Fort Erie goes open source

The Town of Fort Erie, Ont., is usually an after thought compared to nearby popular tourist destinations such as Niagara Falls, and for the town’s IT department that is the way Microsoft treated them.

The town’s IT budget has stayed the same for the past five years and could not afford any software license increases says Reid Canavan, system administrator for the Town of Fort Erie.

Canavan has been tasked by the municipality to find ways to improve the IT infrastructure without increasing costs.

The municipality has anywhere from 125 to 175 employees depending on the season, 130 desktops, five Windows XP plus servers and another server at the Fort Erie museum.

“We are just a bump as you go over the Peace Bridge. We are trying to make ourselves known through innovative methods,” Canavan said.

The bump

That bump is also a vital part of Fort Erie’s economy. The town is a major border crossing and trading post to the U.S. Fort Erie handles all the truck and commercial traffic into the U.S., while Niagara Falls is mainly car and pedestrian traffic.

“As a small municipality, IT has the challenge of trying to set ourselves apart from St. Catherines and Niagara Falls, which have huge IT budgets,” Canavan said.

It was this challenge and Microsoft’s unwillingness to offer the town a reasonable option that made the IT staff look at Linux with the help of its two main channel partners, Microage and Insight Canada.

With the Ontario government downgrading budgets, most of the money coming Fort Erie’s way went into improving infrastructure leaving no dollars left for IT.

Canavan informed Microsoft, through Microage and Insight, that the town needed to stay within the range of $50,000 to $100,000 for the Office productivity suite.

Microsoft Canada came back with a three-year contract offer at $40,000 per annum.

“That’s a $120,000 commitment with no assurance as to what it was after that,” Canavan said.

Fort Erie decided to go with Novell Canada Ltd., which was willing to offer them a year-by-year contract for the software. The town is licensing Novell ZENworks and Open Office for $14,000, which includes library services for the Fort Erie public library, he said.

For Canavan and his IT team, the choice to switch from a Windows environment to an open source one was, in the end, an easy one.

The town was paying OEM prices for Office to the tune of $400 per PC, and ran into the dilemma of not being able to progress beyond Office once they stopped buying the suite for new machines.

“The Novell edition of Open Office is free of charge,” he said.

Since it costs the town nothing, Canavan started giving copies of the software suite to staff to take home. By doing this it reduced the complexity of the software.

“It was free training for workers,” he said.

Microsoft did offer the town an employee purchasing program as a way to train staff on the new Office.

Dumping defragmenting

By dropping Microsoft for Linux, the town also saved money on the cost of using Diskkeeper software for defragmenting hard drives and with Symantec for anti-virus.

“We saw an opportunity to minimize support costs,” Canavan said.

In 18-months time, Fort Erie’s Windows OS contract will expire and that will reduce costs by $8,000 per year, he said.

“Novell did not want to lock us into any contract. It was going to be year-by-year and the same with IBM,” he said.

With the cost savings, Canavan can now look at the new Lotus Notes and Domino Web server solutions, along with unified communications applications such as Sametime.

“We are actively pursuing using Linux and working with IBM/Lotus on working out all the kinks and bugs for the latest Notes 8.0.1 beta,” he said.

Canavan has estimated the cost for products such as Lotus Sametime would be about half the cost of Microsoft. The town also saw an opportunity to improve the performance of its mobile workers. As the town’s mobile workforce grew, Canavan was concerned about security.

The town’s database was encrypted locally, but that did not prevent a possible breach when a worker brought his laptop home, he said.

“Linux was the answer to that challenge and that is why we are considering putting Linux on the desktop as a replacement,” Canavan added.

Canavan plans to deploy Suse Linux Enterprise 10 across the board at the town, the fire hall and at the public library.

On the server back end, he wants to implement a Domino Web server on Linux as a virtualization machine. On a test, Canavan witnessed a 15 to 20 per cent improvement in performance and reliability.

By commiting to Linux and to IBM/Lotus, the IT staff now has access to Notes and Linux developers. Canavan believes the opportunity to work with developers from the Notes and Linux community could be a valuable resource for the town.

“We should not have to pay for extra functionality we do not need. Linux has the basics and they do have the extras such as listening to music and looking at photos. The thing is we do not have to pay for it,” he said.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada
Paolo Del Nibletto
Paolo Del Nibletto
Editor of Computer Dealer News, covering Canada's IT channel community.

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