When deer hunting season begins in Mississippi, or its time for the alligator lottery to start down in Florida, sportsmen flock to the Internet to order their licenses through companies like Automated License Systems (ALS). To keep its servers running reliably, ALS's Infrastructure Manager Rich Edwards uses Red Hat Linux and servers from Levanta, no questions asked.
ALS works with 15 states to help them provide hunting and fishing licenses online. Customers log on to their state's Department of Wildlife site, fill in a form, and pay the fee with a credit card. In seconds, there's a printable receipt that serves as proof of licensure until the license itself arrives via postal mail. ALS also provides identity check services for gun purchases in Georgia and Tennessee.
Edwards and his staff write a lot of "homegrown" applications for the licensing systems, coding mostly in PHP on a LAMP stack, though all the "corporate support" systems are still on Windows. "What I have found, and this might offend some people," Edwards says, "is that in Linux, your admins and the other guys that are boots to the ground understand the systems much better than the equivalent on the Windows side."
Having that expertise in the IT team adds to the benefits of having Linux, especially when problems arise. When Edwards was selling the idea of replacing HP-UX with Linux on the Web-facing servers, "corporate management was worried we'd be going into a situation where we couldn't get the support we needed. That hasn't been the case at all. The engineers we have can figure out just as much as any support team could tell us." Edwards says he gives Red Hat a call sometimes, but in most cases "we can figure it out. From what I've seen, [with Linux] you get a higher caliber of engineer."
To convince nervous executives that Linux was just what ALS needed to meet the demands of multiple state governments, Edwards did a slow deployment. "We switched on one or two Web servers and ran with those for six or eight months, and we were able to show them there were no issues that couldn't be resolved. After they were comfortable, we moved forward."
During that time, ALS was picking up more clients and growing at a rapid pace. "When we first started moving to Red Hat, we only had three Web servers, and it wasn't a huge task to manage it." As ALS continued to expand its operations, managing the network got more complicated. "Now we have two data centers, one in Nashville and the other in St. Louis. We have to keep the servers in each configured exactly alike." As the team managed those configurations manually, problems started cropping up. "These anomalies started happening. We'd find one box that had one configuration parameter different than the others. One of 200 people might hit that, get an error, and then have to give us a call. After spending hours and hours on that, we said 'We've got to figure out a solution.'"
Edwards decided to pick up an automated server appliance from Levanta. "We have to be able to stay ahead of capacity needs and bring up systems fairly quickly. If we know that alligator season is opening tomorrow in Florida, we have to be able to figure out a way to bring extra servers up quickly to create additional capacity." Edwards says automated server management has helped his budget in another way. "With 80+ servers and a very small Linux team, they were having difficulty managing every piece of it. I had put in the budget to add a new position. This [automation] allowed us to take that back out of the budget."
Edwards says working with open source software can be challenging sometimes because there is often not one central source for tools and applications. "Being able to get the different pieces from the different communities out there to make your product work correctly can be difficult, unlike a Windows product where you just go to Microsoft and get the whole thing. Red Hat does make it a little easier, but there are specific things we need that they don't offer. We have to go out there and get it and compile it."
Even with the challenges, Edwards is completely happy with Linux. "There's no question. It's absolutely critical for us to make money. If we're down, there's penalties we get assessed by the state governments. We absolutely have to be up all the time. For the most part, we make that. We haven't had any issues with open source."
Edwards wholeheartedly recommends that other companies give open source a try. "It's imperative to build a strong team that understands it, but it is more stable and less expensive. Don't fear it."