Migration news: Windows to Linux, and vice versa

Why did national radio broadcaster Austereo Group and consultancy Coffey International drop Linux for Windows?
Written by David Braue, Contributor

These days, the "revolution" is all about Linux. The word alone has become a catchcry for everything anti-establishment, anti-Bill, and anti-licensing fees. If you listen to the hype, it's being used everywhere, in businesses of all sizes, to do everything but make the coffee.

Just because everybody's using Linux, however, doesn't mean everybody's happy for that fact to be known, as I found recently while looking for potential candidates for this special report about companies that had made the switch from Windows and Linux, and vice versa.

Based on the ongoing enthusiasm about Linux, I presumed it would be simple to find companies just busting to tell how they'd ditched their Microsoft server software and moved onto Linux servers. Everybody's doing it, after all, aren't they?

Unfortunately, only Wotif.com -- a last-minute accommodation Web site due to be listed this year -- was willing to tell its story.

Wotif CIO Paul Young told ZDNet Australia he had concerns about Microsoft SQL Server's ability to scale.

"I was feeling constrained [by the Microsoft path] and one of the large issues I had at the time was SQL Server being able to keep up with the performance that we required out of it.

"Coping with sustained, ongoing growth of the level that we have is no small issue. It's significant, substantial, ongoing growth, and it hasn't changed for five years," Young said.

In terms of migrating from Linux to Windows, we feature two organisations -- national radio broadcaster Austereo, famous for its stations such as 2Day FM, FoxFM, and Triple M, and Coffey International, which provides academic and professional expertise to support environmental and infrastructure projects.

Austereo doesn't need much introduction but in case Coffey doesn't ring a bell, here are some figures to chew on -- last year, Coffey registered a profit of $10 million on the back of $170 million in revenue.

The full story on why these companies chose to migrate, and the business benefits achieved, can be accessed via the tabs above.

In future, we'd like to assess the impact and future of Solaris. If you're in the midst of migrating from Solaris to Linux, or from Solaris to Windows, drop us an e-mail and let us know. We'd love to hear from you for upcoming case studies.







Editor: Fran Foo | Copy Editor: Ella Morton | Design: Brice Lechatellier | Production: Melissa Siu

Austereo Group

  • Industry: Entertainment
  • Employees: 1,000
  • Operations: Sales, marketing, advertising, multimedia, and other business units manage 13 commercial radio stations broadcasting to all mainland capital cities and Newcastle
  • Financials: First half 2006: revenues $128.1 million, profit $38.1 million

Austereo's Windows defection still charting well

Concerns over the stability of Microsoft enterprise applications may have driven it to embrace Linux years ago, but national radio broadcaster Austereo Group is now singing a different tune after growing frustrations with a Microsoft-free environment finally led to a switch in allegiance. David Braue tunes into Austereo's new IT.

Sometimes, the little things slowly eat away at your sensibilities even when everything seems to be working smoothly overall.

For national radio broadcaster Austereo Group, which either manages or co-manages 13 top-rating commercial radio stations including 2Day FM, FoxFM, and Triple M, three years of little things -- including the inability to use BlackBerry handheld e-mail devices, poor identity management, administration difficulties, and a few too many irretrievable e-mails -- eventually became frustrating enough to convince the company to give Microsoft a go.

This time around, things are working much better, with a full range of Microsoft server applications providing a deeply integrated, highly effective IT infrastructure that has significantly improved productivity and transformed information management within the company.

It wasn't always that way at Austereo, which committed to Red Hat Linux years ago after concerns about the stability and security of Microsoft software. Subsequent efforts to build a robust infrastructure on top of Linux saw the company roll out a host of core applications, including HP OpenMail (later supported by Samsung) and Novell ZENworks system management.

This approach worked well enough to support the requirements of the company's 1,000 employees for some time. After three years with Linux, however, Austereo began reconsidering its choice as continued growth in the company led to increasing complexity within its IT strategy -- exposing the limitations of the Linux-based environment in some very painful ways.

For example, remote users struggled to grapple with a virtual private network (VPN) login system that required three different passwords to establish a connection. Furthermore, plans to introduce a customer relationship management (CRM) system floundered after it became clear that integrating CRM with the existing environment was simply going to be too much effort.

