DIY-IT: How Linux and Open Source Are Bringing Do-It-Yourself to Information Technology

Follow the conventional IT media and you'll miss the new level of self-reliance and participation in Linux at companies large and small. Executives from Ernie Ball, Morgan Stanley and Ticketmaster explain the shift to “do-it-yourself”.
The Networked IT World

Trying to imagine a civilized corporate or governmental organization today that is not sustained by the Net, and therefore also by open-source software, is almost impossible. Organizations everywhere also are coming to recognize that they depend on open-source values as well as open-source talent and code. In just the last year it became clear to governments around the world that their computing infrastructure needed to be built on stuff that is open, that has no secrets. They want to be able to inspect it to make sure it's sound, reliable and open to improvement.

Take Sterling Ball, the leader and namesake of Ernie Ball, the guitar string maker. You can't press SCAN on the car radio without hearing an Ernie Ball string. What makes Sterling Ball an open-source revolutionary isn't his technical chops, it's his independence—his guts. This became evident after Ernie Ball was raided in 2000 by federal marshals as part of an unannounced software audit by the Business Software Alliance (BSA), which found unauthorized “pirated” software on some of Ernie Ball's computers. The BSA still brags about the raid on its Web site. Here's how Sterling Ball described it when I interviewed him at LinuxWorld in August 2003:

A disgruntled ex-employee saw a nail-your-butt opportunity, so he called the BSA. I was sued under federal seal. There was no warning. We were raided at 10 am on a Friday. We were shut down and ordered not to touch our computers. There were armed marshals. Our employees were sitting there going “What's the matter? Is our company criminal? Are we crooks?” Then they sent out press releases....It's coincidental that they always send these out after a business is closed.

We're the number one employer in terms of manufacturing in San Luis Obispo. We're a big fish in a little pond. The headline reads, “Ernie Ball Raided for Piracy”, and the story says, “Company officials unavailable for comment”. Well, no [surprise]. I was at home. And I never say “No comment”. So, when it came time to tell my story, I said, “They came for bear and got squirrel.”

Ernie Ball went to court and paid a fine, but that didn't end the matter:

The worst thing was when Microsoft printed a four-color reproduction of that newspaper article on an executive's desk, sent it to every registered Microsoft user and said “Don't get caught like Ernie Ball—a fine company that found out just how hard it is to stay compliant. Call us. We'll give you a free audit and sell you software at 20% off.” Keep in mind that we already had downloaded the BSA self-auditing software and it didn't work. This was fear-based marketing, with government help.

Sterling Ball didn't get mad or get even—he got out:

Everybody thought I was crazy. The IT people thought they were going to get fired. I said “no”, because I've never seen any greater programming in the world than “You can't do business unless you've got an office suite on your desk.” Hey, I'm talking here at LinuxWorld because I changed my word processor. The solution everybody [at our company] uses is a cocktail of open-source stuff. Nobody showed us how to do it. We had to figure it out ourselves.

Today Ernie Ball's servers run Red Hat Linux. Its desktops are GNOME on thin Sun clients, with applications that run off a Linux server. The company time clock and security software run on Linux. The company e-mail is Ximian's Evolution, and their office suite is OpenOffice.org.

The lesson here isn't about technology. The lesson is about independence, integrity and the courage to break free of mental programming. It's a lesson about the souls of individuals, of organizations and of a marketplace that still thinks vendors are in charge, even though the success of the Net and the Open Source movement prove they are not.

The Cost-Savings Imperative

Breaking free is akin to awakening, and it doesn't happen only for companies the size of Ernie Ball. Take Ticketmaster, for example. Here's Craig McLane again, speaking at LinuxWorld:

We support 8,000 clients in ten countries. In 2002 we sold 95 million tickets through channels that represented over four billion US dollars. This puts us in the top 25 of all retail Web properties—actually number two, between Dell and Amazon. So we're doing a lot of business, but on behalf of other people who have entrusted us with their business.

We have 3,500 outlets, 19 call centers and the Ticketmaster.com Web site, which does about 50% of our business. We also provide box-office solutions. If you've ever purchased a ticket at a box office, that's also a Ticketmaster system, with the same inventory bucket.

Our product and technology organization is the cornerstone of Ticketmaster as a company. We've got 250 people devoted to product and technology in an organization that has about 2,000 full-time employees.

We provide solutions and systems, but we also support those 8,000 clients. In many cases, because of the nature of the business—highly customized, highly variable traffic and all kinds of strange configurations that actually are much different from any other retail businesses—there are no commercial solutions available for what we need to do.

In fact, we are one of the first application service providers: extending the service to thousands of clients, actually writing the code, hosting the system, providing the customer service and charging a fee per unit sold. We have to build high-volume systems for very specific and peculiar businesses. Open source allows us to do [this] as well or better—at least in our experience—at half the price of commercial solutions.

That's why Ticketmaster converted the Ticketmaster.com site primarily to open-source technologies over the course of the last 18 months.

McLane showed a small spreadsheet at this point in the talk (Table 1) that outlined the cost of the company's computing needs in terms of open-source and proprietary options. He continues:

Table 1. Ticketmaster Computing Options

Ticketmaster.comOpen SourceProprietary
400 PC-based systems$1,000,000$1,000,000
Operating system$0$600,000
Web server software$0$120,000
Database software$0$240,000
Total$1,000,000$1,960,000

It's really all about licensing costs. We buy the the same class of machine, same configuration, from the same vendor. But we're using all open-source technologies in these areas, and we pay nothing for licensing. So you can see that we save 50 cents on every dollar we invest and get the same or better performance. And we see better support from the community than we typically get from commercial vendors.

The Web site costs, in hardware and capital development, a couple million bucks. So it's a small fractional part. It doesn't materially change the business from Wall Street's perspective or from the CFO's perspective. But it matters to us because we can use the money that's made available to employ more smart people. And that's really the key.

______________________

Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal

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