Housing set to push Linux further

Housing New Zealand has been "kicking around Red Hat [Linux] for a couple of years", says IT manager Steve Bain. He and his staff have been pleasantly surprised by its stability, the availability of skilled Linux staff and the openness of help and support channels.

Housing New Zealand has been “kicking around Red Hat [Linux] for a couple of years”, says IT manager Steve Bain. He and his staff have been pleasantly surprised by its stability, the availability of skilled Linux staff and the openness of help and support channels.

Housing’s chief current operating system is HP-UX, Hewlett-Packard’s version of Unix, for which support shows signs of declining, he says. But even support for the other main operating system, Windows, is more complex than that available for Linux, says development and operations manager Rob Herries.

Diagnosing a persistent fault means you have to go back to a basic configuration, says Herries — to ensure that some add-on is not causing the problem.

Because detailed knowledge of the workings of Windows is impossible to obtain, the user is heavily reliant on Microsoft expertise.

“With Linux you can go straight to the source, and fault resolution is easier.”

The operating system has so many enthusiastic and knowledgeable users now that any problem Housing encounters is fairly sure to have been diagnosed and remedied before somewhere in the Linux community.

Three years ago Housing tried Red Hat Linux on a single “neighbourhood unit” — the customer-facing local sites of the organisation as it then was. The purpose was chiefly to explore the efficiencies gained in making the unit more autonomous from head office. This meant acquiring individual IT for the unit. Linux was explored firstly because it was essentially free and reduced capital expenditure on the exercise, and secondly because it appeared more stable than HP-UX in the environment being put in place. So essential applications were ported from HP-UX to Red Hat for the unit’s purposes.

“I was a little pessimistic about long-term reliability,” Bain says. “But we didn’t have one outage in the two years we used it.” The neighbourhood units no longer exist in that form under the new Housing NZ organisation, in place since July last year. “But our experience has encouraged us to think about using Linux more widely in our new organisation.”

Bain says the next step will be to persuade Housing’s five general managers of the wisdom of the idea. “I was a bit nervous at first about engaging Linux for mission-critical systems, as there was a danger of little support from hardware and major application vendors.

“The ground has shifted with HP and IBM now supporting Linux,” and with the stronger commitment of Oracle, whose software Housing uses extensively.

There is no clear perspective yet on where Housing might use Linux next, he says. But beyond its own merits an alternative operating system, especially a free one, is a potential “bargaining chip” when it comes to trying to persuade HP to lower the cost of HP-UX.

In the efficiency stakes there is not much difference. “I can’t really comment,” Bain says, passing the query on to Herries, “but if [Linux] were manifestly worse, I’m sure I’d know.”

Herries says the difference, if any, is small, and with hardware so cheap, marginal inefficiency can usually be cured by slotting in another processor. He sees Linux as a significant part of a desired migration to “commodity-based hardware”, rather than the proprietary HP environment. “With the price of commodity hardware, we can put more boxes in. We can afford to run a hot-spare for the servers.”

New releases of commodity hardware such as Intel boxes usually moves ahead of proprietary HP releases. HP says this is because it wants to take time to make sure every system is bullet-proof, Herries says. But that doesn’t matter so much when an organisation’s applications are basic. “And that describes us. We don’t do anything ambitious.”

There are “some issues of maturity” with Linux, he says. HP-UX currently has better multiprocessor support and support of third-party products. Housing uses the HP Omniback backup utility, for example, and there is currently not a functionally equivalent utility for Linux.

“I’d be wary moving to open-source backup,” he says. Similarly, today’s open-source database systems don’t support advanced features like stored database procedures and replication across processors.

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