December 6, 2001

Switching to Open Source not hard with the right package, company says

Author: JT Smith

- By Grant Gross -

When Asset Research & Retention, a financial services software company, was looking to Web-enable its Verify-Checks application, company officials considered both Microsoft and Open Source solutions.

As he was making a decision about moving Verify-Checks to the Web, Mike Wheeler, president and CEO of the Sioux Falls, S.D., company, had been hearing about security problems with Microsoft IIS, including a recent Gartner Group report. At the same time, Wheeler talked to the head technician of a local Internet service provider, who recommended Linux and other Open Source tools.

Wheeler began investigating the Open Source tools his company needed -- including Linux, Apache, PHP and MySQL -- but was concerned about the time and effort his company would spend rolling its own solution. "Here was the big dilemma: How do I go out and get all this Open Source stuff and make sure I'm running the current version -- not the bleeding edge, the cutting edge -- and I have all the patches," he says.

Then, he saw an ad in a computer magazine for NuSphere Corporation, which was offering all those Open Source tools in a package, along with installation help, software updates, and tech support.

With help from NuSphere, the Microsoft-using Wheeler was comfortable working with PHP within a month and had a working Web site for Verify-Checks in about two months. With Verify-Checks, retailers can use the Web interface to check on the status of customer checking accounts.

NuSphere isn't the only company offering Open Source service and support, of course. Several Open Source companies' business plans are based on similar support and packaged software products. But Wheeler can't say enough good things about NuSphere, and how his proprietary software company arrived at the decision to use Open Source may be helpful for other companies considering the same move.

Without NuSphere's package of installation, software updates, and tech support, Wheeler says he wouldn't have gone with Open Source tools. "Frankly, without that, I wouldn't have gone there. It would have been too difficult to maintain the interactivity of all the Open Source tools. That was a huge part, the integration of all these tools, and to have it updated, and to have the tech support."

Britt Johnston, CTO for NuSphere, says a lot of the attraction to Microsoft products is the complete solution they offer, but more and more customers don't want to get locked into one proprietary system.

"The problem, we see, is that you end up buying into a lot of proprietary technology, and you get locked in," he says. "We don't lock you into a particular platform. We provide the same set of components, integrated the same way, in Windows, Linux and Unix."

By offering solutions on Windows, NuSphere helps companies interested in Open Source gradually move in that direction, Johnston says. A company with Windows NT servers can experiment with Open Source tools without changing everything, he says.

NuSphere's customers who switch to Open Source products come mostly from commercial Unix or small Windows systems that need to scale up. A smaller number come from Linux but want to get out of the "business of rolling their own," Johnston says. One attraction to NuSphere is a variety of installation options, he says.

In Asset Research & Retention's case, 'they didn't have to go out and collect the pieces together, and then be forever wondering whether or not they had all the right stuff," Johnston says. "There are an awful lot of IT departments that want to focus on solving their own problems rather than trying to determine what the right components to use are."

Wheeler, asked if he has advice for other companies considering the switch to Open Source, explains his philosophy about technology: "We have never been a company to say, 'We're going to write something with a Microsoft product.' Not to take a shot at them, they have some terrific tools ... but the aren't the only game in town. We've always approached it from a standpoint of, what is the best tool to solve the problem that business is demanding?"

His other advice for companies: Make sure you're using tested, stable software. With most Open Source software constantly improved and changing, it may be worth paying a Open Source services company to keep track of software updates, as NuSphere is doing for Asset Research & Retention.

Wheeler says he might have some doubts about buying enterprise-grade software from a small company, but he has no such doubts about the future of the Open Source movement. His experience with the Open Source community, since buying the NuSphere package in early summer, convinces him that he's made the right choice.

"The thing about Open Source is [NuSphere] also pointed me in the direction of the user community, which absolutely flattened me," he says. "I had some questions regarding PHP, and I went to the PHP newsgroup. I put out a question I was confused about; I had a response from three different people within 10 minutes. All three were good solutions."


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