January 9, 2008

Linux keeps Alexa's engineers happy

Author: Tina Gasperson

Alexa Internet is one of the oldest and most recognized Web entities. In addition to providing detailed Web site traffic information that it collects from users of the Alexa toolbar, Alexa created the Wayback Machine, an archive of Web site snapshots, which it donated to the Library of Congress in 1998. Don Whitt, Alexa's vice president of operations, says Alexa, acquired by Amazon.com in 1999, has a long history with open source platforms, including Slackware, FreeBSD, and CentOS.

When Alexa first launched it ran on a "hodgepodge" of systems, like many startups at that time, Whitt says. "It was all about opportunism. But we started hiring more engineers that had previous experience with Linux, and we felt pretty strongly that there was a lot of effort going toward Linux." Whitt says Alexa started with Slackware, tried FreeBSD for a while, then went to Red Hat and eventually Fedora Core and CentOS once Red Hat went commercial.

The engineering and development team found that with Linux platforms, it was easier to get patches and updates quickly. "We do a lot of things that are pretty cutting-edge," says Alexa engineer Ron Shalhoup. "With Linux there's a pool of resources and people working on updates, as opposed to a commercial operating system."

Whitt likes Linux because it makes for a more satisfied IT team. "From a budgetary standpoint, there are many cost benefits to using open source software. But Linux is an operating system that a vast number of engineers want to use. They're comfortable with it. They're happier. They get to work in an environment that is very malleable, and that's a big benefit. You're not boxed in with a commercial version of an operating system."

Whitt calls Alexa a "consumer" of open source. "We're not officially submitting changes back into the open source community, although our developers submit patches back when they find bugs to fix. We usually use very stable versions of open source software; we're risk-averse."

Shalhoup says there isn't even much need for support from the community. "We mostly just use the documentation available. We have enough expertise in-house, but if we need workarounds we go to a list or a specific group."

Whitt says before operations managers give the boot to proprietary platforms, they need the right team. "I can make lots of operating and budget decisions, but I need a good staff that has a lot of experience with Linux. We have a small group of really bright people working on it."

Whitt says even though there are challenges associated with open platforms, he wouldn't change a thing. "Of all the ways that I've gone, this has been the best. If you're not ready to sign up for open source, you'll spend a lot of money on support and software. You're still going to have issues in Linux. It's a very complex system. Windows is like a mag wheel, and Linux is like a box of spokes and a hub. You have to understand the fiscal and staffing implications. If you don't have bright people, it's going to be a nightmare."


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