Roof designers put lid on Outlook

When computer users at London Roof Truss (LRT) in London, Ont., were reluctant to use the company’s new communication system, Wayne Bilger did something drastic to change their minds.

Bilger, the systems administrator at this roof truss design and manufacturing firm, knew users wouldn’t stop using Microsoft Corp.’s messaging app Outlook to send and receive engineering drawings, schematics and other documents associated with building the roof structures that are LRT’s business. Bilger had sourced a new communication platform, SUSE Linux’s Openexchange server (SUSE is owned by Novell Inc.), and wanted users to move to the Linux-based system.

So how did Bilger get users away from Outlook?

“I took it off all their computers,” he said. “They were mad at me for about a month, but now every single one of them prefers it this way.”

Openexchange provides a Web-based interface so users can access documents from anywhere – important at LRT, where designers recently won the option of working from home, thanks to this functionality. Bilger also said the Novell-sourced system provides versioning, so should a customers want a design change, LRT need not start from scratch. Designers can access earlier designs and make amendments from there.

“We have secure off-site access. That’s our main advantage,” Bilger said, explaining how things have changed at LRT. “We have sales staff off site that basically had to come in with a disk, get files, and go back home to work, or do it through e-mail, which isn’t quite the same as having live access to the server. Communication is much better. There’s a lot of time saved; they can get more work done.”

With some customized code LRT has turned Openexchange into an overarching document management system. So far the firm has added “a document upload program, and we automated the viewing of documents on the Web,” Bilger said. “Our main thing is to automate the project management module of the server, add templates and such.”

According to Tony Vickers, chief operating officer of IDL Technology Group Inc., a Linux services provider in San Diego, user reluctance is a substantial hurdle for many enterprises. But “once you pull people away from an Outlook environment and show them a more collaborative toolset…they really tend to like the interface.”

IDL provided support for LRT when the latter company tested Openexchange and put it into production. Bilger said the San Diego Linux experts helped LRT sort out some hardware issues with the Acer Inc. dual-Xeon computer on which Openexchange runs.

“Without support, they would have been tough to figure those out on our own – just driver problems,” Bilger said.

Bilger came to use IDL’s services after trying an Openexchange demo online. Novell directed him to IDL when he expressed interest in the system. Bilger said the time difference between San Diego and London proved to be no concern. “It’s the information age. You talk more through e-mail anyway.” LRT chose Openexchange in part because it’s based on open source software, Linux, but it’s also a vendor-supplied option, so support is available, Bilger said.

He experienced something of a steep learning curve to get a handle of the platform. Bilger pointed out that maintenance is a question of learning not just the application, but the underpinning operating system as well. “That was our first Linux install. It was just as much learning about Linux in general as it was the Openexchange server.”

Users also experienced a learning curve, “but it was very small,” Bilger said. “It’s all Web-based, pretty much like browsing the Internet. Everybody knows how to do that.”

After installing Openexchange, Bilger has one piece of advice for others considering the system: “Look at the hardware you need beforehand. There can be problems with unsupported drivers.”

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