Keeping an open mind

What are the benefits of using Linux - Karl Cushing unwraps a company that is reaping the rewards of an open source...

What are the benefits of using Linux - Karl Cushing unwraps a company that is reaping the rewards of an open source infrastructure

Digital media production company Victoria Real provides companies with cross-platform creative content and has recently been involved in high-profile projects such as designing and building the Big Brother Web site and William Hill's online betting service. According to the company's head of IT and facilities, Jamie Shaw, to complete projects like this successfully it is essential to have an IT infrastructure that is powerful and secure yet customisable and easy to maintain. For Victoria Real, this meant building an architecture around a back-end based on open source software.

Shaw joined the Brighton-based company in 2000 with a remit to "get the IT in order, watch costs and enable the company to grow". Its plans for rapid expansion were being hampered by the state of its IT systems which, in the 10 years since the company was founded, had accumulated into a real hotchpotch. "The IT architecture was very chaotic," says Shaw.

At that time the company was mainly using Intel PCs with Linux at the back end but it was also using a mix of Unix and Sun Solaris operating systems. On the client side, on top of the mix of Microsoft and Apple operating systems that is usual in creative media industries, some staff were using operating systems such as open source offering Star Office. There were five different e-mail clients. Not surprisingly, Shaw says this placed quite a burden on the company in terms of support.

Shaw began by evaluating Linux. He did a lot of networking in the IT community to help him to determine the way forward. On his recommendations, the company invested heavily in architecture and acquired nine rack-mounted Dell servers. It now runs a customised version of Linux 7.2 at the back-end and uses a combination of Linux and Windows 2000 servers for development work. The company also uses open source software for its IP chains, based on a rewriting of the Linux source code.

"It is very secure," says Shaw. And for its e-mail, the company uses Hewlett-Packard's Open Mail, running on Linux, which Shaw says is similar to Microsoft Xchange but comes at "a fraction of the cost". All of the Linux software is supplied by open source software firm Red Hat and one of the key reasons for this is that the company has a good relationship and works closely with Dell.

According to Shaw, open source has a number of key benefits and a lot of the common criticisms of the model are unfounded. First, he does not believe that switching to open source requires lots of retraining or places an added burden on the support function. "The administration side is not a problem," he says, adding that he did not have to invest in lots of retraining because his two systems administrators picked it up very quickly. For this reason he believes that the open source model is good for small- and medium-sized businesses which have to keep a tight rein on expenditure.

Then there is the issue of reliability and uptime. Shaw says the company has had "at least 99.95% uptime" since it set up its current Linux-based architecture in November 2000 and has had just one organised shutdown. "I can't see you doing that with a Microsoft back-end environment," he says, pointing out that whenever Microsoft releases a new patch you have to shut down and restart the servers. Shaw adds that Red Hat offers good support, and there is a big open source community out there so that help can easily be found online.

So what would he say to companies using or thinking of using Microsoft at the back-end? "I wouldn't say don't do it but because Microsoft is so large and there are so many hackers out there who are so unhappy with them you have to be very careful," he says. "It's difficult to guarantee high uptime."

Although he admits that open source is not a panacea and "it's definitely not everyone's cup of tea", Shaw feels that the model is improving and it has become more mainstream, helped by the support of companies like IBM. "A few years ago it was very geeky," he says.

Shaw admits that there are limitations to the open source model, specifically on the desktop. "Star Office is very good, and version 6 is now available, but I don't think we can adopt something like that yet," he says. "We would consider it in a couple of years but not at the moment." Everyone at Victoria Real now uses Microsoft Windows 2000 professional, apart from members of the design team who use Apple OS9 on Macs.

He says that from a user perspective the company has to use Microsoft Office - although Outlook is tied in with the company's Open Mail system. "Microsoft has done a great job on that," he says. But having expended so much effort getting people from Windows 98 to Windows 2000, Shaw says the company is not planning to do anything about XP for at least another year. "I can't see any reasons for going to XP at the moment but I expect we'll be forced into it eventually," he says.

Victoria Real will also continue to look around at open source options such as Star Office, says Shaw, adding, "There is a bit of a backlash [against Microsoft] now."

Shaw says the key issues for using Linux are: reliability - "It's really reliable, no doubt about it"; scalability; ease of management; and cost. "Return on investment is very good," he says. "I haven't done a complete cost analysis on it but I'm 100% sure we've saved a substantial amount of money."

And besides, "Competition is healthy," says Shaw. So does that mean that the Microsoft monopoly is unhealthy? "Probably, yes," he says .
Company facts
  • Victoria Real was founded in 1990

  • It has 55 full-time employees

  • The company is fourth in the Sunday Times Fast Track 100 list of fastest growing unquoted firms and eighth in its Tech 100 list of fastest growing technology companies.

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