Making the switch to open source

Who says open source can't work for SMBs? One Malaysian company is reaping the benefits.

The opportunity to reduce IT costs is one reason, but not the only one, to use open-source software, according to one Malaysian small and medium-sized business.

Seah Hong Yee,
IT manager,
Polyscientific Enterprise
Polyscientific Enterprise, a company which manufactures and distributes chemicals and industrial products for the Southeast Asian market, has no regrets about its decision to implement open-source software (OSS). The company has tried several OSS, including office productivity suite, Novell SuSe Linux Desktop/Enterprise 9, Mandriva Linux (previously known as Mandrake Linux), and Samba for file and print services.

"In the beginning, it was more or less to save cost. Our company was growing fast and our IT infrastructure was unable to catch up with our business requirements, plus we were experiencing problems with our servers and applications," said Seah Hong Yee, the IT manager at Polyscientific Enterprise.

With the help of the firm's technical team, Seah first replaced basic software such as file sharing and office applications.

He added that the company's Windows NT server used to crash as often as once a week. Although the firm had software licenses for 15 clients, the server frequently experienced overloads with just 10 users. Therefore, to reduce the load on the Windows NT 4.0 server, Seah added a Linux box running Samba for file and print services.

Over time, he added, staff became more familiar with the Linux server environment. "And when the Linux desktops became available, the company decided to look into deploying Linux on the desktops as well," he said. The firm uses a mix of Novell Linux Desktop 9 and Mandriva Linux.

According to Seah, Polyscientific Enterprise enjoyed several benefits by adopting OSS.

"Because there are less licensing issues involved, we were able to deploy a lot more different desktop applications, such as desktop publishing and graphic tools, that normally required a separate license in Windows, and in which case we would never have deployed anyway," said Seah.

As Polyscientific Enterprise moved further along the path of migration, it deployed other open-source applications such as ERP (enterprise resource planning) from Compiere and CRM (customer relationship management) from openCRX.

"We needed an application to track inventory, finance as well as customers' problems. The company was expanding, it became impossible for customer service representative to know what was being done with a particular customer by another co-worker," he explained.

"You may want a separate ERP package that is not related to your CRM vendor and share information between the applications. This is possible with open source because the source codes are available. Information can be consolidated by pulling information out of two or three databases and putting them into a fourth database. We are able to use some open-source OLAP tools to gain simple business intelligence with a pivot table as the presentation table," said Seah. "These were done without ever worrying about additional database licensing cost," he added.

Another advantage, he added, is the ability to modify applications to suit the organization's workflow rather than having to re-engineer to the so-called "industrial best practices" heavily promoted by the vendor.

First steps
Before the company began adopting open-source, it first evaluated the technology based on its features and availability of support.

Seah said the software had to be deployable "on the fly" and require little maintenance. Stability was also an important issue, as the company did not have dedicated IT staff.

To date, the company has only one full-time person taking care of the company's IT operations. Seah explained that maintenance of the company's IT infrastructure is an added responsibility for the technical team who lend a hand during their spare time.

One of the first things Seah also did was to develop a roadmap for migrating to the open-source software. The company decided to take it slow and to switch one application at a time. They switched the server platform first and slowly migrated the workstations.

Getting buy-in
After selecting the software and deciding on the best approach to take, the next step was to convince management to adopt the software. Seah said the management's main concern was the impact the change could have on existing business processes.

He said management were reassured that there would be minimal problems on the server side since the company was only going to migrate from Windows NT server to another Linux file server running Samba.

Convincing the rest of the organization's computer users was also a challenge.

Seah shared that switching the desktop application posed a problem, because there was no equivalent of Lotus SmartSuite on the Linux desktop operating system. In addition, there were concerns about support, data compatibility and the ability of users to adapt.

He said that not many users were comfortable using, because it had a different interface design to Windows. "Instead of switching wholesale, only a few departments switched to the Linux desktop and office suite," Seah noted. "Others continued to use Windows 98 desktop with" Seah also noted that " was perceived to be inferior to Lotus SmartSuite, which the company had been using for a long time".

The early adoption rate was, therefore, low when the company installed on Windows 98 desktops.

"So instead of forcing users to switch to the Linux desktop, we decided to educate the users on the advantages of Linux desktop," he said. One such advantage is that Linux e-mail is "less vulnerable to e-mail virus", he noted.

It was overall an uphill battle, especially for computer users familiar with the Windows environment. "For example, it was difficult to convince users that there is no C drive in a Linux desktop," said Seah.

In contrast, he said, new users were easier to convince because they had little knowledge of working with Windows. Therefore, the most important part of the training process was to familiarize the employees with the features of the Linux desktop.

Getting users to adapt to using Linux was therefore a little tricky as this had more to do with individual preferences. However, Seah pointed out that one can customize a desktop Linux to behave like a Windows machine these days, so users wouldn't feel too much of a difference when working with Linux.

As part of its backup plan, Seah said the company set aside one Windows NT workstation for applications running Windows only.

Other alternatives
One of the benefits of working with open-source software is that it allows small companies to deploy various software that was previously only available to bigger companies, said Seah.

"When we were first looking at deploying IT in our company... ERP, CRM, groupware, helpdesk management, HR application, identity management were all desirable. However, an ERP application alone cost somewhere between RM150,000 (US$39,645) to RM300,000 (US$79,290)," he said. "Furthermore, most of these SMI (small and medium-sized industry) solutions came with limitations on scalability and usability. "If I were to take the sum of open source software we deployed and compare to comparable commercial solutions, the bill would run into millions. That is a significant investment for a company of our size," he said.

Seah also pointed out that few vendors would provide a customized solution without significant cost and there are no source codes. "With open source, we keep the source code. There are no features that were blocked because we didn't pay enough. All the features were there for us to explore."

However, he cautioned that implementing open-source software in an organization is not the same as implementing proprietary software. "Due to lack of commercial support locally, a company has to learn on how to implement open-source software on their own," he said, adding however that one can find answers to most common problems online.

Currently, the company is using Novell's SuSe Linux Enterprise 9 in most of its mission critical servers such as the database and transaction server. "We are evaluating Novell Open Enterprise Server to see if it will solve some of our longstanding issues and reduce support cost," he revealed.

Change for the good
Despite the challenges, Polyscientific Enterprise has no regrets in making the move to open source. "Firstly, we were able to make a lot of modifications and customization to business applications we used. This is extremely important as each company has a different business process and a different way of doing things. It is very different with most proprietary solutions where vendor often tried to convince a customer with some so-called 'industries best practices," Seah explained.

He also takes comfort knowing that all modifications are possible because open-source software do have some level of documentation.

The company was also able to merge multiple applications together to gain better business intelligence using open-source Online Analytical Processing (OLAP) tools, as well as modify the authentication mechanism of applications to talk to OpenLDAP (Lightweight Directory Access Protocol ) so as to provide a rudimentary identity management solution.

Not being tied to a particular vendor was a benefit, too. "We had more flexibility as we did not have to worry about additional licensing each time we needed an extra machine to do testing and staging," said Seah.

But beyond the price tag and technology benefits, Seah said that open-source enables SMBs like Polyscientific Enterprise to deploy technology applications that not only meet their needs but are traditionally available to larger companies only.

"It seems the rugged road to open source has been well worth it," Seah added.

Cordelia Lee is a freelance IT journalist based in Malaysia.