Guitar maker plays a Linux tune

Musicians might recognize the name Ernie Ball as an icon credited with being an electric guitar industry pioneer. Ernie Ball Inc., the global manufacturer of guitar strings, electric guitars and basses, that bears his name, is now making a name for itself as a software industry pioneer.

Over the past two years, Ernie Ball, the company, has moved its IT system almost entirely to open- source software, ditching older systems powered by Microsoft Corp.'s Windows operating system. It represents a growing class of small- and medium-sized businesses finding opportunity in alternative software such as the Linux operating system.

Its corporate servers and desktop computers run a version of Linux from Red Hat Inc. Its time clock and security systems are also powered by Linux servers. The open-source Gnome user interface has replaced the popular Windows start-up screen on employee desktops. Company e-mail is managed with Ximian Inc.'s Evolution software, not Microsoft's popular Outlook client. Employees now type memos and view presentations using the freely available OpenOffice software suite.

On the second night of the recent Comdex computer industry trade show in Las Vegas, Sterling Ball, the third son of Ernie and now president and chief executive officer of the San Luis Obispo, California, company, sat down over dinner to tell the story of how he was inspired to move his operations to open source.

Between backstage war stories about rock stars like Keith Richards and Stevie Nicks, Ball explained how, after years in business, he grew weary of Microsoft's software licensing policies. "To me it's like going to a restaurant and the entire menu is prixe fixe and you've got to eat everything on it," he said.

The real motivation came when his company was busted in 2000 by the Business Software Alliance (BSA) for running pirated copies of software from Adobe Systems Inc., Autodesk Inc., FileMaker Inc. and Microsoft. After conducting an "unannounced software audit," the nonprofit trade group representing major software vendors found that about 8 percent of the software used on Ernie Ball computers was illegally installed.

According to BSA estimates, the software industry loses billions in annual sales partly because of companies like Ernie Ball that install more copies of software than they pay for. During 2001 alone, the BSA recorded US$10.97 billion in losses worldwide.

Ernie Ball ended up settling with the BSA over claims related to use of unlicensed software to the tune of US$90,000. However, Ball said he emerged from the ordeal critical of the way the problem is approached. The audit was prompted by an anonymous call to the BSA's antipiracy hotline by a disgruntled ex-employee, and concluded when armed U.S. Marshals shut down his IT system during a raid of the company's offices, he said.

Soon after, the company began its switch to Linux. The move wasn't easy, Ball said. For one, it took some coaxing to get employees to embrace the new desktop software, and he noted that the term "free software" is somewhat of a misnomer. "There is free software out there, but it costs you money to get it working," he said.

Yet, Ball now revels in the fact that his company is "Microsoft-free."

"I think that we were so driven to find a solution, that the worst reality to us would have been to give up and go back to the people up in Redmond," he said.

Software vendors such as Sun Microsystems Inc., Ximian, Red Hat, and IBM Corp., are banking on customers with similar complaints to help drive the growing trend toward open-source software in the enterprise. These vendors claim that Linux is increasingly becoming more competitive to Windows in the areas of compatibility and reliability. Using open-source software is also more economical than licensing Windows, they say.

Research from Gartner Inc. reveals that some customers will end up paying between 33 percent and 107 percent more on Microsoft products because of new licensing policies Microsoft put into place this year. Microsoft contends that customers benefit from the pricing model because they get more secure and up-to-date software.

Two years after moving to open-source products, Ball claims that he saves $80,000 to $100,000 a year on IT spending, which is sizeable for a company of 80 computer users. Savings come from decreased maintenance, but more importantly, there is no longer any pressure to pay for regular software and hardware upgrades, he said.

The company was able to pull old desktop computers out of retirement, as its network is designed so that applications run off a main server, and are accessed using low horse-power desktop computers, or "dumb clients." For that reason, adding new users, or changing a user's credentials, can be managed centrally.

"Nobody really has a local desktop per se," said Jeff Whitmore, director of IT at Ernie Ball in a phone interview this week. "Employees are all getting applications off of one server."

The company still runs its critical business applications on a Unix server using an accounting package from The SCO Group, formerly Caldera International Inc. A future project will involve moving that system over to Linux, Whitmore said.

Ryan Joseph, president of the San Luis Obispo's local Linux user group, which is run out of nearby Cal Poly State University, recently took a tour of Ernie Ball's IT system. The part-time Linux consultant and computer science student said he had yet to witness a company rebuild its IT system using open- source products.

"Ernie Ball really did it. Nobody uses Windows in that entire company and it works," Joseph said. "I was incredibly impressed, and lots of things about Linux don't impress me anymore."

Ball admits that his affair with Microsoft software was valuable while it lasted, but he now sings about being a Linux reformist.

"I couldn't have grown my business without Microsoft," he said. "Now I can't run my business with Microsoft."

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