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Rapidly growing city bets its future on Linux messaging platform

After a computer virus attacked the city of Canton, Ga the IT department went looking for an alternative before finally betting the house on the Oracle Collaboration Suite.

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Bryan Tidd single-handedly manages an IT system that will be serving four times as many people by 2015 as it is today. However, that rapid growth doesn't worry Tidd, director of technology for the city of Canton, Ga., because he has been moving the city's IT system to Linux.

Just 30 miles from Atlanta, Canton is one of the top 25 fastest-growing counties in the country and is expected to grow from 11,000 to over 43,000 residents by 2015.

In Tidd's four years on duty, the city's data center has grown from two to 13 servers and now serves six different facilities. Tidd has had his eye on switching a Geo-Spatial one-stop server cluster from Windows to Linux, but circumstances forced him to tackle an Exchange migration first.

Virus corrupts city's Microsoft Exchange Server

In September 2003, a virus -- unleashed by a user opening an e-mail attachment -- attacked one of the log files of the Exchange Server. "Once you get a corruption there, it's a sad thing," Tidd said. The system was down for five days as Tidd tried to recover users' mailboxes that had been blacked out. He had to rebuild the database and drop anything that was bad, and he had to do all that manually because the backup data was not in good shape.

By working feverishly, Tidd kept the cost of the failure down to just less than $3,000. He knew that the rapid growth of his organization would make future failures much more costly. In fact, that same failure would have cost $30,000 today.

"Every year the technology we work with becomes more and more dependent upon e-mail," Tidd said. "The stakes are higher today because communication is more mission critical. For example, our police department receives homeland security bulletins via e-mail."

Search begins for alternatives

After sweating over that Exchange repair, Tidd began searching for less-vulnerable, easier-to-repair communications software. He evaluated Exchange 2000 and 2003, SuSE Open Exchange Mail Server and Oracle Collaboration Suite.

Migrating from Exchange 5.5 to a newer Exchange required using Microsoft Active Directory Connector to get information from the Exchange Server. But Tidd couldn't get ADC to work.

Tidd then ran a test on a development box that validated his belief that getting off Exchange was a good idea. His research revealed that the city could not get better security and service or reduce licensing costs with newer versions of Exchange. The ADC problem sealed his decision.

Tidd checked out SuSE Open Exchange before Novell's acquisition of SuSE. Although he liked the product and its pricing, he was concerned about SuSE's future. Oracle was a less risky choice as a company and had the advantage of a strong partnership with Red Hat and Dell Corp.

Oracle's ability to bring its database and application servers to Oracle Collaboration Suite was another plus. "Everything from OCS is pushed into the Oracle database, a very indexable and searchable place," Tidd said. "It's fast and effective, and it's easy to back up."

In general, Tidd found that OCS was easier to set up and manage than Exchange or Open Exchange. "A user can create a workspace, determine who the people are in that workspace and design role-based security to determine how users will use that space," he said.

Using OCS also made it easy to keep Microsoft Outlook on users' desks. "With OCS, you can have a connector with Outlook, and what you see there is the same as what you see through the Web client," Tidd said. "That's not true with Exchange." OCS also beat out Exchange in ease of scalability and porting from one operating system or hardware platform to another.

Although moving to an alternative client e-mail system is on Tidd's wish list, getting rid of Outlook isn't an option at this point. The city has invested heavily in Outlook, and users are familiar with it.

Huge time saver

Early in 2004, Tidd spent 18 hours testing OCS and then six hours loading the production system on Red Hat Advanced Server on a Dell 4600 series server. The operation went smoothly, and the system has run in production without downtime or any other glitches since then.

For a one-person IT shop, the fact that OCS requires a few minutes of administration each day is a big deal. Exchange required hours, Tidd said. The time-savings has freed him to tighten up the city's e-mail security. He's changed authentication processes and user names to break his users' habit of not changing passwords often enough or using the same login info for multiple systems.

Besides reducing the cost of labor, using OCS brought reduced licensed fees and fewer server licenses to renew in general. "In small government organizations, every dollar spent has to be a dollar that makes a difference," Tidd said. "In this case, moving from one product to another made good business sense and provided us with a system we can depend upon 24/7."

Looking ahead, Tidd is planning to implement a large-scale geographical information system that will facilitate city planning for the next decade and beyond. He also has plans to push more services out to the public on the Internet, including online bill payment.

Naturally, Linux will be his platform of choice.

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