Operating Systems: The slow but steady march of open source

It may not be taking the world by storm, but open source still has a growing and determined group of adherents. Technology executives at two Canadian users of the technology, Pioneer Petroleum and Vancouver Community College, talk about why they chose it, what it was like to implement, and some of the advantages of moving to an open platform.

Money isn’t everything. People love finding good deals, like stumbling across an inexpensive but delightful wine. And then they will buy it again – not because it’s cheap but because it’s good.

That’s the pattern that’s emerging with many open source implementations. Driven by cost containment pressures, many cash-strapped organizations are turning to open source solutions for relief. But once they’ve implemented a system component and found it is good, they come back for more.

Pioneer Petroleum, based in Burlington, Ont, is one such example. The company is the largest independent gasoline retailer in Ontario, with 150 retail locations, many in remote rural locations. Thanks to rocketing gas prices, Pioneer is feeling the pinch. “It’s a strange scenario. We have to buy our product from the companies we compete with,” explains Dale Sinstead, director of IS at Pioneer.

To pump up revenue sources, the company recently revamped its business model, retrofitting its locations with general stores, fast food and car wash outlets. But Pioneer now had a mass of new data requirements to manage at each site and collaboration with new vendors and suppliers to contend with. “We needed something we could manage from a centralized location that was robust, so we wouldn’t have to worry about the midnight guy playing with the computer,” says Sinstead.

Pioneer had already done some toe-dipping into Linux for a few years at the server end, and decided to take the plunge last year and implement Red Hat workstations at the client end, with IBM’s Lotus Notes for Linux as the collaboration glue binding the system. “We couldn’t possibly put Windows machines out there without having to hire a whack of people to manage them,” says Sinstead, who estimates he avoided spending about $100,000 per year, net of licensing fees, in extra support costs.

Better still, the system is so robust that current resources can be painlessly stretched further. “Our administrative costs have gone down because we found we could do more without hiring anyone.”

Teething pains

There were some initial hiccups. One thing Sinstead’s team overlooked was printer drivers for Linux, but a search of online resources resolved that. Some of Pioneer’s suppliers balked, as their online ordering systems were designed to work in Microsoft Windows Explorer. But they were persuaded to make a few changes so e-commerce transactions would work with Firefox browsers.

Some of Pioneer’s users balked too, claiming they only knew how to use Windows. But once they were shown that functions were the same, they too came round. Sinstead points out there are many Linux desktop distributions that can be made to look and feel like Windows. “They are very good for enterprise environments, as they give you incredible control over what people can and can’t do – you can easily effect changes on any user from anywhere on the network.”

This is one of the many features that makes security easier to manage on Linux desktops, he says. In the past, users needed but abused access that allowed them to install legitimate updates to their desktops. “People always found ways to install games, toolbars and so on. With Linux, they can’t do that. We can lock down their machines.”

An unexpected benefit Sinstead is enjoying is cost avoidance of anti-virus software. Thus far, no viruses have slinked past Pioneer’s firewalls, likely because the vast majority of malware is designed to infect Microsoft systems. “We looked into anti-virus software for Linux that could be managed centrally, but we can’t justify the spend,” he says, adding that he is still considering it.

Security aspects of Linux

Sinstead believes Linux’s architecture makes it inherently more secure, stable and manageable relative to Windows, pointing to a fundamental – and philosophical – difference between the two. Microsoft’s operating system is designed for ease of use by multiple users, he says, so all the features in a component, such as a firewall, are turned on by default. Linux is the opposite; all features are turned off until a user turns them on.

“You can build a very stripped-down Linux system,” says Jim Elliott, infrastructure solutions manager and Linux advocate for IBM Canada. “If you use only what you need, you are less likely to be attackable.” There is also the “many eyes” aspect, he says, alluding to the open source community culture where many experts scrutinize Linux’s source code and fix bugs before malware writers can exploit them.

VCC does more with less

The ability to do more with less was also the main selling point for Des Dougan, director of IS at Vancouver Community College (VCC). As with many educational institutions, VCC has severe budgetary constraints and a tiny team of IT staff.

The college started its migration to Linux about five years ago, first starting with an Apache Web server, then implementing an Oracle database on Linux to house a provincial data warehouse when the old Unix platform reached its end of life.

“It would have cost us about four times more to buy a new Unix server for that,” says Dougan, adding that VCC plans to move its ERP to Linux as well when that server needs to be replaced in the future.

VCC recently implemented Novell’s SUSE Linux to manage automatic provisioning of IDs, directory services and e-mail management. Since a significant percentage of VCC’s 25,000 population are working students, the ability to provide reliable e-mail to students that allows them to submit assignments and large files is a key competitive necessity nowadays.

But manually creating e-mail accounts for each student would have been an impossible task for VCC’s small IT team. Since VCC was already comfortable with Novell Netware in place, Dougan says it was a natural fit to opt for SUSE Linux to tackle automatic provisioning of IDs and e-mail management. With this move, Dougan says the college avoided an estimated $1 million in extra administrative costs and freed up 15 per cent of his existing IT staff’s time to devote to new projects.

The lack of in-house skills is often a stumbling block when considering Linux for many organizations. But putting the time and effort in building up in-house talent is definitely a worthwhile investment, says Dougan. “This is a big thing with us, as it doesn’t just give them skills but it also motivates them,” he says. “If a company has the ability to train their people to support Linux, they should go for it. Linux has many advantages – the stability and interoperability are great.”

Going forward, Dougan says his team is doing a lot of work in virtualization, building virtual servers on top of individual blade servers to consolidate VCC’s system. “We have twice as many virtual servers as physical servers, and find it quite straightforward to use SUSE tools as the basis for building both – there’s no difference.”

As with security, Linux’s build-up architecture is particularly congenial to virtualization. “You only install the pieces you need,” says Ross Chevalier, CTO of Novell Canada. “If you’re building a server solely for the purposes of virtualization, then you don’t need a graphical interface, Web browser and so on.” And beyond virtualization, Chevalier points out this increases performance value in general. “You get a longer life cycle out of the hardware you already own and new equipment you get, because you’re not adding or running a bunch of gunk you don’t need.”

VCC is laying the infrastructure to provide distance learning courses online in the near future, and Dougan is eyeing some open source online course management systems to support this strategic initiative. “Our students want to be trained at their convenience off-site,” he says. “And we have also seen a groundswell of demand from faculty who have grown more familiar with technology themselves.”

An emerging pattern?

IBM’s Elliott says these customer experiences are part of a growing pattern. Companies implement open source for edge-of-network applications, then move it in gradually to more critical business areas as they gain experience. About 20 per cent of Canadian companies have implemented open source to some degree, according to IDC research.

“People start looking at Linux as a cost avoidance thing, but find other reasons to do it later,” he says. “Buying a Linux distribution from vendors is not cheap – the price on a per year basis is in the same range as a Windows server license. But you’re getting over a thousand applications with that investment: open source databases, Web services and so on.”

Pioneer’s Sinstead says he was not driven by any anti-Microsoft sentiment in his Linux implementation, and has retained Windows in many areas where it makes sense. And he also points out you can pay dearly for open source software, depending on how it’s packaged. “Linux isn’t right for everything – no operating system is,” he cautions. “If you put it in places where it doesn’t belong, you will have a bad experience with it.”

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Rosie Lombardi is a freelance writer specializing in technology and IT management. She is based in Toronto.

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