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An experiment with Linux

Justin Smith thinks in practical terms. As CTO of Guilford County Government in North Carolina, budgetary concerns were the driving force in his considering Open Source technologies. Smith saved an estimated $27,000 a year by replacing two servers on the edge of his network, and began to train his staff for future Linux deployments.

Taking the Plunge

Smith was already using some Linux in the environment for non-critical systems. They were running a Linux-based backup system for an Oracle database and operated a Web cam (a video camera connected to the network) on a Linux server, but they were nervous about expanding into more critical functions.

As the economy got worse, the budget drove them to look seriously at cost-cutting measures. Smith had been already been thinking about Linux for some time. When his support contract for SurfControl (a proprietary Web proxy, Web content filter, and spam filter) was up for renewal, Smith looked for a way to replace it with Open Source. He and his staff began an informal discussion about the ROI of using Linux for the task. They decided that it was a no-brainer since they could end up saving a significant amount, especially on the proxy and filter software. Smith was convinced that Linux could replace their current system, but he needed to show a proof-of-concept. Smith took advantage of leftover money at the end of the budget cycle to find out if Linux would work as well. That way he'd get his proof-of-concept, but he didn't have to give up part of his budget in case it didn't work.

Smith successfully replaced the Windows-based SurfControl server with SquidGuard and SpamAssassin (Web content and spam filters) on Linux. They chose to target the Web proxy as the first production system to move to Linux because they were having a few problems with the product and weren't getting timely support from the vendor. Given how much he paid for the support contract for SurfControl, Smith just didn't think he was getting a good deal for the money. After the conversion, they found that performance was better with the new system as well.

The second production system they targeted was the Sendmail relay and spam filter. By using SpamAssassin on Linux, Smith was able to remove the SurfControl product from two separate servers. His support contract for the Windows-based Sendmail relay was expensive, so Smith was glad to be able to drop it, too.

Smith found that support was less expensive and more timely from a local consulting company that specialized in Open Source products. That company introduced him to an inexpensive high-availability service on Linux servers. For not much more than the cost of the hardware, they were able to set up both servers with a redundancy system using Heartbeat, Open Source software used to set up a failover service. The previous systems didn't have failover capability, so Smith was able to achieve a level of service not previously available.

Guilford County, NC saves about $27,000 a year with just two Internet infrastructure migration projects.

Open Source Products Used:

  • Red Hat Linux servers
  • Squid/SquidGuard
  • Sendmail
  • SpamAssassin
  • Heartbeat for failover control

The Savings

The cost savings is a big win for Guilford County. Smith estimates that they saved $12,500 a year for the proxy server, and $15,000 a year for the mail server. Most of this savings came from replacing expensive proprietary products and support, and the rest from replacing Windows on the servers. The Open Source products they chose are all available at no cost, so the only expense was the consulting fees for deploying and support. Overall, it added up to about $27,000 a year for two Internet infrastructure projects.

Getting Help

Smith had Unix experience on staff, and he had light Linux experience himself. Expert support for any potential migration was an issue for Smith, and he needed to know that he would have the help required to ensure a smooth transition. He hired a consulting company to research software, do the deployment, and provide support, taking pressure off the IT staff. They didn't have to have in-depth knowledge to maintain the systems on a daily basis, and could learn from the consultants who did the deployment and provided support.

Smith believes that some local government organizations may have more Linux experience already, and may be able to do their own proof-of-concepts. It all depends on the amount of time you have available and staff skills.

A Smooth Transition

The transition was actually smoother than Smith expected. He had an idea of what to use as replacement software, but he depended on the consultant to make sound recommendations. The only thing Guilford County's 2,000 users noticed was a slightly different error message when they tried to reach a Web site that was blocked. The Web content filter took a little time to get adjusted properly, since the public health workers need access to sites that most corporations would block, such as information about illegal drugs. Once the settings were right, Smith's staff found administration a breeze.

Sanctioned for Government Use

In 2003, the chief information officer of the U.S. Department of Defense issued an agency-wide memo sanctioning the use of Open Source for department systems. Word of the memo circulated in the local government IT community, and Smith thinks that it's likely to make a difference in the rate of Open Source adoption for departments like his. "We'll see a more rapid adoption in government at all levels now. The DOD statement means that Open Source is taken more seriously in government in general, and now you don't have to worry about being an outcast since it's been officially approved."

Smith's advice to his peers is to look for where it makes sense to deploy in your particular environment. "I'm not for one operating system over another. I just want everything to work smoothly. You have to know your environment, and you have to judge where it will make sense for you."

[Excerpted from The Practical Manager's Guide to Open Source, Lulu Press]

More Stories By Maria Winslow

Maria Winslow is the author of The Practical Manager's Guide to Open Source, available at http://www.lulu.com/practicalGuide and can be contacted at [email protected]

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