Megafreight migration: Open source lightens the load
When it comes to open source software migration, SA freight-forwarding company Megafreight has done more than most. Over the years the company has migrated its employees over to full Linux desktops and open source applications, including OpenOffice, Thunderbird and Firefox. Guest writer Dyllan Pascoe describes the steps the company took to reach this point.
Over the past couple of years most of us have heard about companies implementing open source software in the workplace. I, for one, have read many articles regarding the benefits of OSS and how companies were taking advantage of it. However, most of the information was brief and never provided an in depth look at how OSS was actually being put to use.
These days I get a lot of strange looks when I tell people that Megafreight makes use of OSS. Having said that I would like to outline exactly how a freight-forwarding company such as Megafreight puts open source into use in the everyday running of our business, and the road we took to get there.
My interest in Linux was not all that different to many others, I suppose. I was eager to try and understand what the fuss was all about back in 1996 while I was still at school and it has kept me interested ever since. At the age of 23 I was employed by Megafreight as their systems administrator. For about a year I struggled with corrupt MS Exchange 5.5 database files and temperamental MS Servers before I decided to implement our first Linux server.
I had been experimenting with Gentoo as my distro of choice mainly because it was said that Gentoo gives one a better insight into the workings of Linux. It is also a very fast distribution as everything is compiled from source. This was demonstrated when I installed Gentoo on a P4 3.0GHz CPU, 4Gig of RAM and a 160GB IDE disk. We had recently lost our entire mail server due to a corrupt Exchange 5.5 database file and had moved our mail hosting to a fairly new Linux management company called Synaq.
We made use of the IMAP protocol after the move and although Outlook worked with IMAP we experienced many difficulties. At the time Thunderbird was establishing itself in the mail client market so it made sense to use this as our mail client of choice on the Linux server. With a fresh Gentoo installation running the KDE 3.5 desktop I was able to migrate some of our staff off our Microsoft platform over to the new Linux environment.
The desktop was comprised of only a few applications because my aim was to increase speed and productivity. Firefox was our browser of choice, Thunderbird the mail client, Openoffice as our office suite and a couple of other small applications to deal with odds and ends. KDE also has a nice tool called the KIOSK tool which allows for locking down of the KDE environment on a group-basis so users are unable to run or re-configure applications and settings.
Although I consider our setup to be a Linux Terminal Server project it does not make use of LTSP but instead the XDMCP protocol. We were using IGEL and WYSE thin clients to connect to our Microsoft Terminal Servers via the RDP protocol, but both units came with a build in X Server which made it easy to configure the thin client to connect to the Linux server via XDMCP.
At first I only moved a couple of users across but it soon become apparent that the new setup was much preferred and before I knew it we had more that 50 concurrent users working happily and with no speed or reliability issues whatsoever. In fact this exact same server ran for four years without fail and continues to run happily at one of our smaller offices.
There were, of course, teething problems and compatibility issues mainly with OpenOffice but that has drastically improved over the years. Firefox and Java were a bit of a headache, but are also improving. At the end of the day we were still making a profit as a company while benefiting from more reliable systems with less frustration and support. Not to mention one of the most important aspects: the cost savings over the years!
Today we have upgraded our hardware to four IBM x3550 servers, running at four of our main branches, with a total of about 150 users. Gentoo is still the distro of choice, Thunderbird 2 the mail client, Firefox 3 the browser, Openoffice 3 the office suite, and the KDE 3.5 desktop environment. The latest version of Openoffice is compatible with many more formats including the Microsoft .xlsx and .docx formats. Firefox running Sun’s Java works like a charm. Thunderbird is still working through our emails.
Our software requirements are fairly basic compared to a mechanical engineering company, so we didn’t run into too many problems with applications that could not be replaced by open source alternatives, with the exception of our accounting package, AccPac. We are currently testing an OSS accounting package called Compiere.
Most of the remaining problems are fairly minor. For example, sometimes we receive a .snp file (windows snapshot), which I have not found an OSS application for. We encourage all our staff, in fact it’s company policy, that staff only email documents in .pdf format, and make use of the Openoffice pdf converter because we feel that .pdf is a global standard, the viewer is free, the files are relatively compact and there are no viewing or printing issues. However, we still receive the occasional .tif file. It took me a while to find and set up a decent multi-page tiff viewer for Linux (qfaxreader + kfax). There are many tiff viewers but not many of them can view multi-page tiffs. But again we train our staff to encourage their clients and colleagues to email us in the .pdf format.
It was almost by accident that we ended up with a fully-fledged Linux desktop in a corporate world but we are ecstatic with the outcome and are forever pursuing more ways to implement OSS into our business. Megafreight are almost completely free of Microsoft software, our email server, intranet, development servers, databases, and shortly our new website, all run off open source software. We hope to see many more companies implementing open source software in their businesses. Yes, there are challenges and learning curves, but the benefits of lower operating costs, reliability, community-driven support, customisation and speed, to mention a few, far outweigh them.
Dyllan Pascoe is the IT Manager for Megafreight and is responsible for the running, upgrading, implementation and management of all things systems-related, from PABX and printers, to desktops and servers. Megafreight is an international freight forwarder specialising in air freight, ocean freight and customs clearing.
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