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Feature: Open Source

Internet services entrepreneur uses OSS to "decouple" software and hardware

By Tina Gasperson on September 19, 2007 (9:00:00 PM)

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BinHost, a Web hosting and Internet services company, launched in 2000, "a time when discussion and email lists were not particularly easy to find a home for," says Justin Newman, BinHost's founder. Even back then, Newman built all of his infrastructure and services on open source software. As Newman has expanded his venture into telephony services, he still believes that open source saves business owners time, energy, and money.

Newman founded BinHost in order to fill a niche. "Back then, a lot more people were using the proprietary listserv package, or other commercial products," he says. "There were few options for the 'little guy' that just wanted a discussion list for his family or a nonprofit." Because he used open source applications like Mailman, Newman was able to provide an affordable alternative to standard commercial fare. "From the beginning, we identified open source as a necessary component to any solution. That conclusion came out of several needs, one of which was that of the group of people involved in the early operations, none of us had any interest in being a Windows shop. None of us had adequate confidence in Windows' ability to operate as an enterprise service provider quality product."

Instead, Newman built BinHost on Linux. "Our experience with that was that out of the box, Linux was reasonably well-suited to the hosting environment, with very limited tweaks necessary. So, we headed down the Linux path, and as you do that, you find yourself very quickly immersed in other open source software. We became heavy Apache users, along with BIND, and Sendmail, and as our needs and our customers needs evolved, we moved into products like qmail, MySQL, and Mailman." Newman says each time it was necessary to look at new software, he considered proprietary alternatives. "I don't have a philosophical opposition to proprietary software," he says. "But looking at it from the perspective of this company, the proprietary products could never overcome that cost factor. We were never able to say, 'Yes, that $5,000 product has all these great features that we are willing to pay for.' Besides, I knew we'd be locked into a product and we'd be dependent on the vendor. Instead, for example with our use of qmail, if we needed something we just coded it, or we found someone else's patch, rolled it in, and we had ourselves an upgrade. That kind of functionality is not available in closed source software."

Newman's positive experiences with open source made it easy to choose it over proprietary software once again when he branched out into the VOIP services industry. Newman Telecom, which later merged with Baltimore Washington Telephone Company (BWTC), was originally built on Cisco hardware, but when two different Cisco PIX devices failed in the first year, Newman realized that even in a mission-critical environment like telephony, open source was a better alternative than "our flirtation with proprietary networking gear." He replaced "the vast majority" of his Cisco equipment and software with Asterisk, Vyatta-supported open source network tools, and commodity hardware. Newman was happy with the result. "The support, the ability to use commodity gear, and the stability" were the biggest benefits of moving the network to open source. "A lot of people are very fond of Cisco for its support and stability," Newman says. "Our experience was that Cisco was relatively fragile, and Vyatta just worked. Now, if a router does go down, I could drive over to Best Buy, pick up a box, drag it over to the data center, plug it in, and have it running. It might not last me more than a few days, but with Cisco I'd be out until they could get out with the equipment, or I'd have to invest in specific standby gear."

Newman values the paid support he receives from Vyatta. "The biggest challenge with open source, in my view, is the challenge of support. If there's a problem, our ability to get that resolved usually depends on our ability to figure out the problem ourselves or surf the Internet." And even though Newman turned to paid support with Vyatta, for the most part he sticks with the free versions of other open source software he uses in BinHost and BWTC. "We have partially solved the problem by hiring good people. As we grow, I know that I will not be able to simply rely on the certification [a potential employee may possess]. I need people who can think, solve complex problems, and research solutions when they might not even know where to start. They can't just go to the shelf, pick up a book, turn to page 296 and find out, 'Oh, I need to press the Escape key.'"

The biggest benefit for BinHost and BWTC in using open source software is commodity hardware, according to Newman. "It is decoupling the software from the hardware. We engineered a VOIP solution using Asterisk, such that we could swap in x86 gear whenever we needed it. Our competitor, on the other hand, installs a million-dollar switch that has a lot more capacity, but it cost them a million dollars to get started, and they don't have any more features than we do. With commodity, the scaling really is much more linear."

Newman says if you're going to build your business on open source, don't be afraid of support contracts. "It is important to identify the component you are most dependent on, and if you have any qualms at all, remember that support contracts are cheap when compared to proprietary software." Newman says that if he'd discovered support contracts earlier on, he'd have saved even more time and energy. "It's hard to even think about all the time over the years we would have saved if we had been with a product where support was an option. We spent a lot of time dealing with the joys of qmail. Would I trade that for proprietary? It is unlikely, but we definitely spent an awful lot of time on it. My advice is buy the support contract for year one, and get yourself installed. It will make the biggest difference there. Once you do that, you might not want to let it go."

Tina Gasperson writes about business and technology from an open source perspective.

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