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Jewelry Business Goes "Low Maintenance" with Linux

Since assuming day-to-day management of his family’s decades-old jewelry business, Christian Collins has found on-site Linux servers and terminals to be an inexpensive and largely hassle-free way of automating the office, retail store, and shop floor. Still, Collins is giving serious thought to taking the applications into "the clouds" over the next couple of years.

"The LTSP server has made network administration easy for me," said Collins, general manager of Jeep Collins Jewelrymaker in Fredericksburg, Texas.

But at the same time, the company’s Web site is now being run in a hosted manner, also on Linux, and Collins is even happier with those results.

Christian Collins first stepped into the business after graduating from college. Several other family members are involved with the company, too, including his parents Jeep and Dana, and both of his sisters, one of whom has followed in the father's footsteps to become a jewelry designer. The company employs about 15 people overall.

Collins’ parents launched the jewelry-making concern back in the 1970s, after the break-up of Collins of Texas, a leather goods company founded by his grandparents in the 1950s, The Collins family first rose to national attention when the famous Nieman-Marcus department store started distributing the wares of Collins of Texas.

Jeep Collins Jewelrymaker sells its product at retail, as well as over the Internet and through direct mail catalogs.

Collins earned his degree in business administration. But when he began to feel the pain of computer maintenance at first hand, he took an interest in getting rid of the company’s existing local area network (LAN), a Netware-based configuration running Windows 98 and DOS "fat client" applications.

After reading about LTSP, Collins got hold of a basic server, installed Red Hat Linux 9 (RHL 9), and did some experimenting.

"I’m intrigued by technology. But as someone who manages a small business, I also need to do a lot of other things. LTSP was getting a lot of press, and the idea made sense to me. A server-centric approach would prevent me from having to maintain a lot of workstations," he explained.

Collins swapped out the original LTSP server with an HP DL15 model a couple of years ago. He also switched from RHL 9 to Ubuntu Linux as the on-site server platform.

For managing and presenting applications to the company’s workers, he uses IceWM, a stacking window system for the X Window System released under the GNU Lesser General Public License. IceWM comes with themes for imitating the graphical user interface (GUI) of systems such as Windows 95 and Motif.

Initially, Jeep Collins’ HP server ran OpenOffice.org, the Thurderbird open source e-mail program, and legacy software applications for accounting, sales order management, and inventory control. The legacy apps are being operated under DOS Emulation (DOSEMU), an open source program for running many DOS and old Windows programs with Linux.

More recently, Collins has been phasing out OpenOffice.org in favor of Google Apps, due to the collaborative capabilities of Google Docs.

From the outset, employees have accessed the applications from Firefox browsers on a mix of older PCs--not even outfitted with hard drives--and newer HP thin client machines.

Over time, though, Collins has experienced some hardware failures on the older PCs, and consequently, he’s replaced more and more of them with new thin clients. To help keep costs down, Collins buys 100 percent of his hardware on eBay. "But I only buy brand new hardware, and often, it’s surplus," he elaborated.

Along the way, Collins has also added a few Apple Macintosh OS X PCs, operating them on the same Ethernet network as the LTSP server and thin clients. The Macs are utilized for producing graphics for the company’s Web site and print catalogs.

The LTSP server now in use is a single AMD processor machine with a 60-GB hard drive and about 2 GB of random access memory (RAM). While it continues to support about ten thin clients, several of these are "task-oriented" workstations that stand idle most of the time, according to Collins. About three of the Linux workstations, situated in remote locations, connect to the network through a 10-Mbps wireless link.

Collins is still mainly pleased with the performance of applications on the low-end Linux server, but one big exception has arisen. The company is now using Google Apps word processing, shared calendaring, and spreadsheet applications, and Gmail for e-mail.

While the other Google Apps are running fine, the spreadsheet pages are taking a long time to load on the Linux terminals. "This is a major issue for us, because we use spreadsheets so much," Collins noted.

Collins hasn't pinpointed the exact cause of the problem, yet he’s convinced that the LTSP server is serving up the spreadsheet pages too slowly. He’s considered remedies that include replacing the HP DL15 server with a newer model, adding more memory to the server, changing the software, and adding a second LTSP server.

Meanwhile, RackSpace is already hosting Jeep Collins’ Web site on a virtual private server, also on Ubuntu Linux.

Now, Collins believes he’ll probably move to a hosted approach for all or most of the company’s software--including the "task-oriented" accounting, inventory control, and order management apps--when the HP server reaches "the end of its life cycle" over the next year or two. "That would take all of the maintenance out of everything for me," Collins predicted.

 

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