ESR works closely with space and defense companies in the United Kingdom, helping them to insure asset integrity, manage safety and risk, and operate with best practices in place. ESR didn't want to continue a relationship with the IT company maintaining its network because of value concerns about the £300k per year ESR was spending. In addition, network instability, licensing costs, and poor performance prompted the company to look for a different system. A couple of "unofficial" servers running Linux that hadn't been rebooted for two years helped convince ESR management that open source was "at least worth considering" for the new infrastructure.
Armed with permission to implement an open source solution, Sean Harmer, ESR's IT manager, oversaw the transition. The new network features Debian Sarge on 12 servers running a variety of open source applications including OpenLDAP, Jabber, MediaWiki, OpenGroupware, and OpenVPN. Harmer says the main challenge in the migration was getting the client machines off of the Novell network and joining them to the Samba-based NT domain. "The cause of the problems was inconsistencies between machines, and we did not have time to re-image everyone's machine at the time of migration," he says. Other than that, the migration went smoothly, in part, Harmer says, because of advice provided by UK-based consultancy Sirius Corporation.
Now that the migration is complete, open source software is showing up even on workstations at ESR. "There are 10 Linux workstations that I know of," Harmer says. "I suspect this number will grow since we now officially don't mind people running Linux, unlike the AEA policy. On the XP desktops, quite a lot of open source software is running, including the GIMP, various Jabber clients, Firefox, Thunderbird, TightVNC, OpenVPN, and OpenOffice.org on occasion," he says. "I'm waiting for KDE's Kontact to be ported to Windows so we can trial it as a replacement for Outlook."
Harmer appreciates the freedom that open source software brings. "We are not tied into any forced upgrade cycles dictated to us," he says. "We now have ownership of the network and we can do whatever we like without incurring extra costs." In fact, Harmer says, cost reduction has been the biggest bottom-line benefit ESR has seen since moving to open source. "The charges for network management were very high per person each year," he says. The new system is faster, much more stable, and much less expensive than it had been on NetWare and Windows, according to Harmer. "We now have a system where to add another user we do not have to pay out for any more licenses. This limits the licensing costs to the desktop machines. Also, the hardware will have a longer lifetime because of the lower demand placed on system resources by Linux."
Harmer has some advice for other IT managers longing for a switch to open source. "Be prepared for an uphill battle," he says. "Do not be so evangelical [about open source] that you are irrational. There seems to be a deeply ingrained assumption that Microsoft is the only route -– present the facts clearly in an unbiased way to management to let them make an informed decision." Harmer says the facts speak for themselves. "Show them Netcraft, for example. They don't realize that Apache powers 70% of Web sites if you don't tell them."