Australian government inching towards desktop Linux

The Australian government agency responsible for distributing social security payments is still moving towards near-universal use of desktop Linux, but it's slow progress
Written by Munir Kotadia, Contributor

Centrelink, the Australian government agency responsible for distributing social security payments, is expecting delivery of Novell's Open Enterprise Server technology early next year -- another step on the organisation's path that seems to lead to the ubiquitous deployment of Linux.

Peter Gunning, Centrelink's national manager for infrastructure architecture, told ZDNet UK sister site ZDNet Australia that Centrelink is investigating various combinations of hardware and software to find the best possible solution in terms of manageability, security and efficiency.

According to Gunning, Centrelink's long term goal is to consolidate the organisation's multitude of operating systems onto a single platform -- or as few as are absolutely necessary.

Gunning said platform consolidation would reduce management overheads and offer more choice when deciding on the best hardware to run the organisation's numerous applications. Although he is still investigating all available options and has not made a final decision, it seems that Linux is a natural choice because of the organisation's legacy Novell and Lotus applications.

"Having a single platform or operating system means we will be free to move our workloads around to virtualised server platforms, blades, racks or to whatever device or storage we like -- instead of being tied to specific hardware for specific applications," said Gunning.

Gunning explained that Centrelink has around 400 remote offices, each with a Novell file and print server. The organisation's corporate systems combine SAP, Oracle and Sun Solaris.

"Will a Novell file and print server migrate to a Linux environment? Absolutely, yes. Will the Lotus environment migrate to Linux? Yes, with the support of IBM and the open Linux world. Will our Sun Solaris move to a Linux environment? Absolutely. We ran a rolling series of investigations to prove the viability and cost of those strategies," said Gunning.

When questioned about Microsoft's Active Directory, Gunning would not rule it out as a technology but hinted that it is unlikely: "We have watched the Active Directory mature and now it can take the scalability. But what is the price to our organisation of taking our existing applications and moving them over to Active Directory?"

Additionally Gunning said that not only will he have to be sure that Centrelink is choosing the right long-term platform strategy, he will have to reassure the organisation's senior executives.

"We have to look at remote access, virus protection, security. Linux has those capabilities but we have to assure our more senior executives that these boxes have the same level of security and protection as the commercial products," said Gunning.

Earlier this month, Novell -- the parent company of SuSE Linux -- said its Open Enterprise Server (OES), which combines open source and commercial networking platforms, will begin shipping in February 2005.

Centrelink has been using the beta version of OES and Gunning is looking forward to the final release, which could help clinch the deal.

"The beta will give us a level of confidence. But for the final build we would like to the generally available version of OES -- if that is the strategy we want to adopt," said Gunning.

Gunning described some of the questions that will be asked of OES and any other technology being investigated.

"We will have to see how things perform under a converged or consolidated environment. Will we have enough storage capacity, CPU and memory sharing? File and print is a constant demand - how will that operate in peak times," asked Gunning.

Costa Kapantais, federal region manager responsible for Novell's government accounts in the Australian Capital Territory, told ZDNet UK sister site ZDNet Australia that OES is an important tool that will help push Linux into large organisations - such as Centrelink -- because it provides the opportunity to mix and match hardware platforms.

"We can scale all the way up to mainframe class systems and provide a universal operating system that is almost divorced from the hardware. That gives customers the ability to mix and match their hardware rather than being tied into a particular box on a particular operating system," said Kapantais.

Kapantais said that with OES Centrelink would be able to deploy Netware services - such as file, print and directory - on both Netware and Linux kernels.

"This means they could migrate the services they run today on Netware seamlessly onto Linux. It hasn't been possible [before OES] because the file systems were incompatible.

"With OES the customer can be running Netware one day and the next day bring up a Linux server running the same services. There would be a smooth migration with no impact on users and complete interoperability between the two environments.

"They have a number of databases and applications that can also run on Linux so it presents a further opportunity for them to consolidate," said Kapantais.

Centrelink's Gunning said the investigation and evaluation process will not be quick and the final decisions will be made depending on whichever technologies provide the best price and performance.

"I would like to choose the operating system(s) that give Centrelink the best price performance. We are a government agency and we have to show we are using the tax-payers money effectively to deliver the services," added Gunning.

Centrelink has 27,000 staff and distributes approximately AU$55bn in social security payments each year. Its IT infrastructure supports 14 million electronic customer records and handles 12 million electronic customer transactions every day.

The organisation services over 6 million people - around one third of the Australian population.

Munir Kotadia reported from Sydney for ZDNet Australia. For more ZDNet Australia stories, click here.

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