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Using Open Source in Business & Government - 2 How To's
Monday, May 30 2005 @ 05:36 PM EDT

There are two articles I can recommend to any business considering making a move in the direction of Open Source. The first is "Open-Source Decision-Making and Implementation," by C. Pitman Baker and Christopher Gamble.

The second is a paper [PDF] with its accompanying slides [PDF], "Using Open Source Software -- the HealthInsite Experience," by Steve McInerney, the site's Systems Administrator, which was presented at the second Open Computing in Government Conference that was recently held in Canberra, Australia. It takes you to the next step, beyond the basic aspects of, say, using Apache and Samba. What else might benefit you? And it does it in the context of a mixed environment. So if you are one who would like to get your toes in the water, or take the next step, this is for you. And if you need some motivation, take a look at the extraordinary savings other businesses are realizing from switching to Linux.

The first article is aimed at helping you to think through in advance the challenges you will want to negotiate, with the goal of making sure your transition is a success. It asks the question, "With so much code and so many programmers involved, corporations find themselves having to ask: Why do these products exist, and are they ready for our use?"

The answer to the second question is yes. Surveys conducted in November of 2003 and 2004 by the market research company BZ Research show that the open-source JBoss Enterprise middleware system, for example, is the most widely deployed Java application server in production environments.

Apache's Web server and its derivative products run more than 60 percent of the world's Web servers, and both IBM and Hewlett-Packard receive more than US$1 billion annual revenues for open-source services and support. Open source is not only ready for the enterprise, it's already running in it.

But before you take your first step into the Open Source pool, it makes sense to learn about Open Source, what it is, and how it works, and the article will help you do that:

The primary benefits of open source lie, not surprisingly, in its openness. Being freely available lowers the costs of acquisition, but more importantly, with the right to see and modify the code, companies find themselves in the unique position of being able to tailor their software to the way they run their business. With a proprietary product, the source code access that is needed for customization is usually available only to a provider's most valued customers, and usually at a high cost. Open source essentially gives every user that most-valued-customer status.

You would be wise to take steps to make sure your employees are on board with you if you switch, the article points out, and it has some common sense suggestions on how to achieve that goal, as well as providing advice on the need to evaluate licenses to find your perfect fit, on how to plan your project around your company's needs, and how to handle support ongoing.

Sometimes it's useful to hear from someone who has already taken a step you are contemplating. The second article, about HealthInsite's use of Free and Open Source software, takes you there, by sharing its experience in using FOSS to help run a very busy health information web site for the Australian government. The paper was given at a conference put on by the Australian Unix Users Group (AUUG) with the aim "to foster debate and communication around all aspects of open computing within all forms of government."

The abstract for the paper reads like this:

*Building a web server? Use Apache! Building a File Server? Use Samba! Now what do we do?*

This talk aims to fill in the "what next?" gaps.

HealthInsite isn't just a great Health Information Gateway; it's a complete system all geared around keeping that Web Site going in all sorts of Internet weather. Once you get Apache up and running you need to ensure it stays that way. Consequently, we use Open Source Software extensively to maintain and run the complete HealthInsite System: Content synchronisation. Backups. System Monitoring. Statistics. Email. Discussion Lists. Configuration Management.

All this and more is all done for HealthInsite in Open Source Software. Let us show you how.

The Introduction spells out the challenges the site faced:

Since its launch in April 2000, HealthInsite has been expanded to cover over 800 major health topics, and links to almost 12,000 resources from 77 respected health organisations. During 2004, HealthInsite received approximately 1.4 million visitors who viewed 9.6 million pages. Currently, in early 2005, we are attracting 8-9000 visitors viewing 40-50,000 pages a day. Recent estimates put the number of Australians visiting HealthInsite at approximately 70-80% of all visitors to the site. This paper will examine:

  • the relationships involved in managing and using HealthInsite;
  • communication between users and the managers of HealthInsite;
  • methods used to monitor and evaluate the web site;
  • system efficiency from a business perspective.
It will also demonstrate how Open Source Software is used to solve the issues raised.

They use Postfix, Mailman, Courier-IMAP, and SquirrelMail for communications. Note one advantage:

A significant advantage of this architecture is that the four major components are all easily replaceable with similar products, of which there are several in each category. For example, we could substitute Sendmail for Postfix. This is an obvious advantage as we can choose the tool that best meets our immediate needs and easily replace it should our needs change or when a more appropriate tool becomes available.

For monitoring, they use logcheck, Nagios, Orca, Arpwatch, and Argus. For web site analysis, they use Webalizer, Relax, and Visitors in combination with an Apache add-on module, mod_usertrack. And they use rsync to increase efficiency:

One tool that has had a major positive impact on the efficient running of HealthInsite is known as rsync. This program enables highly customisable file synchronisation between machines. With this tool, maintaining duplicate data between the various disparate systems becomes a trivial matter with a fully automated solution. In the production server farm, only a single server has programmer developed changes applied to it. These changes are then automatically applied to the other servers. This is just one example where rsync has increased efficiency.

Some of Groklaw's readers may have other favorite tools, but that is one of the best thing about FOSS -- you have so many choices. And you can tweak them to suit yourself at will. I love that about Groklaw's software, Geeklog. We chose it in part because it has a GPL license. If I want to change something to suit my needs, I can ask the team if they'd be willing to write it. And legally, I can do whatever I wish. There is no one to petition or pay for the privilege, and no licenses or NDAs or any other paperwork to keep track of.

HealthInsite is not 100% FOSS, and that is the way it is and will be for many businesses and government sites, I'm sure, particularly as they make the transition. But by opting for Free and Open Source software where it made sense to do so, and ultimately choosing it for the majority of the web site's technical components, the author says they were able to greatly increase the site's efficiency and reliability.

And isn't that what you want to do for your web site or your business?


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