August 6, 2002

Open Source and non-profits: A match made in heaven

-By Grant Gross -

We've long talked about how government agencies almost owe it to taxpayers to explore low-cost Open Source alternatives to Microsoft and other high-cost vendors, but it seems that non-profit organizations such as churches are also starting to get the Open Source religion.
The move toward Open Source among these often cash-strapped groups may be more the speed of a single conversion at a time instead of a big-tent revival, but one Intranet software vendor sees a growing interest in Open Source among its non-profit clients.

Scott Testa, COO of Mindbridge Software, says about 30 of the 800 customers of his company's IntraSmart "instant Intranet" software are non-profits running it on Linux, and about 10% of the company's customers overall are running Linux. While the company still sells more software packages to companies running Windows or Unix, Testa predicts that Linux could become the second favorite platform in the next year or two, surpassing Solaris and other Unixes, and interest from non-profit groups should be a big reason.

"There's probably more interest from non-profits than any other vertical we target," Testa says. "Linux is by far our fastest growing segment. I just think you're going to see a lot of growth."

Among Mindbridge's non-profit customers running Linux are the March of Dimes and Outward Bound, and both seem to be happy, at least with how IntraSmart works on Linux, judging by their testimonials. Testa says that interest in Linux, which comes up frequently when he talks to non-profits, is probably due to a combination of factors: Linux vendors releasing better and better products, a greater acceptance in the general marketplace for Linux, and licensing changes at Microsoft.

That licensing cost factor is a particularly strong selling point for non-profits, Testa says. "By their very nature, they seem to be as cognizant about saving money more than any other organization," he adds. "Linux really makes sense. If a non-profit is looking to deploy a solid operating system while being cognizant of the money they're spending and their funding, Linux is really a good way to go."

Testa quickly adds that his company is "Switzerland" about advocating operating systems. "We're not Microsoft bashers or Solaris bashers, we're just simply reacting to the demands of the market."

Linux goes to church

One person working to create a demand in the non-profit religious sector for Open Source software is Web developer John Orth. A longtime Emacs and vi user, the Indiana college student has started using Open Source software on church-related sites he's designed lately. A Web designer since 1995, Orth has been using Open Source tools such as Linux servers, Apache, PHP and MySQL on church-related Web projects during the past six months. He's currently working on two projects, one for his own congregation, Greenwood Christian Church, and
another for a non-profit counseling organization, Rod and Staff

Orth says the flexibility of the Open Source tools are as big a selling point as their cost.
"Although my church is rather large, many of the members are in the 50-plus age bracket and aren't particularly skilled with computers," he says. "As such, we needed to implement a system that was easy to use. We found that PHP was the best option for designing such a system."

The 15-plus church members comfortable with technology agreed to update the Web site only if they had a WYSIWYG editor like FrontPage, and a church member who is an employee of Microsoft's swung the church a good deal.

"Once we had that, we simply had to devise some way of making all the submissions to the page uniform so that we didn't see 20 different styles of Web pages flying at us," Orth says. "Enter PHP/MySQL. A system was designed in which the MySQL database would maintain the basic layout of the page. Members could use FrontPage to create the bodies of individual pages while PHP and MySQL maintained the same look and kept the sidebar menu up-to-date ... With that done, we had the benefit of free web server software, a free Web scripting language and free DBMS to handle the rest."

But don't forget about the cost savings, either. Orth also says he could "go on forever preaching about how wonderful" the cost benefits are, especially when you consider that many non-profits make due with hardware that's a couple of years old.

"Open Source has also been very kind to us financially," he says. "All of the products involved are presently free of charge and don't require massive hardware to implement. For example, the system we have designed for Rod and Staff Ministries is currently running on a donated Pentium II/266 with 128MB of RAM. It was very inexpensive and it got the job done well. What I find even more amazing is how reliable and crash-free the system has been on such old hardware."


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