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Linux, virtualization help GHY meet post-9/11 requirements

In the post-9/11 world, security measures have been tightened, especially in the import/export industry. Learn how one firm used Linux and hardware virtualization to keep up with changing rules and add flexibility to client IT environments.

Immediately after the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., the federal government cracked down on port security and passed new regulations on the import/export industry. Companies turned to Linux and hardware virtualization as means to tighten security and adhere to changing regulations.

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For GHY International, a leading trade services broker that handles import and export services, the new rules meant a unique market opportunity to help companies wade through the policy changes. But for an industry used to conducting business a certain way, making sense of new regulations and stricter security measures was no easy task. Old business practices no longer worked. GHY's clients found themselves struggling to adapt to the dynamic shifts in federal regulations.

Since 9/11 GHY has made an effort to be more adaptable to the changing business environment. The first step in maintaining flexibility was to revamp its IT systems, giving employees the tools and support they needed to streamline business practices and to maintain a flexible work environment that could help GHY's customers keep up with the import industry.

"Our business needed to be more real-time and responsive to the changing regulations," said Nigel Fortlage, vice president of information technology for GHY. "We wanted to first simplify our infrastructure, and we saw Linux and open source as a way to make IT more efficient."

GHY's existing IT infrastructure was mostly built on proprietary, inflexible server systems that were deployed individually rather than consolidated into a single server environment. Managing these disparate systems created backup and business continuity problems. As a result, the IT team was spending 98% of its time and resources on managing infrastructure, and the closed system architecture was not conducive to change and could not be customized to fit the dynamic needs of the importing business.

Fortlage had used Linux and basic open source applications in GHY's IT environment for years. He saw the open source model as a way to help simplify his infrastructure. Leveraging hardware virtualization technology in IBM's iSeries server architecture, Fortlage consolidated seven Linux, Windows and Unix servers onto one four-processor IBM system. The single IBM iSeries 550 now runs 17 virtualized servers, more than half of which are Linux SUSE Enterprise Server 9. The remaining partitions run Windows 2000, AIX and the proprietary i5 operating system.

While all GHY's mission-critical systems run on the iSeries server, the Linux partitions run most of the network services like security appliances, firewall, e-mail and intranet applications. The Web server functionality runs on Apache, giving GHY enterprise-class performance and functionality on an open source platform.

Consolidating seven servers to one physical box alleviated many of the IT headaches that came with managing a heterogeneous server cluster. Cables, networking components and physical space were all reduced, and Fortlage was able to monitor systems from a centralized management console. His staff reduced the time they spent managing infrastructure from 95 percent to five percent, giving them more time to concentrate on more complex projects. In less than nine months, he reduced GHY's IT operations budget by 14 percent, saving the company more money than the consolidation project initially cost.

With additional time and resources to put into non-management projects, Fortlage set out to make the IT systems more adaptable to the post-9/11 world's changing import/export business requirements. He deployed an open source database solution from MySQL to support GHY's DB2 database application. With help from the open source community, Fortlage was able to use the MySQL database to add functionality, giving end users more powerful and flexible search tools.

"We are always looking for effective tools that we can use in the right situation to solve real business problems," Fortlage said. "Our open source systems give us the flexibility to customize our business applications to fit changing business requirements."

One such open source tool is a new virtual printer out queue that the business staff uses to produce, archive and print PDF files. The IT staff was spending half of its help desk resources on managing the printing system and GHY's PDF library. Fortlage approached the open source community and found a new version of the tool that simplified configuration and made it easier to manage the system. It also provided the ability to print the PDF files to GHY's laser printers, allowing the business staff to print barcodes 80 percent faster than on the older dot-matrix printers and saving more than 6,000 hours per year.

"Not only did my staff members improve IT management and reduce their workload managing the system, but [the virtual printer out queue] had an immediate impact on the business staff," Fortlage said. "We did a test of the PHP script on Monday, and by Tuesday the entire organization was clamoring for it."

This flexibility to improve business efficiency by customizing open source solutions allows GHY to better respond to new legislation, changing importing procedures and growing paperwork. Fortlage taps the open source community for help in developing new functionality, deploying patches and responding faster to business demands.

"Typically, when you need a driver, patch or other add-on to a proprietary system, it takes weeks or months to get the vendor to develop and send you a solution," Fortlage said. "However, with our open systems, I just have to query the community and get a response within a couple of hours, if not minutes."

Although many people would point out that open source is hardly free, Fortlage does not mind paying support fees for his Linux servers and open source applications. The money he saves by being able to customize his solutions, deploy quick patches and add functionality at will is a better indicator of the value open source brings to his organization. Fortlage estimates that open source saves his company hundreds of thousands of dollars per year.

"The huge value of open source is being able to configure a solution to fit our business needs," he said.

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