Open Source Pays Off For Enterprising Nonprofit - InformationWeek
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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.

Open-source software offers benefits for cash-strapped organizations, but it also carries risks. FSW, a Connecticut health-care and social services nonprofit, experienced those risks firsthand when a typo in the configuration of its open-source portal caused a three-month delay in the deployment of its new client-demographics database.

The error turned out to be a single--rather than double--dash typed into one of its LifeRay Portal Enterprise configuration files. Vendors and consultants can usually help their customers detect such a flaw quickly in off-the-shelf software, but FSW was on its own, except for some assistance from LifeRay and its consultants through online support forums. FSW didn't have the staff to do the troubleshooting, either. As a result, the project was delayed for nearly 12 weeks, forcing FSW social workers and other users to continue the painstaking process of manually plucking data from a variety of applications and databases--and then asking the nonprofit's two-person IT staff to run reports for state regulators and potential donors.

FSW started receiving unintelligible error messages earlier this year while configuring its new database to run on LifeRay, recalls Joseph Foran, director of IT for the nonprofit. Integrating the database with the portal wasn't as simple as it seemed. "LifeRay was really easy to install but incredibly difficult to customize," Foran says.

After weeks of work, Foran traced the error to his own typo and made the fix. "It was more a problem of not having a second pair of eyes to look at it and see where the error was," says Foran, who had to configure and troubleshoot the portal solo.

FSW's homegrown database, now available on the portal, includes data from just about every aspect of the organization's operations, including client demographics required for regulatory and funding purposes. It also generates customized reports. "The database securely contains data on everyone who comes through the door so we can report to our funders and government agencies," Foran says.

Open-Source Overhaul

The LifeRay portal is just one of several open-source tools FSW has deployed in a major network and system overhaul this year to help defray the costs of HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) compliance. FSW had to re-architect its entire network to meet HIPAA standards (See "The Hard Sell"), which help protect the privacy and security of client health data. The open-source technology saved the nonprofit nearly $100,000 over off-the-shelf alternatives. So far, FSW, whose annual revenue exceeds $10 million, has spent more than $27,000 on new hardware and software for the project, including commercial e-mail and virtualization software for which there were no acceptable open options. The organization plans to spend another $12,000, not including user training, to complete the overhaul.

FSW, Bridgeport, Conn.
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Aside from the portal, FSW has deployed open-source tools for security and content monitoring as well as Linux operating systems on its servers and some of its workstations. The nonprofit also replaced an aging Novell NetWare 4.11 and 5.0 LAN with Samba 3, an OpenLDAP back-end directory, and FreeRADIUS for remote user authentication. Foran--a former senior network specialist at filtration-product maker CUNO who had plenty of Linux experience under his belt when he came to FSW six months ago--says the nonprofit passed on Red Hat Linux because it was too pricey, and instead went with the open-source CentOS4 and Fedora Core 3 Linux operating systems for its servers.

FSW has deployed a Gigabit Ethernet LAN--the organization got a discount from Dell on its PowerConnect 3324 switches, which ended up costing just $20 more than standard Fast Ethernet switches. The nonprofit's e-mail server is commercial--Stalker Software's CommuniGate Pro, with open-source Jabber-based instant messaging as well as virtualization software. "None of the open-source e-mail out there is really a drop-in replacement for Microsoft Exchange," Foran says. Apps such as FSW's accounting system--Best Software's M.I.P. Fund--don't have equivalent open-source counterparts and can't be replaced with free code.

The advantage to open-source software--aside from cost--is that you're not dependent on your vendor for patches or fixes, Foran says. "The code [is] visible to everyone out there, so any bugs are brought to the surface quickly and not hidden for six to 12 months," he says. "When it's out in the open, patches get deployed quickly, and there's a larger base of community support available."

Of course, the lack of vendor support for open-source technology can be tricky--as the portal error demonstrates--but that's where testing comes in. "Testing is a way to avoid those problems," Foran says. For instance, FSW ran 20 different content-management tools for the intranet and put them under simulated load tests. "Some broke, and others had bugs, but we settled on the default CMS under LifeRay because it installed quickly and easily," he says.

Virtual Reality

The network makeover required some new servers. But rather than get a dozen or so in order to segment the far-flung nonprofit's wide range of operations, Foran opted for off-the-shelf virtualization technology that makes one big server look like multiple, separate servers. FSW runs a Windows 2003-based primary Dell PowerEdge 2850 and a backup Compaq ProLiant 1850R running Fedora Core 3, along with VMWare's GSX 3 virtualization package. Foran chose the VMWare software over open options such as ZEN and PairPC because of its performance and support, and because he had previous experience with the software.

Foran plans to gradually move FSW's off-the-shelf apps to open source--that is, where it makes sense to do so. FSW's MediSoft electronic medical records application will be one of the first apps to be replaced with open source, probably by July 2007.

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