Vancouver Community College phases in more Linux

A B.C. post-secondary institution said it intends to grow the number of Linux machines in its data centre as it replaces older hardware infrastructure with blade servers.

Vancouver Community College made the switch to Linux from a mixed environment of NetWare and Windows operating systems one year ago when it purchased IBM blade servers, which came with Linux pre-installed, to replace its aging infrastructure. Novell’s Suse Linux Enterprise Server 9 now accounts for over 50 per cent of VCC’s server environment, which has 40 physical servers and double that number of virtual machines.

“The intention is to have the vast majority of (servers) running Linux,” said Des Dougan, director of information and computing services, VCC.

The Linux machines handle file and print, Web services and database applications while the Windows servers are primarily used for vertical applications. VCC also has some older machines running NetWare, which will eventually be converted to Linux. But Dougan intends to get more over the college’s 1,000-plus users off Windows-based apps with the implementation of a new ERP system next month.

VCC will be spending the Thanksgiving weekend migrating its current ERP system, called Banner ERP, which is developed by Malvern, Pa.-based SunGard Higher Education, from Oracle 9i to Oracle 10g. Because the new system uses browser versus Windows-based forms, Dougan said it will help to make it easier to move towards a Linux desktop environment.

Dougan and a couple of staff in his IT department are currently testing out the recently-released Suse Linux Enterprise Desktop 10 on their machines. Dougan himself is running Windows on his desktop and Suse Linux Enterprise on his laptop. His intention is to get some people outside of IT to consider running the operating system as a pilot project for his department.

“In an institutional framework one of the biggest areas of attraction would be cost of ownership because the cost of applications is so much less,” he said. “If we can get people moving away from Microsoft Office to Open Office for example then there’s a fairly significant savings on the desktop.”

VCC is currently paying several hundred dollars for the Windows licence plus approximately $70 a seat for Office. With over 1,000 seats at VCC, Dougan figures he could save between $300 to $400 a seat by switching to Novell’s Linux platform.

Dougan, however, said that his organization will never be completely free of Windows as it has a huge Microsoft user base and it teaches the proprietary platform in its classes.

“I’d like to try to see if we can get more (Linux) to improve the stability of the desktops and remove a lot of the virus and spyware risks that we face.”

Despite the low number of viruses that affect the Linux operating system – there are nine to date, according to Novel Canada’s CTO Ross Chevalier – application support by major vendors continues to be a barrier to adoption. There are currently 25,000 applications for open source platforms but without support from major applications such as Apple’s iTunes, pushing Linux on the desktop is still a tough sell.

Warren Shiau, The Strategic Counsel’s lead analyst in IT research, said moving from a Windows to a Linux platform is a question of user acceptance.

“Even if you get a degree of user interchangeability, you have to convince them to take that look,” he said. Shiau added that user groups that are more likely to move to a Linux-based OS are those with less computing requirements and simpler needs such as a retail environment whereas those with more intense requirements are often locked into Windows.

That’s why Novell has made it a priority to make its distribution of the Linux OS easy to use so that IT staff don’t have to spend time re-training employees, said Novell Canada’s Chevalier.

“Our goal is to build a desktop platform that’s so user centric that they can learn to use it in one hour,” said Chevalier at a recent press briefing, where he demonstrated Suse Linux Enterprise Desktop 10. Novell Canada has been offering free training to enterprises across Canada to promote the latest version of the OS. Novell surveyed people who attended these sessions and found that 93 per cent of attendants checked easy or very easy to install.

In terms of features, Suse Linux Enterprise Desktop 10 allows users to install both Windows and Linux platforms on their machines and run Windows virtually through a third-party vendor’s virtualization software such as VMWare’s Player. Included in the distribution is Open Office, which allows users to export files directly as a PDF and also features the ability to use macros without losing any data from the original document. For server management, the OS allows users to browse network servers and connect to Windows servers in their environment.

Suse Linux Enterprise 10 comes with a 60-day connection to Novell’s Zenworks for software updates. After that time, users can buy support for $60 annually.

As for Vancouver Community College’s Dougan, he’s pleased with the stability of the Suse Linux operating system compared to Windows.

“We’ve definitely got a lot of value going with this route.”

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