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Linux in Business: Reporting from the Field

Oct 03, 1999, 20:34 (8 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Tom Adelstein)

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By Tom Adelstein, CIO of Bynari Systems Group

Over the last two months, our principal consultants allowed me to manage two large wide area network migrations from Novell and Microsoft to Linux. Using guerilla migration tactics, we put together a strike force and helped two thinly clad Technology Departments go where no techies had gone before.


One of the early lessons the market taught the people in our call center involved levels of support. We operate a pay-per-incident help desk in the US. Many of us expected a very low ratio of level 1 support to multi-incident level 2 and 3 calls. We found the ratio reversed with Linux. Desktop users tend to need less help than corporate users. Corporate users of Linux deploy web services, messaging environments, firewalls, file, print and application services. The demand we see focuses in the corporate arena. People calling for Level 1 support, often ask us to provide consulting engagements. Through the help of Linux consultants spread around the country, we've provided more consulting services than we originally planned.

One of the major areas in which our clients want support involves project management. Within the project management service area, we see demand for networking and migrations. In listening to our associates in Europe, Fred Mobach and Malcolm Macsween, they reported similar phenomena. In the cases discussed below, our clients surprised us with the amount of preparation they did before we arrived. We also discovered some interesting serendipity about Linux in the enterprise.

Approaching Network Migrations

When someone asks us to manage a project we deploy a set of tools we refer to as "delivery management". Our methodology parallels many consulting firms because several of our staff came from similar environments. For example, we send business analysts to a client site to interview a cross section of the user community and the Technology staff. From these interviews we develop a wide array of delivery management initiatives. With a business case in hand, we then develop a proposal and provide a written offer to the client.

In the early stages of our firm's development, smaller business clients asked for our help. In most of these cases, migrating a handful of computers didn't require extensive delivery management and written documentation. As the size and scope of our projects grew, we began working with more experienced technology staffs on the client's premises. We noticed a significant distinction between small ISPs, law firms, manufacturers and large organizations with vast numbers of users. Take an HMO for example, the resources required for several hundred workstations with differing requirements mean deployment strategies must also differ. Such a client has numerous operating units such as case management, membership services, provider status, triage (emergency services), accounting, home care and so on. One can not service such clients without significant planning and tactical execution.

We've learned a great deal about Linux by working with larger clients. Much of this surprised us. You will find an account of what we discovered on the last large migration we encountered.

The Enterprise Syndrome

As we began the two migrations I supervised, my analysis of the customer's expectations included:

  1. Ease of administration
  2. Multi-platform operations
  3. Lower costs of operations
  4. Reduced support costs
  5. Enhanced application abilities

Frankly, the clients' expectations surprised me. I expected something else from these Technology Departments . I discovered that the clients had done their homework. In every case, the Linux initiative resulted from seeing another network in their industry operating Linux.

One example stands out. The Technology Department at a large University in the Northwest ran Linux as their enterprise platform. A graduate from that school's computer science program invited his new bosses over to see the University running Linux. While asking numerous questions of the system administrators of the school, the client had a peak experience. They discovered Linux in a big way.

Ease of Administration with Linux

One of the two projects involved Novell Netware. I thought that one requirement would be to include Linux in a Netware environment. I expected this from past experience. I did not expect the client to ask for a total migration off of Netware and on to Linux.

I migrated from Novell about the time they demanded all CNE's take the version 4.0 exam to maintain their certifications. So, I had some exposure to "directory services" but I was pretty rusty on the deployment of NDS. While interviewing the head of network operations on one of the Novell projects, he said directory services added to his sleep deprivation. After migrating from Novell 3.12, he said that his world went from simple to chaotic.

The head of network operations mentioned his passion for extracting anything Novell from his environment. I tested him to make sure he wasn't throwing the baby out with the bath water. Then, I discovered how deep seated his displeasure ran. In a few words, he convinced me he wanted to push directory services, client 32 (or Internetworking) and Groupwise out of a plane at 30,000 feet without a parachute.

He had visited three former Novell colleagues with networks running Linux. He attested to hands on experience using TCP/IP with Linux, Samba and netatalk. He convinced me that he wanted the "ease of administering" Linux. I think I had to pinch myself when I heard him speak.

Multi-platform Operations

In both client environments, the one with Novell as well as the Microsoft enterprise, we found Macintosh, Windows 95/98 and one or more UNIX systems on the backbone. People use the term "heterogeneous" to describe such environments. The various platforms use the same ethernet hubs, routers and connections. They co-exist on the same local area network. That doesn't mean that they make friends and play well together.

For example, the NT enterprise model conflicted with the Appletalk zones and peering. The UNIX systems ran specialized client-server applications which demanded emulation on the Windows and Macintosh clients. Configuration of these services and their maintenance demanded specialized expertise. The specialists in Netware didn't necessarily have Windows' expertise and vice versa. The platforms didn't operate well with each other and neither did the staff.

