October 11, 2005

CapitolAdvantage finds Linux advantage

Author: Tina Gasperson

CapitolAdvantage.com started out as a paper directory of members of Congress that founder Bob Hansan sold to corporations in the Washington, DC, area in the late '80s. When the Internet boomed in 1996, Hansan moved everything online and conducted a quiet revolution that has permanently changed the way constituents communicate with their congressmen and senators. Today, the entire operation runs on Red Hat Linux.

Since its Internet launch, CapitolAdvantage has become the nation's largest publisher of Congressional directories, while at the same time launching congress.org, a public service site designed to provide information about elected officials and allow visitors to register to vote online, track their Congressman's voting habits, and receive email alerts about important issues. CapitolAdvantage also created the CapWiz software package for grassroots advocacy projects. It help organizations deliver messages to public officials via email, snail mail, telephone, fax, and hand delivery. At the same time, elected officials use the software to connect with constituents.

In mid-2002, Claudio Cuestas came on the scene as Capitol's network architect. His job was to bring order out of the technological chaos that was the system's backend. "The previous sysadmins were really bright, but kind of young," Cuestas says. "When I came in there were [several] different operating systems running. We had Solaris, BSD, FreeBSD, and Linux. Consolidating that was my first task."

Cuestas came from a Sun Unix background, but at CapitolAdvantage, it quickly became clear that open source operating systems were the only option because of budget concerns and the fact that the custom applications written to support the business were all written in Perl. Cuestas saw in the marketplace what he considered a convergence of Dell, Red Hat, and Oracle, so he made what he calls the "logical decision" and unified the shop onto Red Hat. What started out as a hodge-podge of 60 homemade servers and enterprise-level machines ("it was a mess") ended up a smooth-running system of 42 Dell servers running Red Hat 9.

The transition was not without challenges. Many of the in-house applications were compiled on FreeBSD, and Cuestas says they couldn't get the code to compile correctly on Red Hat. "Some of the people who'd developed the applications had left. The applications had really poor documentation and nobody really knew them. It was a lot of internal work that made this project go really slow," he says. Cuestas's team of developers took three months to completely rewrite 40-50% of the applications that provided back-end support for customer service.

To ensure he had a handle on every aspect of system operations, Cuestas added in a system monitoring package called Cittio. "We have to have a 24/7 operation. We have a mailing list service, bio pages for officials, and we do hand-delivered letters. The site is continuously being viewed by visitors all over the world. It has to be running always -- we can't take a five-minute outage. We need to know what's going on with our systems."

Cuestas says the changes have made his job much easier. "I'm a very organized person, and having more than one operating system was inexcusable," he says. "We needed to have everything uniform."

With Linux, downtime is minimal, and with the system monitoring software, "we are aware of any problems beginning and we can be proactive. It's night and day from before, when we didn't know what was going on half the time. Now I have the resources I need."


  • Migration
Click Here!