LINUXWORLD - IT users looking to fill gaps with open source

Expo draws a mixed bag of users with specific requirements

From cautious corporate onlookers trying to gauge how Linux and open-source software fit into enterprise IT systems to the companies now looking to expand their use of open-source applications, a broad swath of IT users are in San Francisco at the annual LinuxWorld Conference & Expo.

What they are looking for depends on where their companies are in the ongoing convergence of corporate IT and open-source software.

Stewart Savage, director of IT for the Fairfield-Suisun Unified School District in Fairfield, California, said he's looking for more nonproprietary software that he can add to the school district's infrastructure. "We come here to see how Linux is maturing over time," Savage said. "I first came here five years ago, and I was very confused. But a critical mass was achieved where the complexity of learning it was greatly reduced. It's no longer just for Linux gurus."

The school district still uses Microsoft's Windows on the desktop for its 24,000 students and 1,500 staff members, he said. But all students use the free OpenOffice productivity suite. Teachers get Microsoft Office, but they have the option of using OpenOffice. "A lot of curriculum [applications are only] available for Microsoft Windows, so it's hard to make that translate to the open-source world," Savage said.

When the school district first brought Linux and open-source applications into its data center in 2002, it was to primarily to cut costs. "We like to get as much money as possible into the classroom, so if we can save money in the data center with a high level of reliability, we will definitely go with Linux." For the school system, the focus isn't on what is cool in IT but on what is good for the students, teachers and supporting staff, he said.

The district is a longtime Novell shop, with various versions of NetWare, and it runs Novell's SUSE Linux in the data center supporting a myriad of back office applications, such as Web content filtering, Web servers, domain name servers and Oracle databases. "We try to do whatever we can with NetWare and Linux," he said. "What we like to do with Linux is take a look at the technology and see if it's viable for our environment and see if we can implement it on a cost-effective basis."

Hai Nguyen, a branch server administrator at Sierra Pacific Mortgage, a wholesale mortgage company in Folsom, California, said he was attending LinuxWorld to look for backup and disaster recovery tools for his Linux and open-source back-end infrastructure. "In this day and age, securing your data and having a backup copy is important," he said. Lost or stolen data "could literally cost millions a day in lost revenue," he said.

Nguyen said his company runs CentOS Linux in the back office for everything from file servers to Web servers, databases and e-mail systems to support about 650 users, who are still running Windows on their desktops. "Right now, the user base isn't really that tech-savvy. And as users, they prefer to use things that they are familiar with," he said. "At home, they're on Microsoft [software], so it's easier for them to have Microsoft at work."

Chris Lin, vice president of infrastructure and e-commerce at Dublin, California-based Ellie Mae Inc., which provides an electronic transaction infrastructure for the mortgage industry, said he was attending the conference to get a "technology update" and to look at open-source alternatives for his company's IT systems. So far, open-source software has only seen light use inside Ellie Mae, he said, because many critical business applications are legacy programs that would have to be completely rewritten to run on Linux -- and that would be cost-prohibitive.

What Lin envisions instead is slowly finding modular open-source components that he can plug in as services to replace existing Microsoft applications, from transactional Web sites that serve as data storage sites for customers to, eventually, mission-critical applications that monitor the entire loan cycle for clients. It's not something that will happen overnight, he said.

"My take is that at a certain service level, with the right components, I can use those modular components and start with that and see how it goes," Lin said. "We're not just jumping in. It's more or less a phase-in approach."

One problem with moving to open source quickly, he said, is that it's hard to find enough IT developers and other workers with the needed open-source skills. "That's really the main reason that we're not changing overnight," he said. "There are a lot of open-source and Linux components that would be quite useful."

Another user, an IT administrator at a large European bank who asked that his name and the name of his company be withheld, said he came to the show to look at hardware such as blade servers that run Linux and use less power. Inside his division, which was acquired by the European bank about a year ago, Linux and open source are rarely used -- something he wants to change, since the parent company is already using Linux.

He's looking at open source primarily to find cost savings and development flexibility to improve business tasks such as document imaging, document management and content control, he said. One major benefit of moving more to open source is to be able to leverage the experience of thousands of other software developers in user forums so any problems or issues can be resolved quickly, he said. "There's plenty of forums we can refer to if we get stuck or have some questions," he said.

He's also looking at management software for Linux infrastructures, for reporting on networks with full statistics and performance monitoring. "This is going to be a move in a positive direction," he said. "There's a large community out there of developers. It's not like we're the only ones out there working on something."

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