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University moves toward open source despite some resistance

The University of Southern Florida's health sciences department has been a roller coaster ride of Linux and Windows, but system administrator John Scott has managed to convert the health services center into a beacon of openness in an otherwise pro-Windows world.

Systems administrators fighting tooth and nail for open source in their own all-Windows shops would be wise to look to John Scott for a little inspiration.

For the past few years Scott, a systems administrator at the University of Southern Florida (USF) in Tampa, has been battling an institutional mindset to get Windows out and Linux in as part of his plan to save money on licensing costs, lost time through server consolidation and maybe even his own sanity.

In his office in USF's department of health and human services, Scott has managed to get Linux and open source applications like Apache Web Server and MySQL into areas where they work best while retaining a few Windows boxes and desktops for applications that simply do not work with Linux.

Scott has gotten Linux to run on a variety of Intel servers with the help of an IT staff that consists of one other full-time manager and a handful of students who come and go with each semester.

The majority of the campus is saturated with open source, while the health sciences wing is Windows only -- except for Scott, who has carved out a slice of Linux for his department. Scott said his superiors are still convinced that applications work best when running on Windows operating systems, so what has been done with Linux has been done largely through his own volition. "To say there was and is resistance would be accurate," Scott said.

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The resistance came as the result of a push toward Microsoft's Active Directory technology by the office of the vice president of USF health sciences. Active Directory is Microsoft's directory service. Like other directory services, such as Novell Directory Services, it is a centralized and standardized system that automates network management of user data, security and distributed resources, and enables interoperation with other directories. Staff members in that office were apprehensive about going with any technology that did not interact with Active Directory.

The debate at USF over Linux began roughly two years ago and continues today -- even as the benefits in the switch to Linux and open source in Scott's department have become readily apparent.

"We don't have to run a whole lot of servers today," Scott said. "We were able to consolidate them by moving to Linux down to one or two servers. My server room is a bit cooler and quieter because of it," said Scott, adding that it can also be run by fewer people.

By moving to Linux, Scott was able to strip out his applications that required one server each -- like Windows, a file server for Windows and SQL Server. The consolidated infrastructure set up today also allows for less training time with the students who assist in the lab.

Scott has not been completely consumed by Linux zealotry. He did not strip out Windows in places like the department library, where the cataloguing software still works most efficiently with that operating system. He kept a scattering of Windows desktops that some employees within the department still use with a program called EndNote, which does not work properly with the Linux Terminal Server Project that Scott has installed.

But the instances where only Windows works best are becoming rare, said Scott, adding that he has gotten every component of LAMP running in his shop without incident. LAMP is an open source software stack consisting of Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP/Python/Perl.

Scott is also running a series of other applications on Linux, including tape backup, a support database, Citrix NFuse via Tomcat, some printing, his personal desktop, the web server, Nagios and a reverse proxy for off-campus access to resources via the Web.

There are still a few applications running on Windows that have no Linux alternative, even if Scott wanted one, including some file sharing and a cost-recovery printing application called Pharos UniPrint. Scott said he plans on starting his own open source project this summer that will eventually replace those.

Acknowledging the competition that has developed among proprietary vendors and open source ones, Scott said that Red Hat has approached him with "a killer deal" that is as good as a Microsoft education discount but without the licensing costs.

Scott said he will probably remain a loyal Novell customer and upgrade to version 10.0, but he added that the Red Hat offer was tempting.

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