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Feature

Open Source Pays Off For Enterprising Nonprofit

Connecticut nonprofit Family Services Working finds that going open source for its server and apps base isn't always as simple as plug and play, but can save lots of money and is often easier to support.
FSW's Foran persuaded execs that his tiny IT staff could support the proposed open-source infrastructure--and that the tools would truly work.

Not every organization can pull off an open-source overhaul--you need the IT expertise to support it. That makes Joseph Foran a pretty valuable guy at FSW.

FSW's upper management liked the proposed open-source initiative, but wasn't sure the organization's tiny IT staff of two full-timers and several part-time volunteers could support the new systems, according to Foran, FSW's director of IT.

In the end, FSW's previous experience with some custom in-house applications swayed management to give the green light for deploying the open-source tools, which included the LAMP (Linux Apache MySQL Perl/PHP/Python) stack and Nagios monitoring tools.

"We had some custom programs developed by single developers or in-house staff without formal support from a vendor, so it wasn't much of a stretch to go with open source," Foran says.

Foran's predecessor had already laid the groundwork for the open-source push, so when Foran joined the organization, it was up to him to win support for specific hardware and software. FSW executives grilled him on how these tools would meet the nonprofit's security and privacy requirements, especially HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) standards. But Foran was up to the challenge--he showed them, for example, how you can discover and repair a security hole just as quickly with an open-source tool as with a commercial product.

Because the open-source software carried no license fees, the only costs involved in its deployment were for the requisite hardware and related training. Like most nonprofits, FSW generally relies on grant money for its IT projects, though basics like computers and printers are paid for out of the organization's general operating fund.

"Before I pitch something, I must have grant information," Foran says.

FSW had already secured $500,000 from the Casey Foundation for IT and non-IT initiatives before Foran came on board, so he had to ensure that some of that money would be allocated to the open-source effort. Foran says he ultimately won over FSW's president, executive vice president and vice president of finance by talking business rather than tech. Haunted by a Linux pitch that failed in a previous job, he was intent on winning this one at FSW. Foran says he lost the other pitch because he focused on the technical merits of Linux rather than the business case.

"Executive management didn't buy it," he recalls. "So I then learned real fast to pick up the business stick and walk quietly with it."

This time, Foran didn't mess around. He tested out his proposed mix of open-source and commercial tools--including the LifeRay portal, Stalker Software's CommuniGate Pro e-mail package and VMWare's GSX Server 3.1--using a couple of old Compaq ProLiant servers he personally bought on eBay. The strategy worked, he says. "I got the approvals one by one, over the past few months."