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Feature: Case Study

Van Dam Iron Works vacillates between Linux and Windows

By Ian Palmer on October 22, 2008 (9:00:00 PM)

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When Ben Rousch joined Van Dam Iron Works close to a decade ago, it didn't take him long to move off a proprietary network operating system and start experimenting with a Linux server. He changed horses again, to a Windows server, but today Van Dam is back in the Linux fold -- lesson learned.

Rousch, manger of information systems at the metals and structural steel fabricator in West Michigan, says that the company's IT network largely consisted of a Novell server and Windows 98 clients when he arrived back in 2000.

But in 2001, the self-professed Linux enthusiast swapped the Novell server for the Red Hat Linux server and pieced together a system that also included Windows 98 and NT clients for Windows-only applications.

While Rousch now tries to run as many programs as he can on Linux, he acknowledges that Van Dam is unlikely to ever leave proprietary software behind entirely due to its use of various mission-critical, Windows-only applications. For instance, "We use AutoCAD and that's a big part of our company. That's Windows-only. There's no way we're going to get Linux clients on those."

Rousch says that choosing a Linux server led to cost savings because he no longer had to shoulder the expenses related to securing software licenses for the 15 or so computer users the company had at the time -- up to about 20 currently. By choosing Linux over Novell, Van Dam also eliminated what had been a major source of hassle and grief. Even tasks that should have been easy, such as installing programs, were rendered difficult on the Novell server, he says.

The changes he made in 2001 were followed by additional changes in the years after that demonstrated the company's ability to strike a balance between open source and proprietary software solutions.

"In 2005, I sort of drank the Microsoft Kool-Aid and went to a Windows server because it could do everything on one server as opposed to the two I had before," he says. "I got the Windows Small Business Server (SBS) and moved everything off of the Linux server and NT Workstation and put it on there.

"At the time we were running BusinessWorks for accounting and that was a Windows-only program. And then in late 2006, we went to QuickBooks as our accounting solution. So we were on the Windows server in 2005, 2006, 2007 and half of this year.

Early last year, Rousch installed VMware Server on the SBS and created an Ubuntu Linux virtual machine guest on the SBS host. "I then moved each of the services that the SBS was performing over to the Ubuntu guest, and finally finished migrating everything in mid-2008. Soon thereafter, we purchased a new Dell server that runs Ubuntu 8.04 Hardy Heron as its base operating system, which saved us several thousand dollars in Microsoft server license fees. I recently moved the Samba virtual machine to this new server."

Speed was one of the reasons Van Dam left the Windows server for Ubuntu, Rousch says. While the Windows server was technically four times faster than the company's old Linux server, programs ran at the same speed on the Windows server as they had on the older server -- which was a constant source of frustration for Van Dam. QuickBooks Enterprise Solutions ran about 25% faster on the Linux server, he says, even though SBS had 3.5GB of RAM at its disposal compared to only 512MB on the Linux virtual machine.

"When I installed QuickBooks [on SBS], I had a little trouble ... getting that thing to run at good speed. So in mid-2006 I installed the free VMware Server and installed Ubuntu Linux Dapper Drake on that and started moving all of my file hosting back into Linux by running in a VMware guest on the Windows server.

"2007 comes around and QuickBooks offers a Linux beta for their server. Since I had previously had speedups moving to Linux, I decided to give that a try. Up until a month or so ago, basically 90% of our file sharing and our applications were on Samba and Ubuntu Linux running in a VMware guest on the Windows server -- and running faster than when they were just on Windows server."

He says that the conversion process was pretty smooth, all things considered. The process essentially involved remapping the company's Windows XP clients' drive letters from the SBS server to the Linux Samba server. Using the same drive letters, he says, ensured that most of the company's client applications had no idea that anything had changed on the server side.

One issue that had to be resolved involved some applications that required their server-side component to be on Windows. But the problems was resolved "by installing a Windows XP Pro virtual machine for each of the Windows-only applications.

"The stickiest problem was changing the PDC from Windows SBS to Samba," he continues. "I had a lot of trouble trying to switch to Samba PDC on the same domain, so I ended up creating a new domain with Samba as PDC and moved each of our Windows XP workstations to the new domain."

Rousch advises others considering a similar move to keep VMware in mind, as his company found the tool made the process much easier than it otherwise would have been. "It's much faster and more flexible to test configurations in virtual machines than it is to set up servers on hardware. You need a lot of RAM to run this way, but RAM is cheap these days."

Ian Palmer is a freelance writer based near Toronto, Canada, who focuses on technology and business issues.

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on Van Dam Iron Works vacillates between Linux and Windows

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Van Dam Iron Works vacillates between Linux and Windows

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 211.27.142.54] on October 23, 2008 12:16 AM
Funny bit is this that the Linux server is running a known crippled kernel. Serious question what in did Microsoft stuff up so bad to be slower.

