Enterprise Unix Roundup: The Penguin Plunge

By Brian Proffitt (Send Email)
Posted Oct 11, 2006

Brian Proffitt
When the city of Chicago took a gamble on Red Hat, it addressed pitfalls and challenges, some unique to the governments sector and some universal to all migrations. The deciding factor, however, is one all vendors should heed.

One of the trickiest parts about being an early adopter is that no one wants to look like an idiot should the adopted technology goes belly up. Like penguins lined up on the edge of a glacier, none wanting to be the first to dive in, technology adopters tend to be a conservative bunch, especially when it comes to spending their budget.

So it helps if others are blazing the same trail, especially when its somebody you already know.

Such was the case when the City of Chicago was looking to update some internal IT projects a couple of years ago. Faced with mainframe and Solaris systems nearing end-of-life, city IT administrators were seeking alternative solutions to implement. What they decided to try, was Red Hat Linux.

Enterprise Unix Roundup recently spoke with Amy Niersbach, platform architect, business and information services, for the city of Chicago. She outlined how and why the decision was made to migrate two of the city's systems to Red Hat Linux.

The first automated solution to undergo a migration was Chicago's City Stickers program, which provides permit stickers to all Chicago residents who own a vehicle. The program manages and tracks all sticker permits and has an online component where residents purchase stickers. Prior to the migration, Niersbach explained, City Stickers was running on a mainframe headed for retirement.

"Everyone was kind of skeptical about going to Linux," Niersbach said. But Red Hat had three big things going for it. 1) It had a better support offering than other commercial Linux vendors. 2) It was (and still is) the commercial market leader. 3) Perhaps most important, as far as Niersbach's office was concerned — Red Hat was certified to work with systems and vendors Chicago was already comfortable with: most notably, Oracle.

Oracle's certification and support infrastructure on Red Hat sealed the deal for Chicago's IT decision makers, Niersbach explained. Once the decision was made, a third-party, Systems Solutions Integrators, implemented the migration in about three months. Immediately, the City Clerk's office responsible for the City Stickers program saw four-times faster performance, which in turn increased overall revenue for the program.

Niersbach was quick to point out that the performance increase, while notable, was not solely due to the change in platform. After all, the migration went from an old mainframe to a newer commodity Intel server. Still, "we were impressed everything went so smoothly."

Subsequently, when the City wanted to breathe more life into its Hanson building inspection system, the same conclusions — and similar results — were achieved. In that instance, the building inspection system database was sitting on an end-of-life Solaris server, with many interfaces accessing the database at any one time. In the three months it took to test the new system, Niersbach said, the DBAs were really impressed with Red Hat's performance levels.

The sticker price wasn't so bad either. What was a $300,000 license with Sun Microsystems was reduced to a $50,000 license with Red Hat. Maintenance costs experienced a similar decline. Moving from a SPARC to an Intel platform also bumped up the overall performance.

Here, too, what tipped the decision to go with Red Hat was that the database was Oracle and there is plenty of in-house Oracle expertise in Chicago.

If Niersbach had one complaint about migrating to Linux, it would be the current lack of Linux-certified vendors. "Not all of the vendors are keeping up with certification in Linux," she indicated, adding that she hopes more vendors follow in Oracle's footsteps.

Comments like that make a lot of sense to John Punzak, Red Hat's National Sales Director for State & Local/Education. Partnerships, he emphasized, are very important to Red Hat's business, both on a software and a hardware level. Such partnerships add a whole new level of product offerings to Red Hat's user base that Punzak's company would otherwise not be able to provide.

And, for government agencies in particular, oftentimes it's who you know that helps close the deal.

Contrary to a perceived notion that IT decisions in government are subject to the fickle winds of political change, Punzak described a situation that was just the opposite. In government, the IS organization is not usually staffed with political appointees, but rather long-term workers who may have less turnover than their corporate counterparts. This is especially true at the state and local levels. Thus, IT policy makers are usually very entrenched in their positions.

"Our customers don't move around in their careers as much as in the private sector," Punzak said.

The challenge for Punzak and Red Hat, therefore, is to adapt to governments' long procurement cycles, and build relationships with people over a longer period of time. Having contacts and partnerships with vendors that an agency already has had dealings with is certainly a big help.

As the open source market matures even further and legacy systems are retired, it's a good bet you'll see more of these Linux deployments. The question this leads to is, will Linux crowd out Unix completely?

Brian Proffitt is managing editor of JupiterWeb's Linux/Open Source channel, which includes Linux Today, LinuxPlanet, and AllLinuxDevices.

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