Linux for Suits - Migration Stories

Telling Doc about your IT department's Linux plans means risking your job. That's not stopping these two. What's the Big Secret that Management wants to keep quiet?

Marc Andreessen says, “All the significant trends start with technologists.” If you want to know about migration from Microsoft Windows to Linux, your best stories aren't going to come from big vendors on either side, or even from CIOs. They'll come from the technologists clearing paths to their own favorite mousetraps.

Take Tyler and Dash, both from the IT department of a credit union in the Bay area of California. Together they comprise two-fifths of the the full-time IT staff. Both also are brave members of a rare breed: IT staffers whose bosses let them talk to the press. For every IT staffer with the right to talk, there are 50 or more whose jobs depend on staying mum. In fact, one IT guy I quoted on these pages last year recently told me he came within a hair's breadth of being fired for letting the world in on the Big Secret that his company was doing what approximately every other member of the Fortune 500 was also doing with Linux and open source.

I met Tyler and Dash at Apachecon in fall 2004, over breakfast with a bunch of other technologists, all with stories to tell. The major thread was migration. Because I'm always interested in stories about how Linux helps make smart companies smarter, I pressed for more. To my surprise, they were glad to give it.

About his work, Tyler said, “I'm a tech specialist. I do Perl, system administration, desktop support, whatever it takes. I also work with outside consultants on dirty work we don't want to do.” Dash described his job as “developer”, adding “I work on our in-house document management server, which is core infrastructure at a savings institution like ours.”

Dash brought the first Linux box—a public Web server—to the company. “Windows DNS and DHCP servers went out the door. Now we run ISC BIND to manage that infrastructure. Next step will be directory servers. We're looking at all the LDAP directories, commercial and noncommercial.”

“Generally we're inclined to roll our own solutions”, Tyler added.

When asked what precipitated their migration, Tyler said:

We had a number of good reasons for moving off Windows and other proprietary systems. We didn't want to sign NDAs or pay for round after round of licensing costs. We wanted open development and deployment environments. We were looking for more freedom and independence. So we made a commitment to convert to Linux and open source everywhere it made sense.

The big issue for us is compatibility everywhere. We have Windows desktops. Mac desktops. What's stopping us now are applications from vendors that use things like Microsoft Access Engine. WINE doesn't support that very well, yet. We're looking at Graphon. That way we can run a Windows server with Graphon loaded, serving applications out to a Linux terminal, thin client style. Right now we're running full clients on the teller stations. In the long run we'll have thin Linux clients everywhere that's customer-facing. We'll have the fat clients in the back office.

As with many other enterprises, “Microsoft Exchange is a big hang-up.” But, unlike many other enterprises, these guys are eager to find alternatives. Two candidates are Groupwise and Scalix, but they say they're “open to anything”.

When I asked for specifics about their server and client platforms, Tyler said, “Our Linux servers run Gentoo. We like Debian but it's releasing too slow. Gentoo is conservative, but it's current. Our personal machines are G5s running OS X, because it's UNIX. We live in a bash shell.”

One surprising statement: “There's a knowledge gap in Windows. Management is easier now, because everybody knows how to manage UNIX machines.”

A core issue from the start of Dash and Tyler's migration project has been document management. They wanted to migrate off their proprietary document management server, Dash said, “by whatever means”. The means chosen were pure Do-It-Yourself IT (DIY-IT):

We have quite a range of docs to manage: plain-text files. Scanned documents. Customer identification. We used to run something on NT Server and SQL Server. Not much flexibility there. We had to buy licenses and the client was a pain in the butt to administer. We were totally limited to what our reseller said we could work with. Disaster recovery was very difficult, especially from a cost point. You could spend the equivalent of a hundred thousand dollars just trying to fix the mess.

So we decided to start off small, with a few key features in our set. We wanted an open, Web-based app, and to operate in a browser. All HTML, almost no JavaScript, XHTML 1-compliant, with CSS (Cascading Style Sheets). As simple and cross-platform as possible, with PHP and MySQL on the back end. We started off with Linux and Mozilla as a test bed. Then we tested with Windows, using Mozilla, then with Mac and Safari. Then with Firefox on everything. The result works pretty well.

At Apachecon, I also met with Jon Walker, cofounder and CTO of Versora (versora.com), a small company from Santa Barbara, California. Versora went into business about a year ago to meet what Jon called “the demand for Windows-to-Linux migration”.

When I asked him what was driving that market, he said, “It's hard to beat zero as a licensing cost, just for starters.” He's optimistic about the company's prospects. “Given the economic appeal alone, we figure the market will be huge.”

Versora currently offers two migration products. The first is ProgressionWeb, for migrating from IIS to Apache. Among other things, it allows customers to continue running ASP (Active Server Pages, or .asp) on Apache servers. The second is ProgressionDB, announced at LinuxWorld in February 2004. ProgressionDB helps customers migrate from Microsoft SQL Server to open-source databases such as MySQL, PostgreSQL and Ingres.

In fact, Jon said Versora is hoping to win the Ingress Challenge, which will award $1 million to “the members of the Open Source community that develop applications to convert, transform and migrate data and applications from the selected databases [Oracle, Microsoft SQL Server, et al.] to the Ingres database”. (The contest closes in February 2005, with winners announced in April 2005.) Jon, a 6' 9" former varsity college basketball player, is a competitive guy with a quiet confidence about his company's abilities. I'm not sure I'd want to bet against him.

On the other hand, I'd be willing to bet against any market for Linux-to-Windows migration.

Doc Searls is senior editor of Linux Journal.

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Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal

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