Housing NZ: Linux getting more 'commercial'

Rob Herries, IT manager at Housing New Zealand, sees a downside to the growing popularity of Linux among users and major applications vendors.

Red Hat, whose Linux distribution Housing uses, is becoming "a serious commercial organisation" and has issued its Advanced Server with an annual support charge. Some software vendors, notably Oracle with the latest version of the 9i database, will only certify their application against the "commercial" version of the operating system. This is a sign that Linux, having met success, is moving towards a model more akin to that of Microsoft.

"We will lose something," Herries says, but the open source orientation remains. "At least we've broken the proprietary hardware and operating system model."

The only way to combat scepticism on open source is proof, says Herries. The kind of scepticism directed at Linux asks: "How can something nearly free, developed within universities, be an appropriate and stable foundation for business?"

Housing proved its case in 1998 by porting "non-critical" applications to Linux from HP-UX, the Hewlett-Packard Unix.

There was a business justification at the time, he says. Government saw it advisable to establish small offices in outlying locations, to cooperate with local housing aid organisations.

It just did not make economic sense to set up a NZ$40,000-$250,000 computer system, the scale of HP-UX machines run by Housing, to handle the needs of an eight- to 10-person office, he says. So the search was on for a cost-saving alternative.

A change of government has led to a rethink of the small-office policy, but Linux has proved its efficiency and workability, and Housing plans to start transferring core systems to it as soon as it receives management approval. That is likely to happen any day.

Oracle's implementation for Red Hat version 7 was available in 1998 and that made the task easier, he says.

"The Oracle applications ported okay, but some of our other applications were HP-proprietary and a bit more difficult."

The code had exploited some particular tricks of the HP operating system, and needed to be rewritten in "a more standard form", using ANSI-standard C. Changing the approach will make the applications more portable for the future, he says.

The Intel-based Linux platform used for the initial applications was "10 times cheaper and 10 times faster" than the HP platform. In fact, with today's Xeon DP processors Housing is getting something like 20 times the HP performance. Admittedly some of the HP hardware was about four years old at the time of initial changeover.

"The biggest problem was dealing with business approvals," Herries says. Support was a major concern from management, so the organisation trained up already qualified computer engineers to provide support for Red Hat.

"We found when we did hit technical problems [such as incompatible device drivers], we could solve them ourselves."

This was in contrast to HP-UX and Windows problems, some of which have never been solved, he says. Housing uses Windows in its PC network to support Office applications.

"Something in Windows 2000 service pack 3 kept crashing our network. We had Microsoft in and the best they could suggest in the end is that we revert to SP2."

On a Microsoft or proprietary Unix platform customers are totally dependent on the supplier for fixes, he says.

"With open source, we usually find someone else in the the world who has found and fixed the fault."

Given his experiences with "commercial" software, says Herries, Housing has built a good "testing infrastructure" and runs every-thing new through it. "We don't trust anyone's software. We have the same level of suspicion of all of it."

He sees no pressing need to keep constantly up to date on the latest from Linux applications vendors. "It may seem that we're on the leading edge, but in reality we're about two years behind it. In that position, we can feed off the mainstream."

Despite being a potential reference site for Linux in public-sector organisations, Herries says Housing NZ "doesn't get asked about it much" by other such organisations. Part of the reason, he suspects, is that they tend to concentrate on "front-end tools like web portals" rather than operating system infrastructure, which he sees as "critical".

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