When the kernel update for Linux come threw his server will run faster again.

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Van Dam Iron Works vacillates between Linux and Windows

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 24.37.223.185] on October 23, 2008 05:21 AM
Somebody should pass them the good news, they don't have to use AutoCAD thus being forced to stay with Windows.
I suggest they should take a look at MEDUSA4 from CAD-Schroer ( http://www.cad-schroer.com ). It looks impressive and best of all, it is multi-platform Windows and Linux.

Anyway, they deserve congratulations for their courage and determination.

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Re: Van Dam Iron Works vacillates between Linux and Windows

Posted by: Ben Rousch on October 23, 2008 01:19 PM
I hadn't come across MEDUSA4 in my (many) searches. I will definitely take a look at it. Thanks for the tip!

Of course, a problem nearly as large as finding an AutoCAD replacement on Linux is getting our draftsmen - who have been working in AutoCAD for their entire career - to switch to a new drafting or modeling program.

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Van Dam Iron Works vacillates between Linux and Windows

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 77.226.34.184] on October 23, 2008 07:31 PM
You must be kidding when presents this tinny little story as a case study. You're not doing any favor to Linux presenting this kind of home-office, linux knight stories. For the casual neutral reader it tends to reinforce the sensation that Linux is just only for the small leagues, not the corporate IT.

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Van Dam Iron Works vacillates between Linux and Windows

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 71.131.185.64] on October 24, 2008 01:59 AM
Ben's basically right. The problem with moving mission-critical apps to Linux is not the OS, but either the vertical-market application software and/or the relevant retraining and lack of trained employees in the job market. I have a client who converts consumer analog media into digital media (film, video, stills). He has to run Adobe media applications like Adobe Premiere, Encore, PhotoShop. Part of the reason is that those products support the available video and film and still capture devices on the market, for which there are NO Linux equivalents. And there simply is NO Linux functional equivalent to Adobe Premiere Pro (don't bother citing Cinelerra or anything else - they simply aren't even close.) The other problem is that the available pool of employees for this niche market pretty much requires either Adobe products or Apple products such as Final Cut Pro. The client would move to Linux in a heartbeat because he knows it's more reliable than Windows. But he simply can't.

And even once I get him to upgrade to higher performance hardware that might support running Windows apps in VM's hosted on Linux - which would at least let us remove the unreliability of Windows from the equation - the problem would then be getting access from the Windows guest OS down to the media capture hardware. Very unlikely these capture devices will be available to the VM. I'm going to research this closely but I doubt it will work.

So he's stuck.

As for the guy above complaining about the story, listen, there are millions of small businesses who really can't afford the downtime, unreliability and security issues of Windows. Being able to replace Windows in those small businesses with Linux is a definite market need. The big corporations can expends millions doing retraining, redesigning mission critical apps and the like. They can handle Linux. The small guys are the ones who have problems. It's not that it can't be done. But it has to be done with either a Linux-savvy user or a consultant. And it has to be done over time, with a plan. And in some cases it either has to be done while retaining some Windows machines in the mix - or it can't be done at all - yet.

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Which Windows apps are you still running?

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 76.94.199.31] on October 24, 2008 02:48 PM
On the client, which apps (and which versions) are keeping you on Windows? Which version of AutoCad are you using?

And on the server, which apps are you still running in Windows VMs?

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Re: Which Windows apps are you still running?

Posted by: Ben Rousch on October 24, 2008 07:24 PM
On the clients:
* AutoCAD 2009 and Autodesk Inventor 2009 for drafting
* Quickbooks 2007 for accounting
* Fabtrol MRP for industry-specific estimating, inventory, and fabrication control
* A very large MS Access 97 database for many things
The employees spend about 90% of their day in Fabtrol, AutoCAD, or the MS Access database.

Servers:
* Two Win98 virtual machines for legacy applications that require serial modems
* A WinXP VM for Autodesk Inventor Vault
* A WinXP VM that allows ODBC access to the MS Access database, Fabtrol, and Quickbooks data

I currently spend much of my time writing JSP/Servlets to replace the MS Access database and Fabtrol so we can one day move to mostly Linux clients.

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Re(1): Which Windows apps are you still running?

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 206.131.208.25] on October 24, 2008 09:26 PM
Ben, you might want to check out xTuple for MRP and Accounting. They have a free version which is comparable to QuickBooks Enterprise, and also two commercial versions Their market is primarily manufacturing, so it's right up your alley. Best of all, their client app is Qt based and they offer clients for Linux, Mac, and Windows.

http://www.xtuple.org

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Van Dam Iron Works vacillates between Linux and Windows

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 86.27.188.0] on November 01, 2008 08:36 PM
What about Exchange??

Does anyone know if there has been any great development of a group ware server that is compatible with Outlook?

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