Frustration drove Owens Forest Products to open source

Code quality encouraged manufacturer to leave proprietary software behind

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

But CIO Lee Hughes says the system never worked right. 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 Owens, Hughes says, his tendency to hire young IT developers meant his staff was familiar with open source technology, and they 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 recalls, but the integration issues with Crystal Reports were the final straw. Hughes authorized 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.

According to Hughes, open source has given Owens 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.

Today, Hughes considers the open source switch 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,” he says. “Instead of making lists [of issues] for help, the developers track the problems down themselves.”

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

Hughes admits that the shift has required changes within his organization: “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 strategize our IT solutions. You get more for your money.”

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