Two years ago I was working as VP of R&D for a large telemarketing company. My job involved building and managing very large databases, primarily for the purpose of target marketing. We were spending an arm and a leg on software licenses in the R&D shop and another arm and leg on additional software elsewhere in the company. Although we did some things well, our expensive software was still not providing managers with the information necessary to make sound business decisions. For example, we were too late with information on profitable and nonprofitable campaigns, and we never did have good data on cash flow. I left that company after our R&D office was closed, disappointed that some good work went down the drain. I was also frustrated by the lack of software solutions for the company's basic business problems—and with just a hint of understanding of the board's unhappiness with how much our software licenses were costing.
After a few months of private consulting in database design, I was invited to a job interview by the CEO of a medium-sized manufacturing company named Action Target. (Action Target is in the business of manufacturing and installing target equipment and shooting ranges.) I was shocked at what I discovered. The CEO (an electrical engineer with an entrepreneurial bent) had the whole place running on Linux. Every single user, from sales, shipping and purchasing to production, engineering and accounting, worked on a Linux workstation, most of which were diskless. These workstations were served from a group of servers, which included a web server, a database server and collection of application servers. The application servers hosted all home directories in addition to the applications. The applications were mostly of the open-source or free variety, such as StarOffice, Netscape and TGIF, but also included a few proprietary applications, like Applix. The database server hosted PostgreSQL. Networking was accomplished via NFS between the servers, and the diskless machines were networked via bootp to the application servers.
What I discovered next shocked me even more. Not only was the whole place running Linux, but the CEO had written his own ERP (enterprise resource planning) application. He told me that he had investigated several other solutions, but they were all expensive, ran on expensive and proprietary RDBMSes and, most importantly, did not permit full customization. Therefore, he explained, he decided to write his own. The front-end tool he chose was Wylib, which he had coded. Wylib is a group of libraries written using Tcl/Tk. Tcl/Tk is easy to use, platform-independent, can act as a shell and belongs to and is widely accepted in the Open Source community. For the back-end RDBMS, he selected PostgreSQL.
This customized ERP system runs the company. Employees use the system because they can't do their jobs without it. The ERP is based on open-source software and is fully customizable. In order words, if we're not happy with it, we change it. Management estimates that this system has saved the company over $1 million (US) in operation expenses, not to mention the huge savings in software licensing.
After working at this company for a year, recoding the ERP using Wylib and restructuring the database, I've been spun off into my own company, WyattERP. WyattERP's mission is twofold: 1) to show companies how to save money by using open-source software and 2) to show companies how to create an ERP solution using Wylib that is inexpensive and completely suited to the needs of the business.
Wylib and the sample code can be downloaded from the web site, www.wyatt-erp.com. Wylib is open source and distributed under the OPL (Open Public License) agreement. I can be contacted via e-mail through the web site.
It's no news that Linux is finding a home in everything “from household appliances and consumer electronics gadgets to controllers used in aviation, factories and automobiles—application-specific devices”, as Evans Data Corporation (www.evansdata.com) reports. But it is news to discover how high the Linux embedding rate appears to be among those many devices.
In its “Embedded Systems Developer Survey”, Evans Data reports what it calls “a dramatic change in the software content of the microprocessor-controlled devices in the workplace and in our homes”. As a result, the firm predicts a triple increase in Linux-based projects over the next year, which it says is “part of a shift toward commercially available operating systems rather than those developed in-house.”
Tools are an issue. Without giving numbers, the study showed “keen interest in tools and products that can help developers get their projects completed correctly and on time”. Two-thirds of the surveyed developers said many embedded projects are started and never completed, and many more are delivered late.
What is it that developers like about Linux? Just what you'd expect: “Open-source code, royalty-free licensing and a large community of knowledgeable developers were cited as Linux's key benefits.” On the down side, Evans Data reports, “Factors slowing Linux adoption include lack of specific board support packages, availability of device drivers and fragmentation of the code base.”
Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal