Country Energy bets business on open source

When David Peters faced the prospect of dwindling platform and application support for Country Energy's proprietary Unix systems he took a step towards migrating the company's core business systems to open source software.

Peters, Country Energy's information systems manager, wanted to leverage the large amount of inhouse Unix skills within the IT department by choosing Linux as the operating system platform for front end applications.

"Country Energy was formed as a result of the merger of three energy companies - Great Southern Energy, Advanced Energy, and North Power," Peters said. "This resulted in us inheriting three times the typical amount of legacy systems including Tru64 Unix and IRIX which powered central business processes. Since we have Unix skills using Linux does not demand any retraining. We also use the open source GNU [] tools for system management on both Linux and Unix."

Although Country Energy, which is based in regional NSW, is no stranger to open source technologies since it has been using Linux since 1995, Peters said it tended to be used for "noncritical" systems like proxy servers.

"We have now been using Linux for email for about two to three years and have been gradually replacing Windows," he said. "We use Lotus Domino on Linux for email as we use it for all sorts of databases and forms. It would be difficult for an open source application to have the functionality of Notes and we are happy to pay to use it, as the vendor will support it on Linux. There are definitely fewer problems with Notes on Linux than on Windows."

Country Energy's core billing application, Energy CIS, also relies on Linux for the front end with a Bea WebLogicbased application while the back end is Oracle on AIX.

"WebLogic runs faster on Linux than Windows and the Unix guys can administer the front end," Peters said. "In a few months we will have migrated off Informix on IRIX. Our 750,000 or so customers need a box with performance and although SGI weren't as expensive as Sun or IBM, I wasn't ready to go to Linux on the Altix platform for maturity reasons so we chose a 24way p690 running AIX."

During the migration review process, Peters also evaluated Oracle's 9i RAC but since the billing application is designed to run on a single system image a clustered architecture is "unsuitable".

"With RAC you save on hardware but Oracle is more expensive," he said. "The only way Linux will replace AIX or Solaris is if it scales well. If Sun wants to continue to sink its R&D costs into software it is heading down the wrong path. It is giving Solaris away free, but users are paying for it through hardware. It would be better if IBM released its own Linux distribution for its hardware to leverage the work of the open source community."

Another application that relies on Linux is Country Energy's customer B2B system, which uses Apache, JRUN, and SSL for security.

"Apache is secure and well supported," Peters said. "And we use it to serve images as it's faster than the proprietary application servers." Country Energy is an interesting case in that most of its core infrastructure is a blend of open source and proprietary software which Peters said works well.

"There is definitely no conflict between open source and commercial software as they work well together," he said. "We've never gone down the road of proprietary against free as open source gives us the freedom to upgrade our software and not lose support."

The only remaining central business system running exclusively on proprietary software is Country Energy's PeopleSoft HR and Financials package which is on Tru64 in the back end with a Windows front end.

"The PeopleSoft back end is moving to the AIX system and we would move the Windows front end to Linux if the application gave us the option," Peters said. "We have no interest in staying on Windows for those types of applications as there are just down sides. In our organisation Windows is not a threat as we get to see both sides and Windows is not cheaper at all."

Peters said the company uses no open source databases, however.

"Open source databases are where Linux was a number of years ago in terms of maturity," he said. "Also, it is easy to find Oracle admins for support."

As for open source on the desktop systems, Peters said although most of the applications are Webbased, a nonnative version of Lotus Notes for Linux and the lack of Microsoft Office are impediments to Linux on the desktop.

On the numerous vendor and analyst TCO arguments flying around about Linux versus Unix and Windows, Peters said: "The battle is between Unix versus Windows rather than Linux versus Unix."

"I'm happy to pay for Linux support by moving to Red Hat Advanced Server which is about $1500," he said. "Choosing Linux is not about acquisition costs and I'd be prepared to pay $10,000 per server for it. I wouldn't have a job if there was two minutes of downtime and I wouldn't trust Windows for that."

Peters offered some advice for enterprises that may not be using open source software.

"Talk to your peers about open source as there is not really a downside," he said. "You can use it without risk and it won't cost you anything other than a bit of time. You'd be mad if you didn't try it."

Country Entergy at a glance:

Number of screens: >2500
Number of servers: >500
IT staff: 140
Annual IT budget: >$10m
Operating Systems: Linux (Red Hat Advanced Server 2.1 and 9.0 and SuSE 8.2), AIX, Windows 2000/XP, Tru64 Unix, IRIX Enterprise apps: Energy CIS, PeopleSoft HR and Financials, SmallWorld GIS, Lotus Notes, Microsoft Office, Citrix.
Databases: Oracle
Open source apps: Standard GNU tools, MRTG, RRDTool, BigBrother, Festival Text to Speech (for voice notifications on server outages), Apache with OpenSSL, PHP, FreeTDS (Linux connector to Microsoft SQLServer used for generating reports out of the helpdesk system with PHP), HylaFAX, and Expect.

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