Interview

The Wrong Choice: Company rejects Linux, learns a lesson

Jan Stafford

Could you describe the specific instance in which you pitched Linux and it was rejected?
We had an opportunity to run a proprietary application server to power our new J2EE time management application. Fortunately, the app server was 'certified' to run on both Linux and Win2000 boxes. I had enormous reservations [about] running a binary Apache port on Windows; but our support contract included the Apache server. So upper management could relax, but I'm still having trouble buying into it!

I motioned to run the entire application, minus the bloated app server, on an open-source solution (Apache Web Server with J2EE requests proxied to the Tomcat Servlet Container) that ran extremely well on Linux. This made me feel better, since I could build all of my applications from source code and knew exactly what was going into each server. No bloat, nothing I didn't need, and no surprise dependencies that all of the sudden brought the system to its knees. Why would Linux have worked better?
In our situation, Linux would have provided the flexibility and stability needed to power mission-critical applications -- and keep them powered. Some of the proprietary solutions are good for 'bells and whistles,' but you need an entire army to support them. I come from the 'less is more' mentality, so the latest bell and whistle is less appealing to me. I say: let's compare scheduled downtime notes and see where we stand. What was chosen instead?
Win2000 Server

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was chosen as the operating system, and we implemented the gargantuan app server to handle our J2EE needs. Did any execs 'get it' after they saw that the 'safe' solution didn't perform as well as Linux would have?
Amazingly enough, yes! Why was Linux rejected?
One of the reasons -- probably the biggest reason -- was that my Linux experience was not certified. Secondly, the execs were afraid of the word 'free.' Coming from the proprietary world, they perceived 'free' to mean inferior. The more you pay, the better the product. Lastly, support was a big issue, since there wasn't the bloated 'safety net' most proprietary technologies provide (for an astronomical additional charge, I might add).

What they didn't see, and maybe I should've done a better job selling this, was that the open-source community provides limitless support for its products. You just have to put forth the effort and read! Is Linux now on your company's agenda?
Even though our current Win2000 implementation still exists today, I'm planting the seeds of a second pitch to replace it with my original solution. Since my original rejection, I've successfully implemented a number of other Linux boxes in our environment that have served as key additions to mission-critical needs. Their performance, stability and security is unquestionably better than Win2000's.

It sure feels good to be able to produce an instant solution to a need (or a problem in the software for that matter) before having to see how much money you don't have in your budget or how much training you'll need in order to get the darn thing installed!

I've raised many eyebrows by modifying existing source code to meet and exceed our immediate needs. Without Linux (and open-source software in general) this would've been extremely expensive -- and maybe even impossible. Were there problems with that alternative?
The biggest problem with our current implementation is a lack of time to fully understand and support our solution. It contains more bells than Santa's sleigh! We've also had intermittent problems with Win2000 OS stability and unpredictability while applying service packs. One preferred update to the operating system and another service may be impacted with our app server, or a key service gets knocked off and the system breaks. What did you learn from this experience?
First and foremost, a certification -- no matter what your techie peers think -- makes a huge difference to upper management. I got CompTIA's Linux+ certification. The certification went a long way in establishing my credibility and easing upper managements' concern over the 'free' technology. The certification has been the catalyst to going from Linux secretly at work to Linux frequently at work.

The CompTIA certification is basic, but it's relatively inexpensive. Most importantly, unlike other programs, CompTIA covers the information your bosses relate to and can 'latch on' to. Managers want a logo on a card. You have the skills, so pay the fee and grab the logo. It'll help! Also, be confident in your skills and be ready to produce when the manager calls. You will shine!

Next, focus on the stability of the product. Explain that Linux and open-source software are exposed to many many more eyes and [are] subject to much more peer review than [their] commercial counterparts.

Also, describe the open-source community's support system. With that support, you can easily fix a problem well before any vendor responds to your e-mails or phone calls. With open-source, you can implement an enhancement that may take years (or never happen) with a proprietary, close-source solution. Also, let them know that there are security alert mailing lists for open-source software.

Finally, if management insists on paying some amount of money, let them know about commercial distributions of Linux that offer support for a relatively low fee and stand by their product. Explain that these distributors are major players who are and have been revolutionizing the IT industry. Do you have any closing words of advice about pitching Linux?
Press releases or articles in respected journals are also a good way to give managers a feel for what others are saying, so it's not just what you're saying and fighting for.


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