over Unix.

Fortlage added that Linux had already surpassed Unix in the network and, as such, there was no point going back, since Linux was doing everything GHY wanted it to do.

Now GHY is planning to link the two iSeries servers to increase automation. A document-imaging program is in the works that would let customers access data and records online, something that would not have been possible before consolidation.

Fortlage is so impressed with Linux’s stability that he

intends to roll it out on the company’s desktops, completely replacing Windows and Windows applications. Even though the time spent administering the network has dropped considerably, Fortlage and his team now spend 50 per cent of their time supporting the desktop. His goal is to reduce that to 10 per cent after migrating them to Linux.

The final frontier

Manitoba Legal Aid has been using Linux since 1994, like GHY, starting with file and print sharing, said Scott Balneaves, systems administrator with Legal Aid in Winnipeg.

In late 1999/early 2000, Legal Aid did the highly unusual and switched its desktops over to Linux as well. Balneaves said they were so impressed with Linux on the servers that they decided to go for Linux on the desktop.

He said it is easier to remotely administer and update systems – with four offices in Winnipeg and others in remote Manitoba locations such as Brandon, Dauphin, The Pas, and Thompson, these features were key for Balneaves. Not only that, but the migration to Linux allows Manitoba Legal Aid to stay within its $50,000 annual budget.

Although users were at first slightly taken aback, Balneaves said they are adjusting. From a management perspective, Linux desktops have all the business functionality employees need to do their job, though some of the more entertaining applications available on Windows are missing, he said.

Although Linux on the desktop is not a part of mainstream computing, it is slowly on its way as more companies realize the benefits of running Linux on the server side, supporters say. In fact, Google Inc. estimates that only one per cent of its searches come from Linux-based PCs, one per cent from Apple’s Macintoshes, while an overwhelming 98 per cent come from Windows-based PCs.

The overall feeling in the industry is that Linux is not yet ready for the desktop, one that is fuelled by what some industry insiders call fear, and one analyst called a lack of education. “There’s no central Linux company educating the public as to what Linux can do on the desktop right now,” said Nicholas Petreley, a Linux analyst at Evans Data Corp. in Santa Cruz, Calif.

” I know people who are very open to the idea of [Linux on the desktop]. And when I talk to them, they’re not even aware of the fact that Red Hat installs a graphical desktop by default.”

While it might be difficult for home users to assemble their own Linux PC, experts say systems administrators have the ability and the know-how to create a fully-functional Linux-based desktop computer that is easy to use and administer in an enterprise setting.

Petreley said the starting point would be for the big guns, such as IBM, Hewlett-Packard and Dell, to start selling PCs that come pre-loaded with Linux. – a company that makes a Linux-based desktop operating system with an interface similar to Windows XP – is the only company selling pre-loaded Linux PCs. However, there is little money to be made by PC-makers by putting Linux on the desktop, and this is hindering adoption, he said.

For the enterprise, the decision to put Linux on the desktop really comes down to applications – Open Office versus Microsoft Office. Petreley said that while Open Office is not as feature rich as Microsoft Office, Open Office still provides all the business functionality most users need.

In fact, “there are tons of features on Microsoft Office that people rarely touch, and a lot of them are integrated into Microsoft Office just for the sake of being integrated,” he said. “I mean, there’s no reason why you absolutely have to have your instant messenger integrated into your Outlook Client.”

However, he said if a company absolutely needs compatibility with Microsoft Office, Linux is not the way to go. While MS Office documents can be read on Open Office, the formatting is often lost, and if a company has a lot of heavily formatted documents, migration would be strenuous. It would still be doable – if a company was really committed to open source – but it would simply be a slow undertaking.

Starnix’s Rice agreed there is still reluctance among users to dedicate their desktops to Linux, but he attributed this unwillingness not to a technological barrier, he said, but rather a psychological one.

Evan Leibovitch, president of the Linux Professional Institute in Brampton, Ont., an organization that works to standardize training for Linux professionals, agreed. He said the decision to adopt new technologies in an organization often has nothing to do with the merits of the technology, but with what the company’s IT department and users are comfortable with.

“It’s inertia,” he said. “For the last many decades you have vendors making sure customers are locked into a certain way of doing things. It’s bred a certain type of culture of ‘there’s a certain way things are done.'”

Indeed, Linux is more popular in Europe than in Canada, but applications for Linux are maturing and more companies are supporting Linux than ever before. As a result, both Rice and Leibovitch see early adopters such as the Manitoba Legal Aid, GHY, and the City of Munich not as anomalies, but simply as the first of many.