November 16, 2001

Comdex: Linux pros team on real estate 'office-in-a-box'

Author: JT Smith

- By Jacqueline Emigh -
A couple of dozen Linux developers, distributed throughout the United States, are teaming up to build code for a Linux-based "real estate office-in-a-box" Internet appliance, targeted at the 780,000 members of the National Real Estate Association.

Under development for the past three months, the project is being spearheaded by two members of the association's technology team, who outlined their progress on the "Realtor Appliance" project during LinuxFest at this week's Comdex show in Las Vegas.

The appliance concept can be applied to any such "vertical market" industry, says Keith T. Garner, strategic architect for the association's Center for Realtor Technology (CRT).

The office-in-a-box project is aimed at "increasing technology use within different (state real estate) associations and large real estate firms," says Mark A. Lesswing, v.p. of the CRT, which is based at the association's headquarters in Chicago.

Six CRT staffers and consultants are collaborating on the box, along with more than 20 "virtual" participants, who are logging in to the CRT Web site from throughout the United States. The remote collaborators are largely IS staffers at state associations and large real estate brokerages.

Executives at many real estate offices "want to be on the Web, but aren't sure how," says Lesswing. The Linux collaborators envision much more than just static Web sites showing pictures of properties, the current state-of-the-art in the real estate industry.

Garner says he sees the CRT's Web-based development effort "as sort of a SourceForge for real estate."

Already, the Linux collaborators have built code for a "Realtor-Client Communications Gateway." Demonstrated at a recent real estate show in Chicago, the Gateway Web site features separate areas for realtors and clients. The client site, for example, gives customers personalized views of properties they've already toured. Email is available on the site, too.

Real estate show-goers in Chicago reacted enthusiastically to the demo, according to Lesswing. "The realtors were stunned," he says. "To them, this was better than a VCR."

The distributed code developers are also also at work on "Imagekeeper 0.7.1," a project for uploading, cataloging, searching, thumbnailing, and distributing images.

A couple of applications the team foresees include agent/client house tour scheduling, and Samba for file-sharing within real estate offices.

As the two LinuxFest speakers see it, real estate organizations are likely to save money by sharing code. An application created for a real estate association in Texas, for example, might be easily repurposed by associations in other states. This will spare organizations from either starting from scratch, or investing in commercial software.

Another goal of the project, Lesswing says, is to "re-energize commercial vendors in this space" to provide more useful and compelling applications.

"The idea of an appliance isn't new," Garner says, pointing to previous efforts such as Novell NetWare boxes. However, the dedicated Real Estate Appliance, which runs embedded Linux, will be "an entirely new product."

The 75-minute presentation by Lesswing and Garner was punctuated by bits of advice for developers. For his part, Garner shines a light on the advantages of Linux as a development environment.

He takes issue with a number of myths about Linux, most notably, "it's written by amateurs" and "there are no applications."

"A large proportion of (Linux developers) are professional developers. There are a lot of PhDs. These are not high schoolers," he says.

In the applications area, Garner mentions StarOffice, Apache, and TomCat, among others.

Selling Linux to your office

Lesswing focuses on how IS pros can overcome cultural and political barriers to Linux within their organizations. "Bringing Linux into an organization can be very difficult," he says. "It's easy to get killed. A lot depends on how you sell it internally."

Barriers can include entrenched "bonds" to either legacy software or vendors, as well as cultures in some organizations that work against creativity. Before trying to introduce Linux into an organization, you should analyze the organization, Lesswing says. If you decide to go ahead, you should devise a plan. "Know the issues, and be a (Linux) practitioner. Just reading about Linux on the Web is not enough to get corporate money."

It's critical, he adds, to be willing to "play well" with other technical and non-technical people throughout the organization, to help them understand what you want to do and why.

He also advises hiring an experienced lead, investing in support and getting customer backing. It's easier to convince marketing people about adopting a new technology if customers are generating demand, Lesswing says.

Past successes

Also during the talk at Comdex, Lesswing and Garner delve into their own earlier "success stories" with Linux. Lesswing, for example, was previously a player in two earlier "turnarounds" to Linux, including a deployment at a company called

As CTO at, Lesswing was able to drastically slash operating expenses by buying out the leases on most of the company's 35 Windows 2000 servers, replacing them instead with Linux boxes.

"Uptime rose 60 percent, too, because the Windows 2000 servers had kept crashing," he says during an interview. The now defunct dot-com was a division of CMGI, a big Microsoft shop.

Lesswing and Garner first met up with each other at a systems integration firm known as SRI, which has since morphed into Envisio. Lesswing helped recruit Garner to SRI from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where, as a student, Garner had headed up the campus Linux user group.


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