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Migrating to Novell's SUSE Linux: Lessons learned in a successful project

Interoperability poses problems for most IT managers during migrations to or from Linux. Obstacles are presented in moving from the old and new environment and old and new versions of existing products. Both of these challenges were met by Metropolitan Bank Group during a migration to Novell SUSE, and this tip describes and offers commentary on that project.

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Metropolitan Bank Group had to make Novell's radically different "classic" and "new" product infrastructures play well together. Thomas Johnson, IT director and CIO of Metropolitan Bank Group, was responsible for moving the firm's 15-server infrastructure to Novell SUSE.

A positive relationship with Novell played a key role in MBG's migration. The company wanted to realize the cost and reliability benefits of Linux, but it didn't want to abandon certain Novell products that were working well.

"We had about an equal amount of Microsoft and Novell gear [when we evaluated using Linux in 2004], and since I was brought up in a Novell environment it was familiar," Johnson recalls. "We used Novell 6.0 and 6.5 at the time, with GroupWise already in place, and we added ZenWorks and BorderManager [Novell's firewall / VPN product] at around that time too."

First steps in a Linux migration

When evaluations of SUSE Linux showed positive results, Johnson and his team started migrating non-mission-critical applications to it first. The first things to actually be moved to SUSE were Nagios, a network monitoring app, and Cacti trend-analysis tools, both open source products that run cross-platform). The SUSE server designated for those applications ran without a hitch, and has since needed incredibly little maintenance. This bode well enough for them to move on with their GroupWise migration, which was moved over to SUSE in 2005 and hasn't given them a problem yet.

Their commitment to Microsoft in 2005 was relatively minimal; this simplified the migration. Active Directory (AD) was not being used for authentication, for instance. Normally, in such an environment, the typical move is to leave AD in place and authenticate against it, especially if other Microsoft-exclusive pieces of the puzzle are in place and can't be swapped out as easily.

Fortunately, the single Microsoft-only dedicated item Johnson had running at the time was the payroll software, ADP. As of this writing, ADP is still running on Windows Server. That server is currently running on its own "island" -- a self-contained domain with nothing much else in it. While there are vague plans to eventually consolidate the server through virtualization, it's not using up enough rack space or other resources to really warrant immediate attention.

The positive results with SUSE Linux encouraged Johnson's team to move other things to it. Their IT ticketing system, Footprints, was ported to a LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP) environment with little work, and allowed them to save a fair amount of money in backend database licensing costs.

Migration challenges

"The hardest part was finding talent," Johnson admits. He had trouble finding an administrator skilled and experienced enough in both Linux and Novell environments to make things happen smoothly. Such talent tends to manifest in one of two forms: young-turk hackers fresh out of college or certified professionals who can command a stiff salary. They were originally using the former and then decided to hire in one of the latter. Despite the expense, it was more than worth it, and for Johnson it also illustrated how useful Novell CLP/CLE certification can be. That certification requires some degree of real-world expertise and not simply rote memorization.

Novell-Microsoft partnership

In terms of day-to-day work, the new Novell-Microsoft partnership hasn't even been a blip on Johnson's radar.

"It's more of a curiosity to us than anything else," Johnson says, "And we don't really expect it to affect anything we're doing. Maybe it'll quell some of the me-against-you stuff that people have. They say, 'Oh, you're still using Novell? How eighties!' My response to that is, 'Have you seen what Novell is up to lately?'"

Conclusions

Every migration out of Microsoft has its quirks, but it's possible to draw some generally useful observations from Metropolitan Bank Group's case.

  • An organization that already has an existing "classic" Novell infrastructure or someone experienced with Novell, will have a much easier time of upgrading to the "new" Novell infrastructure.
  • Not every in-house application currently running on Windows will pose a migration problem; but if one does, that shouldn't be automatically considered an issue or a deal-killer. FootPrints, for instance, was open-ended enough to run on both IIS and Apache, so moving it to a LAMP architecture wasn't an obstacle. The ADP payroll could not run on Linux, but it can run as an isolated instance on Windows without major problems.
  • The most important ingredient in the migration is not servers or software, but human resources -- people with expertise who can guide the whole process. Without them, it doesn't matter which platform you're coming from or going to.

This was first published in February 2007

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