February 20, 2007

For PlanetOut's network, open's the word

Author: Tina Gasperson

Last year, PlanetOut.com was looking at a total revamp of its Solaris-based infrastructure. The company hired a new director of technology operations, Tom Cignarella, to deal with a glut of old hardware and an "immature operating environment" that hadn't kept up with best practices. After a 50% server consolidation, Cignarella needed a reliable networking monitoring application. He found one in an open source product that fit the bill perfectly.

PlanetOut.com consists of a network of Web sites that serve the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) community, including Gay.com, Advocate.com, and RSVPvacations.com. When PlanetOut brought Cignarella on board in June 2006, his job was to consolidate and upgrade an aging production system, and make sure any new system was reliable and easy to monitor. "I was brought in to change things pretty dramatically," he says. "It was a challenged environment. PlanetOut had been around for quite some time and the operations team didn't keep up."

Cignarella brought the number of servers down to 200, using a combination of CPU upgrades and virtualization to accomplish his goal. To keep tabs on network traffic and operation, he knew he needed a good monitor. "It was one of the first things on my plate," he says. Because of his familiarity with open source software at a previous job, Cignarella knew he could trust an open source application to be reliable and flexible enough to keep tabs on his Sun servers. He had no problem convincing management that open source was the way to go. "There was no resistance. The resistance was, 'Oh we're about to spend a big chunk of money upgrading these servers,' but there wasn't any question about using open source."

Because PlanetOut gave Cignarella only a few months to complete the server consolidation and upgrade, he had to move fast on choosing a monitor. Staying with the commercial product already in place was not an option. Cignarella evaluated two open source products -- Nagios and GroundWork Open Source's Monitor -- and chose the latter because of the level of visibility into the network processes it gives him.

Cignarella called the GroundWork deployment "incredibly fast. We had it up and running in 30 days from nothing." And though the price was right, he prefers the word value. "If something's cheap but it stinks, I'm still not going to buy it."

He encourages other IT directors not to be "scared" of open source software. "There are many organizations that think there's no support, so we need to stay away from it," he says. "Bigger companies just spend the money [for a commercial product]. But often you do that, and you don't really get anything for it. You don't need to be afraid of open source software -- it just requires a certain kind of admin who is buying into the mentality, and isn't afraid to go find the solutions to problems. The answers are out there, it just requires a different way of finding them.

"I don't try to think of it as 'open source or commercial', but 'What is the right thing to solve the problem?' If it happens to be open source and free, all the better."

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