Ultimately, it was the failure of a network interface card and a hard drive that taught IT systems manager Ross Forgione just how wide the gap can be between vendor promises and reality. -Restoring and recovering of any messages that may have been deleted took 24 hours-plus," he recalls. -We were assured that there were procedures and processes you could follow to recover down to the individual message, but when it came to reality, it was a lengthy process and an absolute nightmare."

-Importing our network environment and applications onto a new platform required some fairly specific skills," he adds, -and those skills were not abundant within the group. As the business started to grow and we realised we needed to provide additional services to help people accomplish their day-to-day tasks, it became a very obvious and glaring issue."

The new, new Austereo
Fixing that issue took Forgione back to the doors of the same company he had shunned those three years earlier -- yet even he concedes that the Microsoft option -just made more sense". Working with Microsoft consultants, he and his team sat down to map out their future infrastructure and found that their requirements could be easily met using an integrated suite of applications built on top of Windows Server 2003.

After thorough discussions, Austereo committed to a move away from Linux onto an architecture combining Microsoft SharePoint Server, Exchange Server and SQL Server as well as Office 2003 and BlackBerry-related add-ons like the BlackBerry Enterprise Server. It was a hard decision, but even Forgione concedes he was impressed when comparing the company's existing and potential computing environments.

Ross Forgione, Austereo

-I'm probably the hardest sell Microsoft has ever had," he laughs. -I had to decouple myself from my love of open source because of the availability of tools. If something breaks in Linux and you've got the knowledge, you can generally fix it and get it up fairly quickly by yourself."

-The problem was that just one or two people in the group [out of 15 IT staff] could do that, and it was hard finding people who understood that [open source] isn't just about playing with these tools, but delivering something. The moment we switched to Microsoft, the field opened up."

More than a year later, Forgione's excitement about the switch is still tangible. Austereo has been able to consolidate the functionality of seven servers down to just two. A number of employees across the company -- which comprises about one-third marketing, programming, promotions, creative and other teams -- are up and running with BlackBerry handhelds.

Active Directory now manages user identities for VPN and other applications, removing the need for multiple-password logins that were the bane of remote users' existence. A number of SharePoint-based portals are providing -an excellent collaborative environment" that links employees across the company's offices nationwide. And a new 4TB storage area network (SAN), implemented concurrently with the Windows switchover, has simplified the management of the company's core data.

Although he misses some features of ZENworks, Forgione says the new Microsoft Systems Management Server (SMS) environment has been more than capable of helping his staff refocus energy that was often spent on resolving issues with the previous Linux environment -- for example, a nagging bug with OpenMail that was preventing some outgoing e-mails from being read by their recipients.

I'm probably the hardest sell Microsoft has ever had. I had to decouple myself from my love of open source because of the availability of tools.

Ross Forgione, Austereo IT systems manager

-We haven't faced a single one of those problems since we changed platform," Forgione says. -We're seeing efficiencies in our staff utilisation, because we can actually now focus on what we should be doing, and not on just keeping the systems running. That was a key thing for us from a technical point of view. We've even got happy users now, whereas before we were hearing a lot of grumbles."

Confidence for the future
Perhaps the most beneficial aspect of Austereo's new life with Windows is that it has allowed the company to once again plan for the future in ways that were simply impossible in the past.

A growing focus on multimedia development, for example, is likely to be strengthened by the ease with which desktop multimedia tools can be integrated with the Windows back-end. The improved identity management made possible by Active Directory will soon be extended to the company's SAP environment. An increasing number of remote workers are finding that they can keep in touch from anywhere with the new collaborative environment.

Planned integration with the radio stations' digital music management and general administration systems -- -the real pointy end of the triangle", as Forgione calls it -- is expected to further enhance the benefits from the new environment by bringing the company's various operations even more closely together.

It's strange to hear such abject enthusiasm about Microsoft software from an avowed Linux supporter, but Forgione concedes that in the end the company had to go with the right solution for its needs. The new environment -has been an amazing enabler, not just for the IT team but for the actual business itself," he explains.

-It really has opened up doors that were shut, and has helped the IT guys get out of the way of the staff. Staff can now just focus on using their PCs and not having to worry about contacting us as often as they used to, just to do simple things. We've had to build up our confidence in Windows' stability, but we're really at that point where we're quite confident and comfortable with the system's abilities -- not only to be stable, but to be recovered in the event of a failure."






