Nonprofit chooses Ubuntu for servers, OpenOffice for desktops

Oxford Archaeology, one of the largest independent excavation firms in Britain, has twin missions: (1) discovering and preserving historical artifacts that might otherwise be destroyed by construction projects (2) and sharing its finds and experiences with visitors to increase their appreciation of archaeology and history.

So it’s only natural that the cost-conscious, nonprofit $24 million company would turn to open source software to run the heart of its operations, from capturing and storing archaeological data to running routine business functions — even its telephone system.

“We have a strategic commitment to the idea that data should be open, shareable and usable by anyone, so archiving data in open source software makes the most sense,” said Chief Information Officer Chris Puttick. “And open source is the best long-term cost-saver … and gives us the ultimate flexibility to adapt without restriction.”

Open source for the long haul
Two years ago, when Puttick arrived at the 35-year-old company, his goal was to convert the entire firm completely to open source — not just the operating system but also the database, office desktops, customer relationship management and geographic mapping systems. The works.
The task was daunting. For starters, the frugal registered charity ran a mix of old and new hardware that was acquired as cheaply as possible and caused a lot of operational problems that no one knew how to fix, Puttick said. These problems were exacerbated by Oxford Archaeology’s rapid growth. Not only was IT responsible for a greater number of tasks, but the company was expanding rapidly, In just two years, it had doubled the number of employees from 200 to 400, he said.

But Puttick persisted, starting with the servers, most of which now run on Ubuntu (some 6.06 Long Term Support [LTS] and others on 8.04 LTS), and the free version of VMware, then trying the OpenOffice desktop application and the PostgreSQL open source database, which has an add-on for a geographic information system (GIS).

A year later, open source adoption really took off, when Puttick hired a systems engineer well known in the Ubuntu community and who greatly accelerated the migration effort, he said.

There have been a few hiccups and changes along the way, though. For example, Oxford Archaeology initially adopted Novell SUSE Linux Enterprise but later switched to Ubuntu because Novell’s British office was not responsive in providing support, he said.

Ubuntu may not be the best choice technologically, but Canonical Ltd (which provides support for Ubuntu) is responsive and quick to address user issues, both through regular channels and personal contacts, Puttick said. In fact, Canonical called Oxford Archaeology for user input prior to a major conference six months ago, and all Oxford Archaeology’s suggested improvements were included in the new 8.04LTS version, he said.

“We like to think (the improvements) were because they were talking to us,” he said.

Switching users over to OpenOffice has encountered resistance because “this isn’t what everyone else does,” he said. Nevertheless, the switch to OpenOffice is essential for two reasons.

First, it costs less, so the company can afford to distribute it to everyone. Second, its use of the Open Document Format standard is important to the company’s long-term mission of openness and data accessibility, Puttick said. The information captured from archaeological sites must be recorded and retained in a format that is always readable; after a dig is complete, the original site condition is lost forever, he said.

Additional changes are still under way, including migration to open source GIS packages, including gvSIG, QGIS and/or GRASS, and conversion from VMware to KVM, which Canonical includes in Ubuntu 8.04 for supported customers. Oxford Archaeology also may move to Scribus for open source desktop publishing, Puttick said. But a few Solaris servers will be retained to run open source Alfresco customer relationship management software.

Oxford Archaeological hasn’t encountered problems handling its growing workload or its communications, which are all based on standardized authentication interfaces for Windows and Sun Microsystems Inc.’s Solaris, he said.

Puttick estimates that the conversion to open source will be complete within a year. In the meantime, he’s confident that he’s on the right track. “The only difficulty we’ve had comes from being an early adopter of a new standard,” he said. “But with Open Document Format adoption, we have a good guarantee that our data will be readable in 50 years. And we won’t have to pay for an upgrade ever again.”

Open source: Cheaper and easier
The net result of the conversion to open source software has been a 15% to 20% decrease in IT spending over the past two years, despite the doubling of the company’s workforce, he said.In addition to saving money, open source products have made the work easier to manage. There are no licenses to worry about; ditto for virus updates. The staff just installs software on the servers, tweaks them, then leaves them alone and never thinks about them again, he said.

“My choice is to pay for software and have problems or not pay for software and have problems,” Puttick said. “This is very pragmatic. It’s not that I never have a problem. But at least I’m not paying for the software and still having problems.

By Pam Derringer, News Writer
28 May 2008 |