Linux, lingerie perfect mix for fashion company

ASX-listed underwear, fashion design and direct sales company UnderCoverWear (UCW) has revealed how building its business around Linux and open source increased IT flexibility while avoiding vendor lock-in.

UCW's technical support IT manager Matthew Smith said the company, which began in 1981, took the decision many years ago to develop software in-house when necessary and built an in-house team that allows "systems to meet business needs".

Smith said IT has developed a good rapport with management and the two groups work together on problems and how to solve them.

"This allows management to get exactly what they want so IT is not just a blank wall," he said. "It's about communicating, listening and trusting each other. This open communications is why we are successful in creating IT systems."

UCW manages a network of some 2000 direct sales people, much like the Amway business model and turns over about $30 million a year.

"Back in the early 90s we needed to computerize our ordering and accounting systems," Smith said. "We had a bad experience with a 4GL programmer and by the end of the week the consulting firm had been shown the door."

However, one consultant who had been using Linux since kernel version 1.0.9 is still with the company 15 years later.

"The 4GL ordering system was running out of puff and [since] the business dictates to the IT system [it needed upgrading]," he said. "Other contenders were Visual Basic or J2EE but J2EE was chosen because it was a standard."

UCW then went about searching for a database to run its core applications.

"After two days trying to install Oracle they gave up," Smith said, adding the open source PostgreSQL was then installed and tested. "We use Linux on mission-critical servers and PostgreSQL and have gone for years without a problem."

During his presentation at last week's Linuxworld conference and expo, Smith spoke at length about the virtues of using open source software.

"There's no vendor lock-in [so] if the system allows us to move then we don't hold up the business," he said. "And you have access to the source code so you can fix the problem yourself if it's important to you. Open source projects often accept these updates."

Contrary to the popular believe that there is a lack of support for open source software, Smith said support is good because if you are trying to support a system and getting no where "you just find someone else". UCW has Sydney-based open source consulting firm Solutions First as a support and services provider, which Smith said has "a bunch of smart people we can call upon".

Other benefits Smith cited are the ability to see bugs and solutions up-front, and flexibility of use and no "annoying licensing restrictions to deal with".

"We have been using open source for a long time and it is best of breed," he said.

In addition to using PostgreSQL and Ubuntu Linux, UCW uses a smorgasbord of open source tools including Xen for virtualization, Postfix for e-mail, Samba for file serving, and JBoss for application serving.

UCW is now trialling Asterisk for VoIP.

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