Editor: Fran Foo | Copy Editor: Ella Morton | Design: Brice Lechatellier | Production: Melissa Siu

Coffey International

  • Industry: Consulting
  • Employees: 1,600
  • Operations: Provides academic and professional expertise to support environmental and infrastructure projects, particularly in developing countries
  • Financials: 2005 revenue was $170 million (up 29 percent year on year) while profit was $10.2 million (up 45 percent year on year)

Microsoft offers a stronger brew for Coffey International

Linux may have seemed like the cheaper option, but a switch to Windows has allowed Coffey International consultants to start collaborating in ways that were impossible under Linux. David Braue reports.

Building an infrastructure that's reliable and effective takes time. Few companies know this better than Coffey International, a virtual brains trust that co-ordinates the expertise of consultants in construction, engineering and other disciplines to support physical and social development projects the world over.

It's not an easy mission, and it regularly takes Coffey experts far beyond the walls of the company's 47 Australian offices. Spread across ten business units, those experts consult on projects ranging from post-tsunami redevelopment in Aceh to capital planning projects to improve third-world healthcare.

Demand for the company's services is so high that, fuelled by acquisition and natural growth, it has rapidly expanded from 500 to its current level of 1,600 people over the past three years. Supporting their needs with appropriate IT is the job of Clive Parsons, who joined the company as CIO a year ago with the mandate to revisit the company's ailing architecture and to plan a more flexible technological path.

The problems with Coffey's previous infrastructure, introduced in 1999 and built around Mandrake Linux, were immediately evident, says Parsons. -Coffey had become aware that they weren't delivering what they needed to deliver, and were growing faster than their infrastructure could cope," he explains.

-The way they set up their Linux-based infrastructure had promoted the silo mentality; information wasn't stored in any sort of intuitive manner, and it wasn't easy to access information across the various geographical areas. If you weren't in the Brisbane office, for example, you couldn't access that information. There was just nothing from the information point of view that was encouraging collaboration."

As well as battling informational disorganisation, the company was also suffering as its long-term employees struggled to keep the environment afloat, much less to continue scaling it up to support the increased volumes that growing employee numbers would have required. That made Linux and open-source software, which when implemented was viewed as a low-cost platform that would slash Coffey's IT costs, more of a hindrance than a help -- and turned it into the prime target for replacement under Parsons' watch.

-They initially thought Linux was going to be a cheaper platform," he says, -but as soon as they started to expand they became aware that the hidden costs of Linux were all over the place -- not only in real dollar terms, but because they weren't using the environment intelligently because of the [limited] skill sets."

Moving away from Linux
Parsons, who came from a mainframe background and professes to have been -ignorant of Microsoft" when he came into the job, recognised the need for the new infrastructure to meet key goals including keeping IT staff numbers low; information mobility to support further workforce expansion; and access to new technologies as they became available.

A -key thing", Parsons adds, was to provide a single supplier environment where finger-pointing could be bypassed for more important and productive problem-solving. Discussions with numerous vendors led him to Microsoft, where he was struck by the way the SharePoint Portal Server 2003 collaboration server was driving development of an application ecosystem that was well-matched to Coffey's own distributed, collaborative environment.

Clive Parsons, Coffey International

-They're gearing everything towards this collaboration platform, and the way these applications are moving towards total integration is extremely attractive to me," says Parsons. -Knowledge needs to be transferred seamlessly and transparently between the organisations."

The next months were filled with a major learning and implementation exercise as Coffey gradually peeled back its Linux infrastructure and implemented a range of Microsoft server applications that Parsons felt would better suit its corporate direction.

After four months, Microsoft Active Directory and Exchange Server 2003 had replaced now-discontinued Linux servers to provide a consistently managed, centralised messaging infrastructure across 20 Coffey offices. -Previously, all the e-mails were effectively stored on the desktops and there was no central location of the data," Parsons explains. -That's a nightmare both because of litigation, and because of duplication across the company and all the problems that duplication brings."

Another key area of focus has been portals, with three types of SharePoint portals currently being implemented to support different user needs. This includes a general information portal for news briefs and general company information; community of practice portals focused on core Coffey consulting areas like hydrogeology, geophysics, HR and others; and project portals that unite members of a project team from anywhere around the world.

This approach not only serves to unite Coffey experts, but makes it easy for project teams to involve individual experts that are often called upon to provide input on complex infrastructure projects.

