December 15, 2005

Open source everywhere for Canadian brokerage

Author: Tina Gasperson

After years of working with Linux and other open source software, Nigel Fortlage still calls himself a newbie -- albeit a "very much dedicated" newbie. Since his company first began using open source software eight years ago, Fortlage and his staff have not even considered going back to proprietary systems, even through upgrades and overhauls of the local area network and IT infrastructure.

Fortlage is the vice president of IT for Canada-based customs brokerage firm GHY. His company manages more than $2 billion of cross-border trade annually, works with more than 1,000 importers and exporters, and uses open source software all throughout its Canadian and US brokerage operations.

"We got started with Linux when we were faced with putting in our first LAN system," Fortlage says. That was in 1997, years before Linux's position as an operating system leader was solidified. At that time, GHY was purely an AS/400 shop. "I didn't want to get locked into proprietary standards," Fortlage says. Even without any knowledge of open source software, he knew he didn't want to go down the proprietary path. "All I saw with that was huge dollar signs. When we looked at Windows, Novell, and all the many other vendors who no longer exist, we decided to use Linux. We kind of fell into it because it made sense."

Fortlage was introduced to Linux by an associate who was originally a contractor with the company. "I asked him about the problems we were having with this very basic LAN setup." Linux was the answer. "We used everything that comes with it to do various wacky things like load-balancing dialup modems," Fortlage says.

GHY has continuously increased its open source usage, and today the company does "everything" with open source software. "We do all the core stuff -- firewall, email, proxy server, DNS. And we use open source products like PHP for our development environment," Fortlage says.

So far, he hasn't been able to proffer any challenge that the open source community couldn't handle. "We continue to push the envelope in using these tools, and grow with them, and push them to new heights," he says.

One product that Fortlage calls "absolutely amazing" is PDFlib, a dual-licensed tool that processes PDF data on the fly. GHY's clients keep records using bar-coded forms that cost a dollar each and had to be ordered in multiples of 1,000. "The forms have static and dynamic bar codes, and the customers send them to their shippers to be filled out," Fortlage says. "The problem was that it was not cost-effective, and the costs had to be borne by GHY. We thought, what if we build the forms on the Web, use a cookie to save some information to the desktop about what was last filled out, and make a very simple Web-enabled document?" The result, says Fortlage, is that GHY was able to eliminate 90% of the annual $25,000 cost of the paperwork. And the savings don't end there. "With these open source offerings, we're in the neighborhood of savings hundreds of thousands of dollars a year," Fortlage says.

GHY may even see SUSE Linux desktops rolled out in the near future. Fortlage had begun a desktop Red Hat pilot that was halted in 2004 when the company migrated all its infrastructure from Red Hat to SUSE. "We had a prototype built and rolled out, but we rolled it back because we were changing distributions," he says. The new prototype will be a custom build of the SUSE desktop. "The box that goes out on the desk will have a very thin operating system layer only. When the user signs on, they're signing on to a virtual server on the mainframe, and it feeds them their desktop." Fortlage says they hope to have 50% of the company's 108 desktops running SUSE Linux over the next year.

All the company's IT needs are served by one IBM I-Series server that holds 17 virtual machines, 10 of which are Linux. Fortlage plans to add two more Linux VMs. A small IT staff of four, including Fortlage, is one of the benefits of this concentrated server environment. "We've been able to stay very lean," he says. "It has really allowed us to pull everything we were doing into a singular solution that has had massive impact. It has allowed us more time to focus on leveraging the operating system for more solutions."

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