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Feature: Case Study

Open source Untangle guard union's privacy

By Ian Palmer on November 24, 2008 (8:00:00 PM)

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When Maine State Employees Association SEIU Local 1989 needed software to safeguard confidential information and ward off online threats, it found an open source solution. The labor union, which represents more than 15,000 public and private sector workers throughout the State of Maine, chose Untangle's open source Gateway platform, a solution that not only helps keep confidential data away from prying eyes, but also protects against spam, spyware, phishing, and viruses.

Steven Butterfield, director of information services at MSEA-SEIU, says that the solution's handling of spam, spyware, and viruses is all good and well, but it's the way that the software addresses intrusion detection and intrusion protection that really impressed his organization.

"We have an incredible amount of confidential information here," Butterfield says. "We're a labor union and we have not only people's Social Security numbers ... but also do legal work in the form of grievances and arbitrations, and we have to protect all of that confidential data because it's all residing in the system so that the lawyers and the field people have access to it."

Butterfield says that his organization had been using a version of Ositis's WinProxy for five years, but when Ositis was taken over by another company, the other company opted to discontinue WinProxy. At about the same time, the union was already mulling over the possibility of switching products.

"We were happy with the product, but it was an ever-increasing cost because, being of a commercial nature, they would continually increase [the price]," Butterfield says. "We were doing 24-month licensing agreements with the company, and the costs were going up -- not exponentially -- but fairly significantly. Every 24 months, they were having fairly significant increases in the cost of the licensing.

"So I was already in the process of looking at some other option to go with and had heard an awful lot about open source, and it's a direction I'm trying to take this organization in. I'm trying to get more open source products into this environment."

Before implementing the Untangle Gateway, Butterfield says that he considered a number of different options, such as SonicWALL. What tipped the scale in the favor of Untangle was the functionality and cost.

"They [Untangle] integrate so much more into the open source products that they use and then they knit it all together in a very functional and very easy-to-use graphical interface," Butterfield says. "You bring the system up as basically a virtual rack, so you have all the applications that are offered by Untangle in one single place with the ability to adjust or turn them off or on or make configuration adjustments without having to get into all of the intricate sub-levels of the open source product."

Butterfield figures that the return on investment, especially for a nonprofit organization such as MSEA-SEIU, is -- and will continue to be -- substantial. With Untangle, the union's licensing cost works out to a little bit under $1,000 every 24 months. Untangle also sold MSEA-SEIU some hardware -- a practice the vendor has since stopped -- for $999. All told, the organization's startup cost was less than $2,000. By contrast, the WinProxy platform that had similar functionality was costing MSEA-SEIU almost $6,000 every 24 months, Butterfield says.

Furthermore, the other products Butterfield considered did not have all of the capabilities that Untangle's did, which means that MSEA-SEIU would have had to use multiple platforms -- translating into costs probably amounting between $5,000 and $6,000 on a 24-month contract -- had it not gone with Untangle.

The union purchased and installed the software in November 2007, and Butterfield says that there were no implementation issues. In fact, he says, "I installed the unit on a weekend. I started the process late on a Friday evening and then finished it up early on a Saturday morning. The only thing that I had to do was punch in the appropriate information so it knew how to find the T1 through our internal routing system. It came right online without a hitch. I've only called [tech support] once for one minor instance that had to deal with some remote access capability, and they were extremely responsive. We got a call back within 45 minutes and resolved the issue."

Things have been going well since the solution was installed a year ago. Butterfield says the organization is getting more functionality out of the solution on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis, particularly in the form of the usage reports generated by the system. He has no hesitation in recommending the Untangle solution to others who may be considering it.

"Since it's an open source product, as long as you have an available CPU that's a Pentium 4 with at least a gigabyte of RAM that's available, you can download the product for free from the Untangle site. You can create a distribution CD and load it onto the machine and try it out. If you want the additional capability of some of the other functionality they bring into it, you can then purchase the product from them with all of the support and backup that comes with it."

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

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