Such integrated, comprehensive capabilities would have been impossible for the company to implement under Linux, which Parsons says staff were struggling to integrate and keep running. -Some of the guys feel like it's an emancipation from previous issues they had with IT in general," he explains.

-If we were going to stay in the Linux/Unix area, we would have needed systems integration staff to continually monitor how to keep it working. I don't want our staff looking backwards; I want them looking forward, and Microsoft applications are allowing that."

A wealth of benefits
Strong user support for the new environment has validated Parsons' initial feeling. Users are more comfortable with the environment, while accessibility of information means executives -are feeling much more confident" about continuing to expand Coffey's business in new ways.

If we were going to stay in the Linux/Unix area, we would have needed systems integration staff to continually monitor how to keep it working. I don't want our staff looking backwards...

Clive Parsons, Coffey International CIO

Parsons is now staring down implementation of ERP software Epicor for Service Enterprises, which will build on the framework now in place to provide an integrated business system. -We've specifically chosen a company that partners with Microsoft and integrates with SharePoint to allow some of our more high-end functionality to be deployed," says Parsons. -Before, in the Linux environment, that simply would not have been possible."

Costs are down, too: just 11 IT staff now support 1,600 Windows employees and a data centre that has been consolidated down to 24 Dell PowerEdge 1855 blade servers. Consolidated licensing agreements have reduced the cost and complexity of licence management, to the point that Parsons estimates the new environment has required just 30 percent of the investment that would have been necessary had the company continued with Linux.

Training has been less onerous than in the previous environment, since all users are already used to doing things the Windows way. -Because it's a Microsoft front end, there's very little training required for them to understand how to use it," says Parsons, adding that finding information has also become faster.

The biggest value from the migration, however, has been the soft benefits that -- even as the project continues to grow in breadth and capability -- continue to change the way the company operates.

-We're starting to see cross-group collaborations on a scale that we've never seen before, with communities of practice across the entire group rather than one office," Parsons explains. -Engineers are talking at a groupwide level about methods of communication that would never have happened in the past, and project managers are interested across the group in projects they would otherwise never have been aware of. It's great to see the organisation embracing what's going on."






Editor: Fran Foo | Copy Editor: Ella Morton | Design: Brice Lechatellier | Production: Melissa Siu


  • Industry: Travel
  • Employees: 126
  • Operations: Online operation provides booking services for more than 6,000 hotels, motels, serviced apartments and other accommodation in 36 countries. Offices in Brisbane, Toronto, Auckland, Singapore and London
  • Financials: Privately held

Wotif.com: When big ideas get even bigger

Wotif.com began to tear the Windows envelope to bits shortly into its explosive life; four years later, an alternative 64-bit Linux infrastructure is still keeping up with the fast-growing company. David Braue explains how.

Born in the heady days of the dotcom boom, Wotif.com statistically had little more than a snowball's chance of still being around five years later. After coming onboard to helm the year-old company's IT strategy in 2002, however, CIO Paul Young found that the problem was not its viability -- growing market demand had taken care of that -- but its core Microsoft technology, which was already showing signs of strain from fast-growing visitor numbers.

As was the habit in those days, the Brisbane-based company's original Web site was built around a slew of Microsoft technologies including, most importantly, Windows 2000 and SQL Server. This may have suited its initial design, but Young says from the moment he began with the company it was clear that the environment was struggling to keep up with traffic volumes that were increasing at 100 percent per year.

-I was feeling constrained [by the Microsoft path] and one of the large issues I had at the time was SQL Server being able to keep up with the performance that we required out of it," he explains. -Coping with sustained, ongoing growth of the level that we have is no small issue. It's significant, substantial, ongoing growth, and it hasn't changed for five years."

Turning that innovative culture into real results was the only way for the company to build a scalable infrastructure that would support what is now nearly 370,000 subscribers, 2 million user sessions and 110,000 bookings every month.

Even when these numbers were just projections on a whiteboard, Young believed the flexibility afforded by a more open Linux infrastructure would make it an ideal alternative to the struggling Microsoft servers. -We're a very innovative, quick moving company and some of the reasons behind our decisions were to not be bound into doing things the way proprietary solutions lock you in."

Shortly into his tenure, the development-focused company migrated from its previous architecture to build its core applications around the more open J2EE 1.5 development platform (renamed Java EE 5), supported by Red Hat Enterprise Linux AS servers and Oracle10g Standard Edition database.

