Timber firm takes saw to proprietary software

A US wood products firm has benefited from replacing conventional applications with open source ones. Galen Gruman reports

Owens Forest Products’ IT department took the traditional path of many smaller companies: a custom ERP system using tools such as Microsoft SQL Server, ASP.Net and Business Objects’ Crystal Reports.

But the firm’s CIO, Lee Hughes, says the system never worked properly. There were frequent, unexplained instabilities with SQL Server and it was difficult integrating Crystal Reports with the ASP.Net apps for access via the web.

Fortunately for the company, Hughes says, his tendency to hire young IT developers meant his staff was familiar with open source technology and had already experimented with open source alternatives to SQL Server and ASP.Net.

“Originally, it was a curiosity, to see what Linux could do,” Hughes says. But the integration issues with Crystal Reports were the final straw. Hughes authorised a switch to a mix of open source and Java tools, including JasperReports as a replacement for Crystal Reports; PostgreSQL instead of SQL Server and the Jakarta Project’s Apache Tomcat servlet engine instead of Windows Server.

Hughes says open source has given the timber products firm many more support options, including mailing lists and Google searches.

“We have not had to turn to commercial support, but we know it’s there if we need it,” he says.

He says the open source switch was a major turning point in his IT operations. “It was a strategic move to gain control over our environment, rather than give vendors that control.

“Instead of making lists [of issues] for help, the developers track the problems down themselves.”

Simplified licence management was another unexpected benefit. “Managing Microsoft licences has become a pretty hefty job,” he says. That’s one reason Hughes is evaluating whether to replace users’ desktops with Linux PCs equipped with OpenOffice.org instead of Microsoft Office. His IT staff has already switched, he says, as have “a few brave users, too”.

Hughes admits that the shift has required changes within his organisation. “When hiring, we have to focus more on self-exploration and self-learning — the creative, entrepreneurial attitude.” But the cost of retaining those employees is a price worth paying, he says. “Now we have people who can really help us strategise our IT solutions. You get more for your money.”

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