September 11, 2003

Linux makes the grade at Yale

- by Karen D. Schwartz -
Rick Beebe has a tough job. Not only is he responsible for running the email servers, Web servers, and search engine for Yale University's School of Medicine's 6,000 students, professors, and administrative staff, but he also manages the medical school's networking infrastructure. For more than a decade, Beebe has relied on Unix -- predominantly Hewlett-Packard's Tru64 Unix -- to run the school's major applications and manage the school's 350 network devices. But when it came time to consolidate the university's network management infrastructure, Beebe looked to Linux.

A few years ago, Beebe began taking a hard look at Linux. Starting out, he chose to develop a few small applications in Red Hat Linux. Experience with those applications led him to determine that the operating system, while perhaps not ready to handle a Web server that receives 50 million hits per month, was now stable, secure, and robust enough -- not to mention inexpensive and easy to use -- to expand its horizons at the School of Medicine.

"There was a time when I wouldn't have trusted any production servers with it, but that's changed," says Beebe, manager of systems and network engineering at Yale's School of Medicine.

Beebe is particularly enthusiastic about Linux's wide variety of features, namely the journaling file systems and a host of utilities that make installation, updates, and compiling much easier. The speed at which applications can be compiled under Linux gives it a significant speed and efficiency advantage over Unix, he notes.

After gaining experience by developing several small applications under Linux, Beebe decided to take a major step by porting Ultraseek, the school's search engine, to Linux. So far, the search box has been running for more than 280 days without crashing -- a notable success, he says.

On the networking side, Beebe's team now uses a combination of Linux- and Unix-based solutions to manage its twisted pair network. Until two years ago, the main tools used to manage the network were a freeware product called NOCOL (now renamed SNIPS) that ran under Unix and used Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP) to query boxes on the network, and Linux-based Big Brother from Quest Software to monitor disk space and applications.

Further complicating the situation, the main campus's networking group -- the group that manages the remaining 60 percent of the university's networking needs -- used Big Brother as well as Rover from Merit Network Inc. to manage its portion of the network.

It soon became clear that running several different network management programs on different operating systems in two autonomous divisions of the university simply wasn't working. Not only was it inefficient and confusing, but it was increasingly becoming difficult to manage.

"If our help desk people got a call that someone couldn't get to one of the servers, they would look at Big Brother if it was a medical server, or at a different implementation of Big Brother if it was a main campus server, because they didn't talk to each other," Beebe explains. "If that didn't find the problem, they would have to look at Rover or Nocol or both to see whether something was down on the network."

To solve the problem, network managers decided the time had come to consolidate the network management infrastructure, which consisted of about 1,000 routers and switches throughout the Yale networking environment. To do that, Beebe's team, along with a team from the main campus's networking group, had to create a distributed network architecture in which each department and school could manage its network resources individually.

After considering commercial products like Hewlett-Packard's OpenView, Computer Associates' Unicenter TNG and Aprisma Management Technologies' Spectrum, the networking team settled on Fidelia's NetVigil, a network and performance management tool from a company founded by the original writer of NOCOL. Not only was NetVigil less expensive, but it turned out to be as flexible as the open source products they had been using up until that point, Beebe says. And when Beebe was given a choice of whether to run NetVigil on Solaris or Linux, "it was an easy choice to pick Linux," he says.

"Now everything is on one box. They have one place to look, yet the two network groups and the two server groups can each manage their own devices independently," Beebe says.

Ramping up

As Linux gains even more maturity and becomes more widely accepted across the Yale University campus, Beebe has noticed an increase in the use of the operating system. Today, the medical school has 18 Linux servers for crucial applications like NetVigil and Ultraseek, as well as many smaller, often Web-based applications like a Web-based courseware and a Web front end for the Yale email system, which still runs under Tru64. Over time, Beebe expects to deploy more Linux boxes as front ends to Web applications.

And as Linux's clustering capabilities improve, Beebe believes the university's use of Linux could grow even faster.

"Today, for any application where we need near 100% uptime we tend to use a cluster or some other sort of failover system, but eventually, we may turn to Linux clustering," he says. "There is enough rabid interest in the Linux community that development is moving right along."

Karen D. Schwartz is a writer and editor based in the
Washington, D.C., area, specializing in technology and
business issues.


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