Archive for September, 2008

Desktop Strategy, part 1

September 24, 2008

Our sites had relied on (approx 50) cheap no name desktop PCs in the past. These appeared to be highly cobbled together and provided no consistency across the company. In addition, there was a higher failure rate in them than I had seen anywhere else before. This had the net result of us requiring an almost full time desktop support person to look after the machines, let alone the application support issues

As we were using Exchange, Outlook was the primary Mail client with users suffering from the inevitable .pst corruptions that occur when mail folders exceed 2 Gig. As all Customer Support was run via email directly to people’s personal email addresses there was a lot of email flowing around and a high likelihood of corruption.

The business also relied on a Visual Basic app installed on everyone’s desktop which interacted with the customer database.

Looking at the Visual Basic application there was no way that could be replaced in a short period of time, so we decided to replace the machines as they hit their EOL with new leased Windows Desktops with on site support. This would turn out to be pretty much cost neutral as it cut out the need for local desktop support for the hardware. The (large) percentage of the Desktop Administrator’s time could be redirected to more productive uses.

Given these machines would be consistent we were hoping we could achieve economies of scale with their management. In the event, we didn’t want to pay Microsoft for a second copy of Windows licences (we already received OEM copies with the desktop lease) so we did not end up, as originally planned, with a single master image which could be deployed across the network.

We still wanted to install the software remotely however. A search around the Internet came up with OCS Inventory which looked to do what we needed. We installed this and while rather geeky, does indeed allow us to distribute software to all the Desktops remotely. It suffers from the same problem that so much Open Source software does – it has not been designed with usability in mind. Given this is an Administration tool, that wasn’t a major concern, but it is something that would be good to improve on in the future. At time of writing, we had used it to install the initial software, but no upgrades as yet. Deleting software may also be a issue with this, however we will deal with that when we come to it.

Are we happy with this? Well it is not a bad solution. Given a choice of running thick clients and running thin clients with Terminal Services or Citrix we chose the thick clients. The setup, licencing and maintenance of the thin solution looked to be too hard given the huge amount of other tasks we had to deal with. Given that the VB app was a key requirement it was a good decision we feel, even if the desktop hardware was substantially more expensive.

It does leave us with desktop support issues – application support is still somewhat of an issue, however, when the lease is up (in 2 years or so), we plan to revisit this decision. More on this later…




Why Open Source?

September 24, 2008

When I started at this company we had a bunch of disparate systems on various operating systems requiring  different skills to manage. We had Windows on the Desktop, Linux (Postgres database) and Windows (.NET IIS Web) Servers along with FreeBSD firewalls. Email was run on the Small Business edition of Exchange and customer support was run exclusively through individual email accounts. We had no systems in place to provide metrics or support the business in their day to day work, we had a huge amount of work to do.

For the software we did have, we were only partially licenced and we obviously needed to resolve that situation as quickly as possible. The servers were outsourced at an outrageous cost to a third party whose service kept having issues. The firewalls were not spectacularly secure either  – there was no VPN functionality set up and the owners who travelled a lot were using Remote Desktop to access files on the network which was not at all secure.

We had to decide how to fix all that and not spend more money than we had to play with. At a personal level I loath dealing with Software Vendors – the licencing terms require a mammoth amount of time/brainpower to work out what you are and aren’t allowed to do and in some cases, the licencing terms feel more like a way to gouge more money out of you than a reflection of their value. Then come the audits…

If car manufacturers tried to sell you a “cheap” car and then charge you extra to have a passenger, I wonder how quickly they would go out of business? Why do people put up with this from Software Vendors?

At a professional level, compliance costs to ensure that licences that are used are legal and that we are not breaking the terms of use can get expensive and in a small business you don’t have someone to manage that for you. Having read the first 8 pages of Microsoft’s Terminal Services Licencing documentation and still being unclear as to what we were actually allowed to use was just painful.

Lastly, I feel these days that Vendors are actively trying to lock you into their solutions and when running a business that is a major hidden cost to consider when selecting a solution. I would prefer to spend a little more on initial implementation if that saves running costs down the track than I would to buy something more cheaply up front which ends up costing much more in the log run.

So we decided to look at (free) Open solutions that would meet our needs. In some instances we went with proprietary solutions where we couldn’t find a good alternative. We’ll be sharing that with you over the coming months. We’ll be focussing on two main areas – Systems Administration and Development. We will discuss the approach to both we took and the platforms we decided to work with.



Open Source for Small Business

September 24, 2008


We work for a small business and we are utilising Open Source systems to reduce costs and improve our efficiency. We plan to document what we have been working on over the coming months as a way of contributing back to the community at large.

The good and the bad will be discussed here. Hope you find it interesting.