Modern Middle Manager
Primarily my musings on the practical application of technology and management principles at a financial services company.
May I Be Excused? My Brain Is Full.

Saturday, December 28, 2002  

As I ponder the direction of the IS department over the next year, I look towards the conversion of much of our backoffice to open source. This has two immediate impacts on the staff -- they have to learn Linux and the associated applications we'll be implementing and there will need to be new programming standards put in place for the developers.

The change for the systems personnel means understanding Linux installation, configuration files and troubleshooting. It also means learning the new applications which will probably include (but not be limited to!) Samba, Apache, PostgreSQL & MySQL (yes, I can see both in use) and Exim. Samba allows Linux to act as a SMB client and server (read: it can create and access CIFS and printer shares, just like Windows). Apache is a web server. PostgresSQL and MySQL are SQL servers (PostgreSQL is more advanced, supporting transactions, views, stored procedures and subqueries). Exim is a POP/IMAP/SMTP mail server. Lots to learn. I think they're up to it and I think they're eager to try something new.

The changes for the programming staff I'm proposing is pretty radical as well. I see us moving to PHP, Perl and Python for most web programming. For more advanced projects I see us moving towards a content management system based on XML/XSLT like the Apache Cocoon platform. Mono looks like another interesting platform for development, especially as my staff is already familiar with .NET. Truth is, we'll use whatever platform gets us to where we want to be quickly and with the best cost-benefit. That's why open-source will probably be the key to our infrastructure. In addition to the development platform, we will need to change our source code control system to something like CVS or Subversion. This means updating procedures and processes. Defining a standard development environment, such as Eclipse is the final piece.

Why go through this headache and hassle? Why not just stay with Microsoft, keep the re-training costs low and not chance anything? How difficult will it be staying ahead of the training curve with a mixed Windows-Linux environment? Aren't I asking for more trouble? The answer is: maybe. This is an obvious risk for me. On the one hand, there are bottom-line licensing savings moving from Windows to Linux for several of our back-office apps. Much of that disappears in the first year because of training and productivity loss. However, year two and beyond I expect significant savings in licensing, reliability and robustness. I think that makes the transition worth it. Best of all, I believe those staff members who aren't already working with Linux (and about half are) very much want to learn something new that benefits the organization. Yes, it will take time to make them experts. However, once they learn the basics the rest should be no different (hell, probably easier) than relearning Windows every time a new OS release comes out. I see 2003 as a year of transition for our company.

And what of other organizations? I remember when OS/2 Warp came out and people hopped on that bandwagon as a way to slay Microsoft. Well, that turned out badly, didn't it? I see a difference here. First of all, Linux has a greater presence at this time, hell, probably 100x the presence, that OS/2 ever had. Second, Linux is not looking for a reason to exist. All of the applications I listed above satisfy business needs now. And there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, more useful apps in development. Third, Linux is not a pain in the ass to set up. OS/2 Warp was. I used it when it came out and made it my desktop OS at home. It was far more stable than Windows but it was a definite irritant. And the GUI was UGLY. Fourth, the economics are too good to ignore. If my company can provide the same (or better) level of service as it does now at a 25% discount or more, I have to explore that option. I would love to boast that I reduced our IT budget by that kind of margin!

posted by Henry Jenkins | 12/28/2002 12:17:00 AM

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