October 22, 2008

Van Dam Iron Works vacillates between Linux and Windows

Author: Ian Palmer

When Ben Rousch joined Van Dam Iron Works close to a decade ago, it didn't take him long to move off a proprietary network operating system and start experimenting with a Linux server. He changed horses again, to a Windows server, but today Van Dam is back in the Linux fold -- lesson learned.

Rousch, manger of information systems at the metals and structural steel fabricator in West Michigan, says that the company's IT network largely consisted of a Novell server and Windows 98 clients when he arrived back in 2000.

But in 2001, the self-professed Linux enthusiast swapped the Novell server for the Red Hat Linux server and pieced together a system that also included Windows 98 and NT clients for Windows-only applications.

While Rousch now tries to run as many programs as he can on Linux, he acknowledges that Van Dam is unlikely to ever leave proprietary software behind entirely due to its use of various mission-critical, Windows-only applications. For instance, "We use AutoCAD and that's a big part of our company. That's Windows-only. There's no way we're going to get Linux clients on those."

Rousch says that choosing a Linux server led to cost savings because he no longer had to shoulder the expenses related to securing software licenses for the 15 or so computer users the company had at the time -- up to about 20 currently. By choosing Linux over Novell, Van Dam also eliminated what had been a major source of hassle and grief. Even tasks that should have been easy, such as installing programs, were rendered difficult on the Novell server, he says.

The changes he made in 2001 were followed by additional changes in the years after that demonstrated the company's ability to strike a balance between open source and proprietary software solutions.

"In 2005, I sort of drank the Microsoft Kool-Aid and went to a Windows server because it could do everything on one server as opposed to the two I had before," he says. "I got the Windows Small Business Server (SBS) and moved everything off of the Linux server and NT Workstation and put it on there.

"At the time we were running BusinessWorks for accounting and that was a Windows-only program. And then in late 2006, we went to QuickBooks as our accounting solution. So we were on the Windows server in 2005, 2006, 2007 and half of this year.

Early last year, Rousch installed VMware Server on the SBS and created an Ubuntu Linux virtual machine guest on the SBS host. "I then moved each of the services that the SBS was performing over to the Ubuntu guest, and finally finished migrating everything in mid-2008. Soon thereafter, we purchased a new Dell server that runs Ubuntu 8.04 Hardy Heron as its base operating system, which saved us several thousand dollars in Microsoft server license fees. I recently moved the Samba virtual machine to this new server."

Speed was one of the reasons Van Dam left the Windows server for Ubuntu, Rousch says. While the Windows server was technically four times faster than the company's old Linux server, programs ran at the same speed on the Windows server as they had on the older server -- which was a constant source of frustration for Van Dam. QuickBooks Enterprise Solutions ran about 25% faster on the Linux server, he says, even though SBS had 3.5GB of RAM at its disposal compared to only 512MB on the Linux virtual machine.

"When I installed QuickBooks [on SBS], I had a little trouble ... getting that thing to run at good speed. So in mid-2006 I installed the free VMware Server and installed Ubuntu Linux Dapper Drake on that and started moving all of my file hosting back into Linux by running in a VMware guest on the Windows server.

"2007 comes around and QuickBooks offers a Linux beta for their server. Since I had previously had speedups moving to Linux, I decided to give that a try. Up until a month or so ago, basically 90% of our file sharing and our applications were on Samba and Ubuntu Linux running in a VMware guest on the Windows server -- and running faster than when they were just on Windows server."

He says that the conversion process was pretty smooth, all things considered. The process essentially involved remapping the company's Windows XP clients' drive letters from the SBS server to the Linux Samba server. Using the same drive letters, he says, ensured that most of the company's client applications had no idea that anything had changed on the server side.

One issue that had to be resolved involved some applications that required their server-side component to be on Windows. But the problems was resolved "by installing a Windows XP Pro virtual machine for each of the Windows-only applications.

"The stickiest problem was changing the PDC from Windows SBS to Samba," he continues. "I had a lot of trouble trying to switch to Samba PDC on the same domain, so I ended up creating a new domain with Samba as PDC and moved each of our Windows XP workstations to the new domain."

Rousch advises others considering a similar move to keep VMware in mind, as his company found the tool made the process much easier than it otherwise would have been. "It's much faster and more flexible to test configurations in virtual machines than it is to set up servers on hardware. You need a lot of RAM to run this way, but RAM is cheap these days."


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