September 7, 2007

Mindbridge switches to Linux, saves "bunches of money"

Author: Tina Gasperson

Mindbridge didn't start out as an open source company -- far from it. "We had a predominantly Microsoft-oriented shop," says David Christian, Mindbridge CTO. But the company, which at the time offered an "intranet in a box" application, began hosting the software for its clients. "That required us to get a good handle on Linux, because Linux was the only inexpensive, cost-efficient way of handling that in a scaled environment," Christian says. "And I didn't want to add Microsoft to our customers' overhead." The more Christian worked with Linux, the more he liked it. And, as they say, the rest is history.

Today, Mindbridge has repurposed itself as an open-source-friendly company, and revamped its infrastructure to run completely on Linux and other open source software. "Having deployed [Linux servers] to our customers, we turned around and said, we can do the same thing internally and save bunches of money. We began a systematic but slow flipping of servers from the Microsoft world over to predominantly Linux -- although there are a few BSD boxes around as well," Christian says. "It's to the point that today I only have two production Windows servers left, out of 15 or so."

CEO Rick Puckette is enthusiastic about the change. "When we were using Microsoft, we had a lot more than 15 servers," he says. "We had upwards of 50 or 60 that were becoming difficult to manage. So as part of this open source initiative, we also chose a virtual machine called Xen, which allows us to put multiple machines on one physical server, to consolidate." Puckette says that Mindbridge evaluated other virtual machine software, including VMware, but Xen was "very cost-efficient and pretty bulletproof. We also use Hyperic to monitor the health and happiness of the servers," he says.

Even though Mindbridge now delivers its security monitoring solutions mostly on a Linux platform, some customers still want Microsoft. "We're willing to accommodate them, for a price," Christian says. "It costs us significantly more to support a Windows box than a Linux box. It's almost like Microsoft is now an afterthought."

The transition to open source has had its share of challenges, Christian and Puckette say, but nothing that they couldn't overcome. For Christian, the biggest deal was sysadmins who had to learn Linux. "It's people's learning curves, no doubt," he says. "They had only ever administered Microsoft boxes in the past, and had to get used to the idea of command lines. The interesting thing is that a number of our developers came from strong Linux or BSD backgrounds, and they helped the sysadmin people make the transition." To aid the process, Christian looked specifically for new hires who were eager to learn. "The people I like are pretty inquisitive type people. I tried to filter out the others in the interview process."

Puckette says it takes some extra time to get an open source infrastructure configured the right way. "The challenge as opposed to buying solutions from one vendor is that when you buy from Microsoft, you can assume it works with other Microsoft products. With open source you have to take more time to make sure all the products interact and all the pieces fit together. But the cost benefits clearly outweigh going with all Microsoft."

Christian likes the flexibility of open source. "We always find that at the end of the day, when we hit a problem, there was almost always a configuration file you could tweak and make it work the way you want it to work. The management of the systems, the flexibility in the vendors -- even within our infrastructure we have three Linux vendors. We pick and choose based on the best tool for the job."

Mindbridge has also transitioned its development environment. "We use it for all our development of new services that we sell to our customers," Puckette says. "We bring in as much open source software as possible, and we integrate that software to solve business problems, get to market faster, and focus more on our customers." Puckette likes the fact that the development community is self-motivated enough to continuously update open source software applications. "I don't have to fund new features."

Christian appreciates the benefits of the open source community too. "You get your problems solved easier," he says. "You put out an email to a user mailing list, and you may get a response from the developer. Try doing that with most commercial vendors. It's hard to get access to those people. In the open source world, it's relatively easy."

For other companies that might be considering a switch from a proprietary foundation to an open source one, Christian has some advice. "Choose a small project and don't try to flip your infrastructure all at once. Choose something with a high probability of success," like a Web-based application, "and go for that first. What you'll be doing is allowing people to learn about the operating system and how to hook that operating system into your existing infrastructure -- for example, hooking Linux into your Active Directory structure."

Puckette says choose something "non-mission critical" to start with. "Put your toe in, pick an application that, if it does go down, the CEO won't scream about it. Get smart about that one, then take on a mission-critical. Once you cut it over, you're not paying the big guys."

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