September 27, 2004

Managed services company finds greater speed, power, and savings with Linux

Author: Tina Gasperson

Remember application service providers? Back in 1999, Jamcracker was one of the first companies to focus solely on providing consumable application services. It aggregated about 35 services and built a delivery platform to provide those services to small and medium-size businesses. Today, this function of providing per-use software and "shepherding" of IT resources is commonly referred to as managed services.Managed services can be a big money saver for companies that want to focus on their area of specialization instead of creating, funding, and maintaining an entire IT department. It's like hiring a company to handle your payroll functions, except instead of keeping track of Social Security dollars and vacation days, the managed service provider watches server uptime and security breaches. Instead of mailing the checks and punching in the direct deposits, it makes sure each member of your staff has a fully functioning desktop and access to the productivity applications they need to get their jobs done.

Jamcracker has always run Solaris on Sun hardware. It worked for them because it provided the heavy-duty power necessary to produce for dozens of customers an "on demand" access to software. To "manage the managed services," Jamcraker used a combination of in-house code and a variety of third-party products. It took every ounce of those Sun server systems to fuel what Jamcracker calls a "complex solution."

It was also expensive. Not only were license fees and maintenance costs deadly high, but the company had to stick with helper applications that would run on Solaris. After the implosion of the dot-com market in 2001, these kinds of expenses were too much for Jamcracker's customer base to handle.

To complicate the issue further, in 2003 Jamcracker started working on a new direction for its business. The company decided to begin packaging and selling its managed services solution, called Pivot Path, to ISVs and other service providers who wanted to provide on demand services.

Jamcracker knew the product wouldn't sell easily if customers knew they'd have to invest heavily in pricey Sun/Solaris products. "We really wanted to be able to deliver the product on Intel or AMD-based servers," said Todd Johnson, president of Jamcracker.

Not only that, but the company needed a flexible development environment while in-house developers re-wrote the complex solution, eliminating all third-party software. And last but not least, Jamcracker was committed to the idea of supporting development on an open source stack.

"A lot of our prospective customers really wanted us to be able to support open source," Johnson said. "The easiest way to do that was to move to Linux and then to support JBoss as an application service and PostgreSQL as a database."

The conversion of its managed services solution to a base of SUSE Linux and IBM hardware brought unexpected benefits to Jamcracker's own operating environment.

"What once ran across multiple servers we were able to condense down to just a few," Johnson said. "We got huge performance boosts. We had been very cautious about switching because the Sun boxes we were running on were very expensive. But we got great performance [from Linux]."

Jamcracker has had to work through a few minor issues since the conversion. "We had to wait for some functionality we needed from JBoss. Since it wouldn't be available until future versions came out, we had to work around it," Johnson said.

For example, Java Message Service clustering wasn't supported, so Jamcracker developers had to do some reworking to make their code a "little more portable," according to Johnson. They found that very early versions of Pivot Path had a "little bit too much dependency" on the original operating environment. "We had to go through the code to ensure portability," Johnson said.

One of the greatest benefits for Jamcracker has been the practical experience of migrating from a proprietary environment to one that is open source. "A lot of our customers are doing the same thing," Johnson said. "We can speak with confidence about how to move off a Unix-based platform to a Linux-based platform. That's been very useful. We speak from experience."

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