The first thing that Gary Baribault did when he took the IT helm of a telecommunications carrier and reseller a year ago was initiate a move from Windows NT servers to Linux. That’s because the tech leader quickly realized how fragile and unstable the company’s network had become.

Baribault was concerned about the surveillance and network management software running on the Windows boxes—it was crashing the mission-critical NT machines regularly. That’s obviously not a good scenario for a vendor providing telecommunications services to much of South America, with servers in three locations along the east coast of North America.

“They had a fairly skinny network, no redundancy,” Baribault explained. “The first thing I did was rebuild the network, to give them a carrier-class network.”

The technology plugged in
Baribault switched to the open source Nagios, a host and service monitor; Snort, an intrusion detection system; and Cricket, a server stats package. All of the Linux servers are running Red Hat, most of them on version 7.3.

Baribault has only replaced about five NT servers with Linux, and is simply avoiding the 15 other Windows servers. The company is now running 22 Linux servers, all on hand-me-down Compaq 450-Mhz Pentium II desktops from a sister company. The company still has a handful of Windows and UNIX servers.

When Baribault found out that the sister company was throwing out a bunch of Pentium II 450s, he said, “’Give me a half dozen of them; I’ll pay fair market value—a couple of hundred bucks each. I’ll put all this stuff up for free, and we’ll see if it runs. And of course, it did.” Baribault noted, “If we were running this on Windows 2000, we could not possibly run it on these boxes.”

The intangible value
Baribault figures that he would have had to spend $6,000 to $7,000 on low-end servers to run Windows or a high-end UNIX, not including licensing fees from Microsoft or Sun.

Instead, “we’re running it on recycled desktops,” he said, estimating that the overall cost savings is near $150,000, including software licensing and labor costs.

Most of Baribault’s servers serve multiple functions. Eight are running a combination of Samba/IPTables/Postfix and BIND. The company has two 500-GB log servers in the network, three BIND, two Ethereal/Snort servers, three Samba servers, four Oracle 9 servers, two Cricket servers, two Nagios servers, and several others.

Three employees are also running Red Hat 8.0 on workstations.

“Most of my developers will be migrating there over the next two months as well,” Baribault said.

The TCO debate rages on
The cost savings benefits the company in ways the tech leader can’t plug into a total cost of ownership (TCO) spreadsheet. For example, Baribault spent less money on servers, so he’s been able to afford more functionality in the network elsewhere. He estimates he’s gotten 75 percent more functionality.

“You can’t count that as TCO, but the network is better monitored, the network is up more often, and I’ve cut down on my network traffic,” Baribault said.

“I’ve got a DNS server in each one of our major points of presence. There’s a lot of functionality in the network we wouldn’t have had. You can’t really say I saved money, but I deployed some extra stuff for free, and I’ve got a much more stable network because of it.”

As noted in a recent article regarding Linux TCO, the debate about whether open source is more cost effective than the Windows operating system will clearly continue.

Martin Roesch, creator of Snort and CTO of its commercial off-shoot Sourcefire, believes open source software can provide a significant cost-savings, especially when the adopting company’s tech team has experience working with it.

“From a TCO standpoint, what people are seeing is that if you have the talent on board to manage the open source component, it is a lot cheaper because there’s no ongoing license fees, you don’t get locked into anything,” Roesch explained.

Companies like Roesch’s Sourcefire are finding a market in making open source software easier to use for IT teams that don’t have as much experience. And, obviously, if the IT department doesn’t have experience with open source software, the ongoing costs can be significant Roesch said, quickly adding that Windows can be just as expensive.

“There’s so much hidden from the user that it requires a lot more supervision to understand what’s going on and make it do what you want to do,” he said of Windows. “Whereas with open source, you’re confronted with thousands of little configuration text files to get everything working, but the great part is, once you get it working, you know exactly what it’s doing.”

Roesch’s Sourcefire product adds a management layer to the open source Snort, making it easier to configure, he explained. Some IT shops are using the raw open source product to lower TCO, he added.

“Typically, if you know what you’re doing, and the deployment is limited enough, it’s true [that you can lower TCO],” he said. Yet, he added, “If you want to deploy 10 or 100 Snort sensors, the TCO can be very high if you don’t have a very experienced crew on board.”

Linux prompting product demands
Baribault is so convinced of open source and the TCO opportunities, he now demands that software vendors ship Linux-compatible versions of their products.

He recently had a conversation with a vendor of voice-over IP software with management reporting on Microsoft’s IIS and Windows 2000. While Baribault thought the software was wonderful, he didn’t want to have to put an IIS server behind numerous firewalls in order to support the product and was interested in a more compatible solution.

Baribault asked the vendor, “Do you have this software running on Postgres or MySQL on Apache?” The vendor replied that he did, but that that product was still in development in the lab. Baribault replied, “Get it the heck out of the lab, and get it in here.”