November 12, 2004

Linux energizes Australian power provider

Author: Preston St. Pierre

Country Energy, one of the largest providers of electrical power in Australia, is a good example of a public sector company that has taken Linux seriously. The company, which has annual revenues of about $1 billion a year, operates more than 200,000 miles of power lines, serving the needs of about 750,000 customers in five states or territories. Some of the more famous customers include the Sydney Opera House, Melbourne's Rialto Towers, and One Steel Wollongong.

When David Peters, Country Energy's information technology manager, faced the prospect of dwindling platform and application support for the company's proprietary Unix systems, he took a step toward migrating the company's core business systems to open source software. Peters wanted to leverage the large amount of in-house Unix skills within the IT department by choosing Linux as the operating system platform for front-end applications.

Country Energy was formed as a result of the merger of three energy companies -- Great Southern Energy, Advanced Energy, and North Power. The merger resulted in the IT department inheriting three times the typical amount of legacy systems, including Tru64 Unix and IRIX, which powered central business processes. Peters said, "Since we have Unix skills, going with Linux doesn't demand any retraining. We also use the open source GNU tools for system management on both Linux and Unix."

Although Country Energy, which is based in New South Wales, is no stranger to open source technologies, since it has been using Linux since 1995, Peters said that it had tended to be used for noncritical systems like proxy servers.

The company has been using Linux for email for about two to three years and has been gradually replacing Windows. The company uses Lotus Domino on Linux for email and all sorts of databases and forms. Peters said that it would be difficult for an open source application to have the functionality of Notes. "We're happy to pay to use it, as the vendor will support it on Linux. There are definitely fewer problems with Notes on Linux than on Windows."

Enterprises down under embrace Linux

Linux has become popular with organizations in Australia and New Zealand, where the number using Linux servers has doubled since 1999, according to International Data Corp.'s 2003-2004 Forecast for Management study of enterprise end users.

The study of 330 CIO and IT managers found that 32.4 percent of the respondents' organizations had already deployed Linux servers. The study concluded that the uptake of Linux could be related to the fact that it's cheaper and provides companies with an alternative to more costly servers.

The IDC report found real growth in the use of Linux is occurring across most industry sectors, with the public sector in the lead. Nearly 38 per cent of survey respondents from this sector claim to have had experience with Linux. The second-highest users of Linux were the leisure and distribution sectors.

Country Energy's core billing application, Energy CIS, also relies on Linux for the front end, running a BEA WebLogic-based application, while the back end is Oracle on AIX.

Peters said WebLogic runs faster on Linux than on Windows and the Unix guys can administer the front end. He said, "In a few months we'll have migrated off Informix on IRIX. Our customers need a box with performance. Although SGI servers weren't as expensive as ones from Sun or IBM, we weren't ready to go to Linux on the Altix platform for maturity reasons. Instead, we selected an IBM 24-way pSeries 690 running AIX."

During the migration review process, Peters also evaluated Oracle's 9i Real Application Cluster (RAC). However, since the billing application is designed to run on a single system image, a clustered architecture would not be suitable in his environment at this time.

Peters said, "With RAC, you save on hardware, but Oracle is more expensive," he said. "The only way Linux will replace AIX or Solaris is if it scales well. If Sun wants to continue to sink its R&D costs into software, it's heading down the wrong path. It's giving Solaris away free, but users are paying for it through hardware. It would be better if IBM released its own Linux distribution for its hardware to leverage the work of the open source community."

Another application that relies on Linux includes Country Energy's customer B2B system, which uses Apache, JRUN, and SSL for security. Peters said that Apache is secure and well-supported. "We use it to serve images, as it's faster than proprietary application servers," he said.

Country Energy is an interesting case in that most of its core infrastructure is a blend of open source and proprietary software which Peters said works well. "There is definitely no conflict between open source and commercial software, as they work well together," he said. "We've never gone down the road of proprietary against free, as open source gives us the freedom to upgrade our software and not lose support."

The only remaining central business system running exclusively on proprietary software is Country Energy's PeopleSoft HR and Financials package, which is on Tru64 in the back end with a Windows front end.

"The PeopleSoft back end is moving to the AIX system. We'd move the Windows front end to Linux if the application gave us the option," Peters said. "We have no interest in staying on Windows for those types of applications as there are just down sides. In our organization Windows is not a threat, as we get to see both sides and Windows is not cheaper at all."

On the numerous vendor and analyst TCO arguments flying around about Linux versus Unix and Windows, Peters said that the battle is between Unix versus Windows rather than Linux versus Unix.

"I'm happy to pay for Linux support by moving to Red Hat Advanced Server, which is about $1,500," he said. "Choosing Linux is not about acquisition costs. I'd be prepared to pay $10,000 per server for it. I wouldn't have a job if there were two minutes of downtime and I wouldn't trust Windows for that."

Peters offered some advice for enterprises that may not be using open source software. "Talk to your peers about open source, as there is not really a downside," he said. "You can use it without risk and it won't cost you anything other than a bit of time. You'd be mad if you didn't try it."

Elizabeth M. Ferrarini is an IT consultant from Boston, Mass.

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