Making the switch
Not all Wotif executives shared Young's enthusiasm for the switch.

-There was a lot of doubt about it and we were early adopters of this for a commercial entity," he recalls. -But the CIO's drive is to politically go in and be able to educate, and to get buy-in on these kinds of decisions. We did a very critical pilot for them around a critical piece of functionality for the Web site, and proved that we could get a very highly scalable app out of it." Numbers don't lie, and the pilot test confirmed that a Linux-based infrastructure, running an Oracle database, would increase headroom for the system -by about 1,000 percent", Young says.

Choosing the new operating system and database platform was only part of the change, however: Young's reforms also included the creation of a more framework-driven development methodology, building on agile development techniques to iteratively develop and test the company's core J2EE applications throughout their lifecycle.

Paul Young, Wotif.com CIO

Endemic to this approach was the construction of a fully featured test environment where Wotif's 18 developers could automatically simulate the influx of thousands of database requests per second against code in development. With testing a core part of the development approach, the rules are clear: applications must pass all the tests thrown at them, and meet all relevant benchmarks, before they can be released.

True to its performance in initial tests, the Linux and Oracle-based system continued to scale along with Wotif's business for a couple of years. By 2004, however, Young's team was already looking at tapping into new 64-bit processors to open up even more growth possibilities for the company's systems.

Here, again, rigorous testing and benchmarking confirmed the best way forward for the company: recently released 4-way x86-compatible Sun Microsystems Sun Fire V40z servers, based on 64-bit AMD Opteron processors, offered linear scalability that Wotif testing confirmed put them far ahead of the decreasing performance returns seen from Intel's competing Itanium processors.

With performance a key factor in the company's planning, the decision to move to the V40z servers was made quickly; never mind that the CPUs had only been out for a few weeks and weren't yet supported in available operating systems.

In a Microsoft environment, Wotif would have had to wait nearly a year, until Microsoft's release of 64-bit Windows, to build on the new server platform. However, it took the Linux community just a few weeks to offer support for the processor in a subsequent release of the Linux kernel. Wotif installed and tested the new kernel and, finding it performed as promised, went right ahead with what turned out to be a quick and painless migration to the new server platform.

A community for the future
Wotif's strong adherence to plain-vanilla J2EE development was critical in easing the move from Red Hat Linux on 32-bit Intel servers, to the same operating system running on 64-bit AMD-based systems. Having avoided hardware and operating system-specific functionality, the application was easily portable to the new environment.

-Most of our applications run in Java, and I don't like to leverage off sophisticated, hardly used features of Solaris or Linux," Young says. -I think hardware and the operating system are starting to become an abstraction at the enterprise level; as long as I've got an operating system that will support Java, I'm set."

The pilot test confirmed that a Linux-based infrastructure, running an Oracle database, would increase headroom for the system by about 1,000 percent.

Paul Young, Wotif.com CIO

Relying on a community of interested technophiles to produce major code upgrades may not seem like every CIO's idea of a solid risk management strategy, but Young says time has shown that the Linux community's overall reliability, constant self-examination and the broad availability of relevant skills make the strategy viable.

-I'm a results-driven person, and basically we're not waiting a year for a version of software that we can run on bleeding-edge hardware," he explains.

-I've found that most of the really top-notch Java developers have a Linux background, and they're used to things like open source and open standards. It's a culture of bleeding-edge technology: due to the open source community and the amazing amount of contributors out there, [upgrades are] available in short burst increments and it's a very short time to get new enhancements. Bugs and issues tend to get addressed quite quickly; this is one of the defining differences that Linux offers."

Years down the road, Wotif.com has turned Linux into a competitive advantage by clearing a more open, scalable path for itself. The server environment now includes a dozen primary servers and another dozen mirrored servers that are used for development and testing.

Parsons and his team recently completed a scalability plan that will take the architecture forward for the next five to ten years -- and he couldn't be more optimistic about the future.

The future growth -is very exciting and completely supported by the decisions we took to be open standards, Linux, open source and agile development based," he says. -You know you've chosen a good strategy when you look into the future and don't see any significant roadblocks of a technological nature in front of you. The TCO story for Linux is excellent and, for me, the story just keeps on improving."






Editor: Fran Foo | Copy Editor: Ella Morton | Design: Brice Lechatellier | Production: Melissa Siu

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