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The Wrong Choice: Two true tales of misspent energy, cash

Two enterprises struggle with a proprietary purchase and quickly learn they made wrong choices.

Why do businesses buy very expensive proprietary products when inexpensive open-source alternatives exist? That question troubles Tony Mancill, who worked for two companies that did just that and, in doing so, as he relates in this story, made the wrong choices.

"It's amazing to me how frequently technology decisions are based upon corporate dogma instead of true cost of ownership or superior technical functionality," said Mancill, a volunteer developer for Debian GNU/Linux and author of Linux Routers: A Primer for Network Administrators, from Prentice Hall PTR.

Mancill once worked for a company that had been struggling with implementing Tivoli as a comprehensive server monitoring system. It became clear the deployment deadline wouldn't be met. So "to get something out there watching the servers, we quickly set up NetSaint [which is now called Nagios]," he said.

It only took a few days to set up NetSaint to monitor the basic functions of more than 150 servers. The IT team was easily able to interface NetSaint with the existing notification environment, qpage, which provided functions such as escalation paging and event handling. The latter involves taking a predetermined action to a specific system condition, such as compressing old log files. Extending NetSaint to monitor proprietary software packages was easy, too, Mancill said.

"Fairly quickly, it became clear that continuing to deploy Tivoli was merely necessary for corporate compliance and that all of the real monitoring and event handling would take place with NetSaint," Mancill said.

While the Tivoli implementation trudged on at a toad-like pace, the IT team set up two other open-source software programs, MySQL and rrdtool, to produce hourly, daily, weekly and monthly graphs of key server health indicators. This data helped them identify usage and capacity trends.

The open-source software was better equipped for the task and could be deployed more quickly, but the corporation's decision makers required that the IT team go with Tivoli. The executives went with what they considered "the industry standard," Mancill said.

"Oh yeah," Mancill added. "None of the components of the NetSaint solution costs a dime."

In a recent project of Mancill's, another corporation had chosen an "industry-standard" platform, Sun's Solaris running on SPARC processors. When the decision was made to use Solaris -- not so many years ago -- "Linux wasn't perceived as an option," Mancill said.

It quickly became an option when the time came to upgrade the Solaris SPARC system to handle the company's and the IT systems' growth. The business needed to accommodate more hits on its Web server and expand disk space for its Oracle database.

Instead of upgrading, the IT team was able to switch out everything with lower initial and ongoing costs. "As it turned out, we could purchase all new x86-based Linux hardware for less than the cost of upgrading the existing Sun hardware," Mancill said. "Furthermore, the yearly maintenance costs for the x86 environment were less."

The IT team migrated a Web server application from a Solaris SPARC platform to Linux. The application was Oracle- and Apache/mod_perl-based from the start, so no porting was necessary, Mancill said.

Besides lowering costs, the switch made life easier for the company's developers, Mancill said. They can now take any PC and build a development environment almost identical to the production environment, which increased their productivity.

In this instance, Linux could have been used from the start, and the company and its IT shop wished it had been.

Mancill has been involved in scenarios like this many times. New functionality is needed, and an existing application has to be retrofitted. "When you're faced with the time and expense of moving from Proprietary A to Proprietary B, it makes sense to see whether open-source software can provide that same functionality," he said. Because most open-source software is based upon open standards and written to fill functionality gaps left by proprietary offerings, conversion from Proprietary A to open-source can be easier than the conversion to another proprietary product.

Once an IT shop and its corporate decision makers discover this for themselves, Mancill said, they'll rarely find themselves locked in to one vendor's product.

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