Cashing in on Linux

To winemaker De Bortoli, Linux has provided the opportunity to save money, free up IT staff, and create a flexible infrastructure to provide for future growth. Find out why other Australian companies like financial group Aviva are adopting open source technologies.

In polite society it is traditionally frowned upon to discuss topics which inspire strongly polarised opinion. This means religion, politics, sex, and Linux, should probably be left out of the conversation if friends and aquaintences want to maintain a civilised veneer.

But lets face it, there's nothing civilised or polite about the business world, and for some very good reasons Linux is the topic de jour.

According to Phil Sargeant, research vice president for servers and storage at IT research group Gartner, most Australia companies have already dipped their toes in open-source waters, and a few are now planning to open the flood gates installing Linux across their server clusters.

"A small percentage are now taking it much more seriously," Sargeant says. "Linux is experiencing a compound growth rate of 13 to 14 percent, and will continue to be the fastest growing server operating system over the next two years."

With tech giants like IBM, HP, and Dell all now supporting Linux-based server offerings in the enterprise, Sargeant believes the open-source operating system has become a much less risky proposition for most companies. As a result, we are likely to see it increasingly installed on mission critical systems over the next 12 to18 months.

"Linux has made its way into some interesting niches like Web services, and big number crunching, but now that the service is there people are starting to look for other places where it might work," Sargeant says.

With interest growing, Anupam Nagar, HP Australia's business manager for open source and Linux, says support is still a fundamental concern for companies considering adopting open-source solutions.

"The question we often face when it comes to Linux and open-source software is; 'who supports it, and will I get the same level of support as I would with a proprietary system?'," Nagar says. "There are those who know what they're doing and come into HP only really for incident-based support, and those who want HP by their side from the word go, to help them to design the system and solve the difficulties they face initially."

As a result, HP is tailoring support levels to the customer's needs and working closely with vendors such as Oracle and Red Hat to ensure interoperability issues are minimal. Nagar believes such levels of cooperation are setting a trend away from software consolidation which has characterised the software market in recent years.

While the software itself may be coming from a series of different providers, the very idea of maintaining and managing support relationships with a range of different companies is enough to cause headaches.

In response, vendors and systems integrators are looking at the creation of software stacks of interoperable environments and applications. This way multiple vendors, does not have to mean multiple support contracts.

Systems integrator Unisys is a case in point. "Our approach is to work closely with vendors such as Novell's SuSE Linux and Red Hat, so that we can put together a stack of interoperable software, and provide a single reference point for services across any part of that stack," says Mike Dooner, programs and alliances director for Unisys Australia. "It's not so much that services aren't available now, they weren't available in the past so there is still a bit of scare mongering going on, and a lot of resistance to change."

De Bortoli: Vintage Linux
Having implemented Linux across the company's servers half a decade ago, De Bortoli CIO Bill Robertson is an enthusiastic backer of open-standards technology, most of which happens to also be open source. However, he says without the investment made at the turn of the century by companies such as IBM and Sun, open-source software could not have achieved the success it's currently experiencing.

After 75 years in the winemaking trade, De Bortoli is still a family run business with headquarters in Griffith, NSW, where the original vineyard was planted. With his scope encompassing the IT infrastructure of a restaurant, four vineyards, three wineries, as well as regional offices from Sydney to Perth, Robertson has his work cut out.

"I could see that the shift to Linux was going to happen anyway, and that by adopting it I could increase the level of IT resources available to the company."

Bill Robertson, CIO of De Bortoli
His main challenge, however, has been maintaining IT service levels for a company consistently growing at 20 percent per annum over the last decade.

He believes Linux provided him with the opportunity to save money, free up IT staff, and create a flexible infrastructure to provide for future growth.

"I could see that the shift to Linux was going to happen anyway, and that by adopting it I could increase the level of IT resources available to the company." Robertson says. "I knew that the sooner we began to work strategically the better we would be in the long run."

A project which began by consolidating the company servers onto Linux, has blossomed to the extent where the company uses Linux and open-source office applications on desktops, and a range of back-end open-source software.

"Initially we were running a mixed Windows/Unix environment on the servers, but we're only a small shop and we need to be generalists," Robertson explains. "There is a lot of overlap between Linux and Unix, and it just made more sense to consolidate the servers onto a Linux platform so we could have a pool of trained administrators."

Bemused by any notion that Linux is poorly supported in the enterprise, Robertson says he has never had any trouble in finding support for De Bortoli's open-source systems, and says that those IT managers having trouble simply aren't looking hard enough.

"In the early days we bought a support contract from HP, and they've provided us with gold-plated support all along," Robertson says. "All in all, five external organisations have provided support to De Bortoli's open-source software -- we've had no trouble finding help, and no trouble implementing on-site training."

