Linux in Government: Winning in the Big Enterprise Space

by Tom Adelstein

In December 2003, a sound byte in the media mentioned an enterprise alliance, not unlike hundreds we have read in the past. This time, six Linux distributors--Red Hat, SuSE, Miracle Linux, Turbolinux, Red Flag and Conectiva--joined with BakBone Software to form what they called the Linux Advantage. The aim of the alliance was to provide another enterprise move to bolster Linux.

The sound byte had all the trimmings of so many others we have heard before. Peter Eck of BakBone provided the required quote, saying that their product would "aggressively accelerate their Linux adoption plans". Peter Galli of eWeek quoted a senior software engineer and an executive of SuSE. It all looked like another reengineered press release made to sound like a big story. This story would have made Linux stocks jump a few years ago, but in December 2003, it had all the pizazz of a yawn.

So what happened? BakBone winds up grabbing a huge contract win: supporting the new server integration project for the United States Courts. Turns out that the Judiciary started migrating its core applications to HP ProLiant servers running Linux. The internal staff of the courts went looking for a solution to meet its needs and found BakBone, and that recommendation led to the contract award.

The Federal Courts

As recently as August 2003, the Administrative Office of the US Court (AOUSC) was said to provide services to approximately 30,000 federal judges and court staff at approximately 800 sites. The AOUSC, the administrative arm of the federal judicial branch, provides services to the federal courts and judges in the areas of administration, program management and policy development.

At least one of AOUSC's vendors, American Management Systems (AMS), provides the district court financial management solution, Momentum. Momentum runs on Red Hat Enterprise Linux. AMS is reported to have its solution in 94 district courts. AMS said it is the AOUSC's largest financial services vendor.

AOUSC also awarded a $9 million contract in November 2003 to migrate the federal courts national information technology infrastructure to the Linux/Intel platform. That's a fair commitment to a low-cost solution, under the cloud of alleged copyright infringement with not much in the way of indemnification.

AOUSC began moving its case management, finance and accounting, probation, pretrial services and case-tracking management systems to Linux from Solaris, which AOUSC uses on Intel's x86 server architecture. The move from Solaris to Red Hat Enterprise Linux Advance Server seems familiar to other initiatives in global enterprises.

The migration from Solaris/x86 to Linux/x86 will be managed by in-house staff, according a story by Michael S. Mimoso. In his story, Mimoso quoted Karen Redmond as saying "contractual assistance will be used as needed to augment in-house staff in providing additional technical and logistical support for the nationwide transition".

Linux in the Government

Stories of large Linux deployments grab the attention of enthusiasts and people looking for opinion leadership in industry. Few readers gravitate to stories about firms who do the heavy lifting in the enterprise space. Not too long ago, we saw a lot of criticism that Linux was not ready for primetime because it lacked commercial support and maintenance. Then, we saw criticism because Linux lacked commercial applications. As commercial applications arrived, Linux was said to lack enterprise tools. You get the picture.

So what did the US Courts need in order to feel comfortable with Linux as an enterprise solution? They decided they needed an enterprise backup and restoration system that can get everything up and running quickly. AOUSC's in-house staff found one they liked and recommended it to the prime contractor--Titan Corporation, a $2 billion national security specialist for the US Government.

The staff at AOUSC liked BakBone's NetVault system, which runs on Linux and supports heterogeneous environments. As I dug a little deeper, I found out that the company has about a 20% share of the Linux backup and restoration market, according to IDC. Looking further, BakBone provides governments with data protection and the rapid recovery needed in mission critical situations, such as disasters.

Courts Changing Government Technology Trends

As I stated last week, "the government wants industry to bring solutions to government problems rather than have government agencies develop their own software. That makes it difficult for procurement officials to find their best value proposition." In the same sense, the government rarely goes looking for solutions.

The AOUSC has established a trend by migrating to Linux. Instead of waiting for a proprietary-based industry to bring more of the same, the Courts took the road of personal responsibility and made the right choice. Perhaps other agencies and branches of government will consider taking the Courts' approach in their next endeavor.

Andy Stein, the CIO of Newport News, Virginia, and project owner of wrote a paper last year that sums up the nature of government technology in today's cities:

  • New hardware technology and software systems hold the promise of significantly improving service delivery by local governments. Rarely does a community have the financial resources to exploit that potential fully. Most cities have become a patchwork of technology with legacy hardware and special systems existing alongside networks of distributed enterprise software.

  • Even networks deployed in the last ten years exist as amalgamations of older software, such as Novell 3-4.0, Windows 95, Windows 98 and Window NT Server. Manufacturers no longer support these older software systems and the hardware on which they run fail often.

  • New systems offered by independent software vendors (ISV's) carry new licensing schemes that increase the total cost of ownership of computing. Cities face spending more money upgrading to newer systems, or risk failure of older systems. With the evolution of technology this problem continues to grow.

Government units from municipalities to Cabinet-level agencies may recognize the state of their infrastructure and take the Court's lead before signing more contracts for proprietary solutions. In fact, Congress simply might suggest that government procurement in every nook and cranny simply stop. We should stop buying anything unless it truly provides the best value proposition.

What About the Vendor

People wanting a warm and fuzzy story about an open-source company giving away its core products will not find it here. BakBone follows a business model that someone might call second-generation Linux. BakBone belongs to the Open Source Development Lab, which uses and enables Linux. BakBone's role at OSDL allows Linux to focus on enterprise data protection technologies.

The company's key product, NetVault Enterprise Edition, provides diverse platform backup and restore solutions. If I have one of those amalgamations of older software systems, NetVault gives me a way to back up everything. It also provides ways to bring systems and database applications back on-line without having to reconstitute the system. Its real-time capabilities of restoration impressed me, especially after having coped with reviving mail solutions in the aftermath of 9/11.

Governments in particular can benefit by using a recovery system designed for heterogeneous UNIX, Windows NT/2000, Linux and Netware enterprise environments. NetVault allows administrators to add and configure new servers, devices and clients and control them from a central location with less effort than what they are accustomed.

I also discovered that BakBone has a sweet spot in the small- to medium-sized business market. So, although the company can enable large Linux enterprises, they also can work for my local media client who has three times the number of servers and workstations than he does employees.

BakBone is helping to make Linux a more accepted solution. Implementations such as the one the Federal Courts have made make people think twice before they dismiss Linux for whatever reason. As an analyst, I liked what I saw of BakBone.

Some Things to Take Home

BakBone's success should remind us that we cannot overlook the possibility that even the smallest sound byte may have significance. I recognize that sometimes information overload can lead to a state of mind in which we become numb to everything. But, can we afford to take for granted things that could transform the quality of our lives at any point in time?

Sometimes our logic blinds us to possibilities. I wonder who would have expected to see such companies as Hewlett Packard, IBM, Dell, Oracle, Titan or BakBone joint-venturing with a company such as Red Hat two or three years ago?

Finally, consider that while an allegation of copyright infringement exists in the Federal Courts today, those same courts have decided to migrate to the alleged perpetrator in that case. It's something to consider. As Søren Kierkegaard once said, "Irony is a disciplinarian feared only by those who do not know it, but cherished by those who do."

Tom Adelstein works as a Linux consultant and specializes in identifying opportunities for open-source software in organizations. He's the coauthor of the upcoming book, Exploring Linux with the Java Desktop System, published by O'Reilly and Associates. He also works with the Open Source Software Institute. He recently published two articles in Forbes about open-source software and JBOSS. He also has written numerous articles as a guest editor for a variety of publications.

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