A Linux collaboration Pioneer in Ontario


Author: Tina Gasperson

Pioneer Petroleum is the largest independent gasoline retailer in Ontario, with 150 retail locations spread throughout the province. Twenty-five of those locations are running Red Hat Linux Workstation 3.0. The other 125 stores are expected to be rid of Windows by the end of 2005.Ontario is the second largest province in Canada, and its major industries are mining and forestry. Many of Pioneer’s gas stations are located in remote rural areas, a situation that can make computer networking a challenge. Up until last October, the only way Pioneer’s corporate office could communicate with the branch locations was via telephone and fax.

Dale Sinstead, director of information systems and technology for Pioneer, says that fax communication can be unreliable. Sometimes faxes would show up as delivered but the intended recipient never actually received the information. Telephoning individual stations to deliver information is tedious and time-consuming, and takes store attendants away from customers. “It’s not very efficient,” says Sinstead, “and it certainly doesn’t provide collaboration functionality at all.”

Sinstead knew what Pioneer needed was software that would provide collaboration tools like email and instant messaging. Additionally, station managers needed to have access to document libraries they needed to run the business.

Sinstead says that he first considered deploying Windows and Lotus Notes, the applications of choice in many corporate offices. But he quickly realized the high cost associated with deploying 150 remote workstations running Windows, as well as the administrative and technical support needs a province-wide Windows network would present. Sinstead worried that his relatively small IT staff would be taxed beyond its limits. Any gains in efficiency from the collaboration software would be lost as station managers dealt with problems caused by the insecure nature of Windows software.

“The fact that the machines are left running for days, and all the malicious stuff out there on the Internet,” were some of the major reasons not to go with Windows, according to Sinstead. “A great majority of the code is designed to attack Microsoft. We didn’t think we could effectively support 150 workstations out there in a vulnerable state so that people could actually use them.”

Sinstead decided to go with Linux, having had some success with Linux on corporate servers. “We thought, ‘what the heck, let’s try it.'”

Though Pioneer was using Red Hat on a couple of servers, it had no experience with desktop deployment or administration. As they quickly discovered, the answer to most of their questions was simply “a Google away,” as Sinstead puts it.

Additionally, Sinstead got support directly from Red Hat and from IBM, whose Workspace product allows Pioneer’s remote locations to use email and instant messaging, as well as to access documents in real time or through a synchronization process. Since many Pioneer gas stations are in remote locations with no access to broadband, they can’t live in an online environment. Sinstead found that Workspace provided synchronization as an automated server process. “It made it kind of a no-brainer,” Sinstead says.

Overall, Sinstead is quite pleased with Linux’s performance on the remote workstations. He’s found that the total cost of deployment is about the same upfront as that of Windows, but the ongoing license costs are much lower. Not only that, but stability “is amazing,” he says. “We’ve got two staff people who are looking after all of these remote locations and it is not a burden at this point.”

Sinstead expects to complete deployment to all 150 locations in the next several months.