The TransACT transaction
In a similar vein Stephen Supple, senior Oracle developer for Canberra-based telecommuncations provider TransACT, is surprised by concerns regarding support levels for open-source software.

"Because of my positive experience with Linux servers people are always coming back to me with 'but oh, it's not stable' or 'but oh, there's no support'," Supple says. "I just tell them what we've done and point out that we haven't come across any problems."

Supple began sifting through alternatives when the Unix system, which underpinned the company's entire telephony database, was nearing capacity.

Supple was simultaneously looking at software and hardware upgrades, including the installation of a Storage Area Network (SAN). With 70-75 percent of company revenue based on customer and network information contained on an Oracle database, data integrity was key to any technology decision.

"We needed to make sure that any technology we adopted fitted in within the context of Oracle's future directions," Supple says. "This system can't stop, we can't afford for it to stop."

After taking advice from various suppliers, TransACT opted to switch from a Unix to a Linux server environment.

With an internal Linux whiz on hand, Supple says it wasn't hard for a further two Unix-based systems administrators to learn what they needed to know about the new platform.

At the same time, Supple found vendors more than happy to support the integration of their business applications into the new Linux environment.

"The configuration of the connection to the SAN was the only hurdle, but StorageTek -- who we bought the SAN from -- came out and saw to that very quickly, and now we have an infrastructure that is bulletproof," Supple says.

To ensure data integrity, TransACT ran both the Unix and Linux systems side by side for a period of three months.

"The first time we ran the scripts the new server system finished the job in so little time we were sure something had gone wrong. So we ran it through again and again, until we realised it was just that the Linux server is so much faster than the older one," Supple says. "We're working on massive data sets, we're talking 250 million rows in the main working tales and we can now extract information within seconds."

And while cost savings wasn't initially a driving factor, the low cost associated with running Linux servers has enabled the company to add redundancy to the system, improving its disaster recovery capabilities.

"By running Linux we could afford to buy two servers instead of one," Supple says. "For TransACT implementing Linux on our servers has been a very good experience."

Wotif books in open source
Concerns regarding enterprise-level support for Linux-based servers are not entirely unfounded. Two years back when Paul Young, CIO of online hotel booking service, began the shift from Windows- to Linux-based servers he found he had a lot of explaining to do. While it was reasonably common to find Linux in the education sector, vendors still had precious little experience implementing it in the enterprise, and poor understanding of corporate requirements.

"The vendors didn't realise what they were getting into when applying Linux at the corporate level," Young says. "It took me about six months to find people who understood where I was going and what I was talking about when it came to a corporate environment."

Unperturbed, Young forged ahead with the changeover, wanting to make the shift to an open-source and open-standards environment sooner rather than later.

"Really is a perfect fit for open source because it's a small company growing into a medium-sized company, so scalability and performance are our key challenges when it comes to running the servers," Young says. "In the small business and midsize sectors open-source software is a compelling story."

Unlike TransACT and De Bortoli, Young wanted to shift from a Windows environment so he was not able to leverage experience on Unix systems directly into a Linux environment. However, a quick show of hands in the IT department put his mind at rest regarding the internal skills base.

"When I came into the company most of the shop were already Linux users, only about five percent came from a strictly Windows background," Young says. "You'd be amazed how many developers have learnt to use Linux, or at least some version of Unix through university."

While Young says he has not has not been all that reliant on vendor support, he is relying on the big name buy-in to keep Linux offerings competitive and up-to-date with developments in the hardware arena.

"It is important for us to be able to adopt new hardware as soon as possible to maintain the quality of our service," Young says. "What makes it work for us is that there are vendors out there making sure the Linux operating system is ready for IT improvements at the hardware level."

But Young is cautious when it comes Linux servers in large enterprises.

"Implementing Linux servers is no different than any other company-wide IT overhaul."

Tony Yortis, Coates Hire

"As a CIO you face different challenges at different stages of growth," Young says. "Scalability and performance issues are entirely different when you start operating at the big end of town. You can't overestimate or miss the mark the way you can in the mid level because it will cost you way too much."

Nonetheless there are some companies looking to use Linux to leverage them into the big end of town.

Coates cashes in on Linux
ASX-listed equipment hire and engineering contractors Coates Hire is planning to do just that. As chief information and innovation officer Tony Yortis is planning to play a central role in doubling the company's annual $450 million turnover in the next five years. Yortis took the position two years ago following a changing of the guards that saw corporate veteran CEO Jim Brown retire after 35 years in the job. His replacement Malcom Jackman took the helm and set about a significant restructure to set the company on a path into Australia's top 100 companies list.

Yortis was brought in three months later as part of the game plan.

"When I came on board Coates was a real diamond in the rough," Yortis says. "There were seven different businesses using a single mainframe system. There was still a lot of manual processing."