During the course of one of the migrations, we experienced a sample of the conflict within the organization's personnel ranks. One of the Macintosh specialists did not receive an invitation to participate in the project. The head of the Technology Group said that "he" too, didn't play well with others. Over the seven day migration, the Mac guy often burst through the doors with eyes crazed peering into our monitors and asking if we had forgotten to do something that had either little or no application to the tasks involved.

Later, one of the team members told me the Mac guy refused to touch Windows computers. This may sound strange, but the client's operations were unionized. I had not experienced this in technology departments since I work in Texas. Under the staffing contract, he didn't have to work on Windows machines. The final kicker came when another staff member told me Linux fell as an exception to their current contract. That still befuddles me. I think the Union just missed the possibility that anyone would use Linux.

Lower Costs of Operations

We heard a lot of nattering about how licensing created issues with which some Technology Departments found difficulty in coping. I expected our clients to complain about the high cost of licensing from networking operation system manufacturers. They complained less about the licensing costs than they did about the inconvenience of managing the licenses. I heard comments such as "he's running Claris Pro, does he have a license?" Then I heard, "She wants to run Excel, do we have another license to give her?"

When the client with the Novell environment discussed the amount of time spent on licensing issues for 2,000 users, I respected their cost-benefit study. Over the years, I came to consider rights management as just part of the job. It didn't occur to me that this would stir the Technology managers' emotions toward the edge of frustration. He called it "trying to herd cats".

Reduced Support Costs

I must have bought into the "Linux is hard to administer" chatter of those people opposing the "upstart" operating system. Our clients had already isolated the ease of management issues when they built their business cases. Their studies indicated reduction in support costs should occur due to the "straight-forwardness and consistency inherent in UNIX systems administration." You read it correctly. Yes, their studies indicated reduction in support costs should occur due to the "straight-forwardness and consistency inherent in UNIX systems administration."

Several items stick in my mind from reading excerpts from one of the business cases. The cost of training appeared less on a per-person basis with Linux versus other network operating systems. The Linux environments studied by the client and used in their business case indicated substantial reductions in annual support contracts. Response times by the proprietary vendors had degraded since I had last negotiated a service contract with either Novell, Apple or Microsoft, although Apple appeared to guarantee a faster response time than I had remembered.

Our clients used the reduction in the cost of annual support contracts and the "straight forwardness" slash "go it alone" arguments in their business cases. The amounts for 2,000 users ran into the tens of thousands of dollars range. One of the team members commented that they could buy a lot of computer equipment with the dollars saved.

Enhanced Application Abilities

Corporate users of Linux deploy web services, messaging environments, firewalls, file, print and application services. On both migrations we saw an emphasis made on the server side of things. So, we provided our teams several administration tools, including a product known as Cheops.

We found Cheops, an Open Source Network User Interface, at http://www.marko.net/cheops/. The developer designed Cheops to determine the OS for hosts on the network, selecting appropriate icons for each different one. He also describes his product as a network equivalent of a swiss-army knife that unifies network utilities.

Cheops gives the administrator the equivalent of a file manager for a network. It provides the system administrator and the user a tool for locating, accessing, diagnosing, and managing network resources, using point and click graphical navigation.

We demonstrated Cheops and helped configure other applications for network administration accessible through a web browser such as Linuxconf and SWAT. The system administrators and Technology Department personnel had no idea Linux could provide such an array of graphical network applications. I stepped back and watched as one of my associates demonstrated the suite of tools assembled for the client and felt a bit stunned by the impressive capabilities of Linux.

Some Thoughts From the Field

Often, we enter into a project with mental pictures or expectations of how the effort will emerge. On this trip we entered with only a minor idea of the scope of the enterprise. We learned, once again though, that we didn't know what we didn't know. I try to approach most engagements this way, but often I find myself in the unwitting habit of thinking I already know what the client needs. I find a lot of personal benefit from being humbled in this way.

Here's another item to consider. We saw great benefits from working as a team. Each of us brought something to the party that dazzled the others. When the final environment materialized, we saw a feature rich and state of the art operation center we couldn't have visualized before we started. The team work reminded me of the "stone soup" story. I really got to live it.

Another aspect of the engagements opened another port in my brain. I believe as people in industry begin to see the advantages of Linux as a network operating environment, it will become the de facto standard. If people could see what I saw, few could deny the benefits of the platform in the enterprise.

After the final of the two projects, we gathered our materials to head home, when one of the assistant network administrators asked for one last favor. He wanted our help in fine tuning his new Linux desktop -- the one he wanted to use personally. We looked around the NOC and saw he had installed Linux on most of the desktops in the room. As I think back on the migrations, I believe seeing those desktops lined against the wall had to be why I went there in the first place.

Tom Adelstein, CPA, is the CIO/CFO of Bynari, Inc. He's the author of several books and articles on business and technology and has management, consulting and hands-on experience in the Information Technology field.