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Microsoft's high prices drive FSW to Linux, open source

Microsoft's high costs and pricing policies are driving FSW Inc. into the arms of the open source community. The company's IT director describes how and why FSW switched to Linux and open source apps and to server virtualization and OpenOffice desktops.

High costs and an urgent need for standards compliance is driving FSW Inc. away from Microsoft and into new worlds, such as server virtualization on Linux, an open source and Linux backend and open source desktops.

Joe Foran, IT director, FSW

"Every dollar we spend on a piece of software is a dollar that doesn't go to serve one of our clients," said Joe Foran, IT director for FSW, a Connecticut nonprofit that offers people healthcare and social services. "We found that Microsoft's costs are prohibitive for a non-profit organization."

Foran isn't anti-Microsoft. Last year, however, Microsoft failed to come through for him. FSW's IT group had to find cost-effective ways to comply with standards of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). "Microsoft refused to extend its reduced-price charity licensing to FSW because we have a healthcare component," Foran said. "So, I was forced to find alternatives."

After an exhaustive evaluation and planning marathon, Foran and his team came up with a complete infrastructure makeover. Switching to as many open source and Linux-supporting apps and Linux operating systems as it could was a cornerstone of that plan.

Foran compared the cost --- including total cost of ownership -- of open source and Linux-based alternatives to Microsoft's software and found the latter's pricing tremendously higher across the board. He chose such alternatives as open source Jabber for instant messaging, the open source Liferay Enterprise Portal for the FSW Web site and open source tools such as FreeRADIUS for security.

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Foran led a major migration from Microsoft Exchange to the much cheaper, yet equally capable, CommuniGate Pro from Stalker Software Inc. CommuniGate Pro isn't open source, but it does run on Linux and supports core messaging server features, including group calendaring, e-mail and group tasks.

"We missed the release of [open source] Zimbra, which would have been our choice, by a matter of months," said Foran. None of the many other open source products FSW reviewed last year matched CommuniGate's ease of use and feature set, he noted.

"Today, our entire backend is all open source-based," he said. "All of our network management is done with open source." Only a few Windows-based apps -- such as Microsoft SQL Server and Medisoft Ltd.'s electronic medial records software -- could not be replaced by open source or Linux-based apps.

Using open source and Linux instead of Microsoft and other more costly options helped FSW save $100,000 on the HIPAA project.

During the overhaul, FSW also replaced Novell Inc.'s NetWare 4.11 and 5.0 LAN with an openLDAP backend directory and CentOS4 and Red Hat Fedora Core Linux operating systems with Samba-3 to emulate a Microsoft domain for Windows clients.

This operating system switch was part of the move to server virtualization. FSW ran a decentralized client-server IT environment. "We evaluated cost of ownership and acquisition of software and servers, and it was a no-brainer that virtualized CentOS Linux servers in a centralized IT infrastructure was the way to go," said Foran. "The cost of a non-virtualized network was killing us."

Foran evaluated several virtualization products, including open source Xen, Microsoft Virtual Server and VMware. "We just went through tons of best practice material, tons of research material," Foran said. "I think we must have downloaded and tested just about every product on the planet for infrastructure management.

"We tossed out Microsoft Virtual Server right away. If we're running an entire branch office on a single physical piece of hardware, we don't want to have to reboot it every week."

Although Xen had advantages, it wasn't mature enough for Foran. He found some things he didn't like -- its deployment capabilities and kernel customization requirements.

"We wanted everything to be as generic, out of the box, easy to manage and minimally customized as possible," Foran said. "Xen didn't do this, but VMware fit the bill perfectly."

VMware's disaster recovery offerings sealed the deal. "If this office were to fall into a hole in the earth, VMware would have everything back up and running at a branch office in two hours," said Foran.

With VMware inside servers, FSW reduces the number of servers needed, as multiple applications running on either Linux or Windows can live inside one box. Without virtualization, FSW would have had to put many servers in branch locations, because some applications don't play well with others and have different database backends.

"With virtualization, we no longer have to manage each individual server's hardware," Foran said. "There is some additional overhead in managing virtual machines, switching them between server/server, but that's offset by other savings, like test-and-release software deployment and upgrades."

Currently, FSW's servers are 32-bit, Intel-based Dell Inc. and Hewlett-Packard Co. boxes. Any new servers purchased will be 64-bit and will probably have an HP label. Dell's service has been very reliable, Foran said, but HP's servers have performed better for FSW. Advanced Micro Devices Inc.'s boxes will be evaluated.

The implementation phase of the infrastructure overhaul took four months. The VMware rollout happened in a matter of a few weeks, but database integration ate up loads of time. FSW had been running too many databases, including Microsoft Access and SQL Server, Pervasive Advantage Database Server and others. Foran had to hire outside developers to write hooks for all the databases and centralize them into one customized master database.

"The custom database serves as the non-profit equivalent of ERP [enterprise resource planning] and CRM [customer resource management]," Foran said. "It tracks all the information that we need to report to the state, to our donors and so on, all in a HIPAA security-compliant framework."

Next on the IT makeover agenda is Linux and open source desktops. At this point, any employee who wants to be an early adopter has been given 2.0 on Linux desktops. Then, OpenOffice will be given to employees who do mostly word processing, e-mail and Web browsing. Employees who use complex applications, particularly those in financial or marketing departments, will be the last to be switched and will have access to both Microsoft and Linux desktops.

Foran has used OpenOffice since its 1.0 release. The 2.0 release is a big improvement, he said, with fewer formatting differences from Microsoft Office. "In 1.1 you'd import a Word document, and you didn't know what you were looking at," he said. "In 2.0, it's very slick, and every issue seems to have been resolved, aside from really serious customizations."

The decision to switch to open source alternatives and server virtualization was a risk, but it's paid off well for FSW. Foran sums up why: "We spent the least amount of money possible and still got the enterprise-level infrastructure that our business needs."

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