In order to consolidate and automate the cash and asset management, process management, payroll, and a range of other functions on a single platform, Yortis knew he needed to retire the mainframe system. After speaking with a number of technology vendors, Yortis opted for Oracle Real Application Clusters on Red Hat Enterprise Linux, on racked Dell servers.

"Technology is going to be an integral part of our success over the next five years, we needed to know that whatever operating system we adopted would support this growth," Yortis says. "We looked at the technologies the big names were relying on, and realised that when IBM and Novell are all spending big in the open-source space there's gotta be something in it."

With the company already dealing with extensive change management issues, and a lot of suspicion surrounding open source, Yortis needed to make a water-tight case. He set about compiling a full risk analysis and looked for a series of vendors willing to lock themselves into Linux service contracts. "I needed to ensure that if a bug came up there would be one point of contact, whether it was to do with the firmware or the Red Hat software," Yortis says.

Even so, he faced significant opposition. Already having to contend with a new generation of management, the IT team wasn't entirely comfortable having to retrain on software rumored to be both unstable and poorly supported.

Realising the major hurdles were psychological rather than technical, Yortis met the challenge by creating individual development plans for staff, so they could see a role for themselves within the new structure.

"We were telling these guys that the mainframe at the heart of that they had built and made successful for so many years had to change," Yortis says. "We were pushing them out of their comfort zone so we had to show them at the same time that there was a bigger picture which they were part of. "

Coates Hire also went to the market to source people with Linux skills, and were fairly successful at finding what they were after.

"Implementing Linux servers is no different than any other company-wide IT overhaul. You need to have rigorous project management methodology, have a back-up plan for your back-up plan, and you have to look after the people because they are the ones who make the project successful," Yortis says.

Aviva: Linux on the mainframe
Thanks to IBM's hefty investment in Linux technology, it is also possible to work in a Linux environment on a mainframe, as Kevin Sharkie, CIO of investment and funds management group Aviva, discovered at an information session in 2002.

Until 2003 Aviva was relying on its sister company, Melbourne-based CGU, to conduct its mainframe processing for its life insurance business, while the rest of the company's financial products were run on 300 application servers running a mixture of Sun Solaris and Windows 2000.

Frustrated by security maintenance requirements on the Windows servers, and loathe to perpetually expand the company's server infrastructure, Sharkie opted to install a new IBM mainframe when CGU was sold in 2002. Unlike traditional mainframes, the z800 offered a virtual Linux environment, which facilitated the transfer of many of the company's applications.

"When IAG bought CGU to in November 2002, our mainframe services and legacy systems had to be moved back," Sharkie says. "This opened up the window of opportunity to consider the progressive consolidation of Aviva's server farm under IBM's z800 virtual Linux servers."

Finding mainframes a less expensive alternative to independent application and data server farms, Sharkie has used the virtual Linux environment to retire 190 servers, and plans to cut a further 80. "Most system application software solutions and databases can run in a Linux environment. So in reducing the number of UNIX or Linux environments that reside on their own server hardware, we can plan the upgrades with a high degree of risk management," Sharkie explains.

"There are some applications that just can't be converted to run under Linux. So we will keep about 10 percent of the applications operating in a Windows server environment, but they'll be isolated to protect the rest of the system from hackers."

As for support and installation Aviva engaged IBM business partner and systems integrator ISI back in October 2003, to manage the entire IBM z800 environment.

The project has been so successful Sharkie plans to keep ISI busy, as Aviva looks to progressively convert its Sybase databases from a Solaris UNIX environment to Oracle on the virtual Linux servers.

Breaking Taboos
From family-owned companies, to ASX-listed behemoths, Linux-based servers are proving popular at all levels of business in Australia.

Owner-less and largely hype-less, Linux continues to be plagued with concerns regarding its stability, and support, despite the overwhelmingly positive response from those companies actually using the software.

Analysts are notably understated when discussing Linux adoption, and more than a few proprietary vendors are considering changes to their licensing charges and policies in response to increasing open-source adoption.

By now we all know it's not actually free, what we need to remember is that it isn't easy either. Linux in most environments will run faster, cheaper, and more reliably than its counterparts, so long as it's thoroughly researched and appropriately implemented.

However, with the early adopters praising its virtues the danger we face now is that businesses will attempt to switch to Linux-based operating systems without doing their homework.

To avoid the monumental tech disasters which often follow poorly researched me-too adoptions, businesses need to be looking realistically at Linux, and the companies which offer to support it in the enterprise.

This means breaking through the politics, etiquette, and taboos and having open discussions about what, if any, benefits open-source can bring to your business.

If you need a confidence boost, try kicking off the conversation with your opinion of the new Pope, or George W Bush. At least that way your cohorts will be relieved when you bring the conversation around to open-source software.

This article was first published in Technology & Business magazine.
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