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How one bank found a perfect balance for Linux and Windows

Here's how one network engineer strikes a balance between Linux and Windows. Kerry Miller finds the right spot for both at First Victoria National Bank in Texas.

VICTORIA, Texas -- In the construction business, the catch phase is "the right tool for the job." For Kerry Miller, it applies to the banking business too.

Miller is a big fan of Linux, but he knows it isn't right for everything. When he does deem it the right tool, it's doing the job just fine for First Victoria National Bank, a 140-year-old, $1-billion-and-growing institution based here in south Texas. "I'm not a Microsoft hater," says Miller, a network engineer and PC services manager for the bank. "I just believe in the right tool at the right time."

Microsoft products, such as Office and SQL Server, have their place at First Victoria, as does a proprietary banking application running on an IBM AS/400 server. But, Linux is in the background for all of the bank's 500 users.

"Only about 15% of the servers are on Linux," he says. "But the work is pretty important, supporting 100% of the users. It's not that we have a lot of Linux boxes, it's that the Linux boxes are in pretty strategic spots."

Linux servers, about half of which are Intel-based Penguin Computing Inc. machines, support such key applications as e-mail, DNS, intrusion detection and spam filtering. The spam filtering system is set up in front of the e-mail system and takes a heavy beating in terms of traffic. "And we never have to touch it," Miller says.

It's the e-mail system that Miller holds up as the company's greatest Linux success. Three years ago, First Victoria was running IBM Lotus Domino on a Windows NT 4.0 platform. It crashed -- a lot. There was plenty of downtime with crashes requiring reboots on an average of once a week. The IT staff would reboot it on weekends, hoping to get it through the following week.

Victoria National moved Domino to Penguin boxes running Red Hat Inc.'s Fedora Core 4.0. That gave them file layouts similar to other Red Hat distributions used on other bank systems.

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During those three years, the bank's user base has almost doubled as the institution has grown through acquisition and construction of new branches. While the bank hasn't measured the return on investment for its Linux strategy, Miller says, "Under NT it was taking a lot of support in the form of our staff and outside vendors. Now, it just sits there and hums, and nobody touches it unless we have to add users."

Miller sees Linux as a key tool in supporting future growth because of its ability to scale and handle special applications, such as a routing program that a staff member developed to take on some tasks normally run by the bank's Cisco Systems Inc. routers.

Linux still isn't right for everything at the bank, particularly at the client level. The server side of Linux is ready for the enterprise, Miller notes, not the client: "It's not really a problem with Linux, per se, as much as it is a problem with applications or compatibility," he says. "As long as you are stuck with something like Office, you might as well go with it rather than trying to make it work with Linux."

First Victoria runs its Office applications in a thin-client environment under the Citrix Systems Inc., MetaFrame 3, which is now being upgraded to MetaFrame Presentation Server 4.0. Most of the Windows servers run Windows Server 2003.

One environment Miller would like to test on the Linux platform with virtualization is Microsoft SQL Server, but he hasn't had an opportunity. Like many organizations, the bank has seen an explosion of SQL Server-based user applications, and he would like to see those consolidated.

Of his Linux-based servers, Miller says, "One of the big things for me is that I can set one up, and once I get it tuned and running, I never have to touch it. I can patch it remotely, and they just seem a lot easier to patch, too."

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