Middle East market research firm takes a second look at Linux

As a market research firm, Pan Arab Research Centre (PARC) had its share of growing pains in an emerging market like the Middle East.

The member of Gallup International, which handles large-scale multi-market media and consumer marketing research for the Middle East, PARC’s IT infrastructure wasn’t scaling up to serve them. “We had an unstable system causing disruption to the network. Furthermore, we didn’t have sufficient in-house resources to trouble shoot and maintain the aging system. Even the gateway virus filter was ineffective, so everyday we had virus issues, flood of spam. The mail routing schema was also complicated. It was a tough time,” explains Neeraj Chabra, PARC’s Software support manager.

With a total staff base of 325 full-time members excluding the pools of part-time field interviewers and supervisors, located across satellite offices in the Gulf, supporting staff was also an issue.

Unlike most companies, which choose to migrate to a stable platform, PARC was already using Linux. “We have been using Linux for over seven years. This old Linux solution was developed in-house by my former colleagues. It has served us well, when they were working [with PARC] but after they left, we found it difficult to handle support, so we decided to get external support, and opt in for a packaged solution,” says Chabra.

The challenge for Chabra and his team was not migration, which is the case with most companies but stabilizing the existing Linux infrastructure, especially something as vital as file, print and e-mail services. High on the agenda was to ensure PARC’s 90 employees in the head office and 25 researchers in the branch offices had smooth access to all network services.

Since, PARC’s IT team had limited Linux skill sets, the firm turned to Network Gulf Information Technology (NGIT) a Dubai-based open source solutions provider. V.S Dileep, its Director who also oversaw the project explains the challenges they had to start with: “PARC was running on a very old customized Linux, which almost falling apart. They had huge spam problems, they were having data issues. The new IT team was baby-sitting the servers, but it was very unstructured and undisciplined. As soon as the old team left PARC last year, they were left in the wild stranded with Linux.”

Dileep’s team analyzed the existing system over the weekend, proposed a solution based on Red Hat Enterprise Linux 3.0 and other open-source components to be implemented on the existing hardware. “The solution we proposed was based on open source to achieve the lowest total cost of ownership. For the servers, we decided to base it on a popular enterprise server for stability, security with local vendor support. We didn’t want to reuse or improve the code in an already buggy system,” he says.

For the hardware, NGIT chose to use the existing gear — a locally assembled server, with dual Xeon processors, 2GB memory, and some additional external storage.

NGIT used the standard Samba for file services, which also manages the user- and group-based access controls. The client machines log into the Samba server and have drives mapped to them.

For e-mail, PARC uses Postfix server. Messages are downloaded by Fetchmail and distributed locally. All the 3,000 to 4,000 e-mails that PARC receives and sends everyday are content-scanned for virus and spam by ClamAV and Spamassassin. For mobile employees who have poor bandwidth, PARC employes Squirrelmail, a lightweight Web client.

As such the 30-year old research firm’s back-end is powered by Linux, but on the client side, the environment is predominantly Windows 98 and ME with a less than five Windows XP machines. With the lifecycle of most of these Windows clients expiring, PARC believes this could also be a good time to upgrade them to Linux and use the existing hardware.

“We have an in-house IT team, but we are not experts either, but for day to maintenance, Linux has not been an issue,” Chabra says. “It’s all GUI based. We have never had any downtime issues. So far, we haven’t had a single issue technically or operation wise. At this stage, on the desktop Linux has some work to be done, but on the server side, we don’t see any issue in migrating even other areas.”

Technically PARC’s servers were in auto-pilot mode the past seven months, but Chabra doesn’t want take any chances. The company has signed up NGIT for an annual service-level agreement and a maintenance contract.

Looking back, PARC believes it was a frugal deal with excellent benefits — less than $1,000 spent on the server licence, hard disks; no new hardware purchases; no application licences for security suites or mail servers; no security issues; no training of employees. Chabra says he’s ended up with more than he bargained for. And unlike the previous Linux install, it’s a good thing.

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