September 8, 2005

Free software transforms Web service business

Author: Tina Gasperson

Robert Dayton owns CheckStatus.net, a network of process servers that deliver subpoenas, summons, and other legal documents for clients. One day in 2000, Dayton shut himself in his office with a stack of books and taught himself to program in Perl and PHP. He didn't come out until he'd written a complete Web application for his court documents processing service.Clients can create an account at the CheckStatus site, upload documents, pay for services, and check the status of those documents. Dayton's application makes his own agency and his nationwide network of partners more efficient because it creates a workflow for each document and each client, and automates just about every task related to the business.

When Dayton first started serving court documents in Florida, he and his former wife did everything by hand and customers called their orders in. "I couldn't find any good software," Dayton says. "Nobody would tell me anything -- I got vague answers. And I heard it would cost me anywhere from $10,000 to $100,000 for custom software." When he started picking up big accounts, things got stressful. "My wife had a nervous breakdown, and I almost lost the business." Dayton decided that if he couldn't afford an application that would work to streamline his business, he'd have to create one himself. Into the office he went.

Dayton doesn't remember the name of the book that transformed his livelihood. "It was this little tiny book, a basic outline of how to build a Web application in Perl, and from that I developed the core of the application." When he emerged from his coding cocoon, Dayton found himself with a program that would give him a competitive edge over larger process service companies.

This new found efficiency came with its own set of problems, however. Now, with an expanded operation based in Seattle, and a Web application as the core of his business, Dayton was always online. With Windows, being online means being exposed to multitudes of viruses and worms. "We had problems," he says. "Because we do so much on the 'Net, we'd get the viruses before Norton had the fix."

Dayton remembered that during his search for a good, inexpensive Web host, he'd seen some advertising Linux. He did some research, "bought the books," and converted his main office to a FreeBSD server and two Linux workstations. "It wasn't that complicated," he says.

Dayton prefers FreeBSD to Linux on servers because "it is faster." In addition to the computers in his home office, Dayton set up two Red Hat virtual private servers (VPS), one hosted in New York and one in Texas, and another FreeBSD Web server hosted in California.

Dayton's first distribution was Mandrakelinux (now known as Mandriva), but he found that to be "bloated" and confusing, so he switched to Red Hat for a couple of years. Then he went back to Mandrake, because "it's so easy," and that's what he uses now. Dayton's become so comfortable with Linux and FreeBSD that he acts as a consultant for his network partners and others who purchase the Web application, providing help with Linux installation and technical support -- although there isn't much support needed. "Moving to Linux makes a huge difference. They don't call me with problems. When I used to recommend Windows 2000, I'd get calls about pop-ups and viruses. Once I show them how to use the Linux workstation, I get zero calls, no problems. One guy had a hard drive failure, that's it."

The latest version of Dayton's creation, rewritten in PHP, is called Loyal Dog. "It's still evolving," he says. "About every three days I add a new feature to it." Dayton thinks the software is so good, he is now marketing it as a standalone product. It's available as a Web service for $100 a month, but for high volume process serving agencies or those who need customization, Dayton recommends you purchase the software as a package for a retail cost of $8,995.

Category:

  • Web Development
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