By Lauren Gibbons Paul

Timing is everything, a fact not lost on the founders of Viata Inc., a Honolulu-based application service provider to the online travel industry. Viata was a startup in March 2000—hardly an auspicious time to begin an e-business.

“Our company was formed just about the time [the dot-com boom] dried up,” said Viata’s Jay Abel, ruefully.

When then-CTO Abel was designing the company’s technical architecture, conserving company funds was a principal concern. Viata was in the process of hiring a staff of 60, and software-licensing fees to deploy Windows and Office to the whole group would easily run as high as $50,000—a cost that Abel couldn’t justify.

The need to operate on a shoestring budget led to his controversial decision to use Linux not only on the company’s servers, but also on its desktop PCs. The move was unusual because few companies had made a wholesale move to Linux at the time, and not many people understood the operating system’s inner workings.

Taking a risk on Linux
Not to put too fine a point on it, Abel’s coworkers thought he was crazy. “Even I told him he was making a big mistake,” said Deven Phillips, security officer and network analyst for Viata, who was then an outside technical consultant to the firm. Though Phillips had some experience with Linux, he had reservations. “I thought it was a little more difficult than the average user could handle. It wasn’t as polished or friendly as modern OSs are.”

For example, users often must access a command line to perform functions such as launching a program or converting documents to PDF format. As the person who would implement and support the system, Phillips wasn’t at all convinced the firm’s workers (which, after downsizing, now number 25, including eight developers) would be able to cope. Luckily, the issue never came up, as the company’s IT staff found a way to create icons on users’ desktops for any requested applications.

Nevertheless, the risks were real. Linux is poised to leapfrog Windows and UNIX as a premier server OS before the end of the decade, according to Aberdeen Group. But Bill Claybrook, one of the research firm’s analysts, is much less certain about Linux’s prospects on the desktop. Claybrook is concerned in particular about the current lack of a Linux office suite that is fully compatible with Microsoft Office.

Linux makes the grade
The payoffs turned out to be as real as the risks. Viata saved about $170,000 in software costs during the first six months of using Linux, according to Phillips. Viata also saved on hardware, as it was able to avoid purchasing the high-end machines it would have needed to run Windows. And administration is cheaper, since most functions are performed centrally and can be automated.

The savings have continued. Viata’s application software strategy could be summed up as “All free, all the time.” The firm relies on open source software, freely available on the Internet, to run its business, buying applications only where necessary. Viata also handles its own support, avoiding even the modest fees charged by providers such as MandrakeSoft and Red Hat.

Beyond the money, the question of reliability led Abel to make the anti-Windows choice. “I had had so much experience with Microsoft and how buggy and unstable Windows was. [Windows] software can be more unreliable and cause more problems than the worst employee you ever had,” he said. However, the company does have a handful of Windows machines used for testing purposes.

The power of Linux’s development environment was another factor. “The development tools are far superior because you’re allowed to look at everything that goes on in the OS. That makes it very easy to figure out where problems are,” said Phillips. Once you know where the trouble is, you can send an e-mail on the spot to the Linux developer who wrote the code. “You’ve seen the Blue Screen of Death in Windows. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could see right there who was responsible for the problem and send him a message? You can do that with Linux.”

End sum
Abel does not regret his decision to go Linux everywhere. But if he had it to do over again, he admits, he might reconsider Windows for Viata’s desktop PCs, as users required more handholding than anticipated. And a giant file server crash caused a major setback. “At one point, my boss said to me, ‘You reinvented the wheel here, and it’s square,'” said Abel.

Abel has retained his belief in Linux despite these bumps. Abel and Phillips are both in awe of the worldwide Linux community that shares programming freely. Said Abel, “I loved the idea of software that worked because people didn’t stop fiddling with it until it was right. And free is free. It doesn’t get any cheaper than that.”

Lauren Gibbons Paul is a freelance writer in Waban, MA.

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