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Tomorrow's forecast: blue skies and open source

The CIO Executive Council shares ideas and insights on open source.

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With increasing attention on the possibilities of open source, CIOs have many questions regarding its capabilities, viability and cost to the organisation. Twelve CIO executive council members recently came together via a conference call to discuss the role of open source in their organisations, focusing on topics such as this "free" software's total cost of ownership (TCO); making a business case to senior executives; the relationship with the open-source community, which shares code and answers support questions; and what types of projects are best suited for open source.
Brian Shield, moderator of the conference call, shared insights gleaned from his experience at The Weather Channel. When he arrived there in autumn 1998 as executive vice president and CIO, Shield found a progressive company looking to create technology products that could support the long-term vision of the programming and advertising organisations. Fortunately, support for a move to open source already existed at the highest levels of the company, as Frank Batten Jr., then CEO of Landmark (The Weather Channel's parent company), was an angel investor of open-source company Red Hat. Below, Shield outlines why The Weather Channel made the move to open source.
To rein in software costs.
Shield realised he had little control of vendors' software licences and maintenance fees, which were the fastest-growing components of his operating costs on an annualised basis. He found that open source would give his organisation more input in this area, because The Weather Channel would not be relying on commercial software solutions but on lower-cost and equally robust open-source code.
Shield consulted his IT operations team to figure out where alternative open-source solutions could meet or exceed the requirements of The Weather Channel's multimedia outlets. He then evaluated and deployed open-source alternatives that provided many benefits. For example, by moving from Oracle to MySQL, Shield was able to reduce maintenance costs. And now, when The Weather Channel must scale up quickly in times of severe weather, Shield does not have to pay additional costs.
To improve infrastructure capability and scalability
After Shield and his team experimented with open source in 1999, they oversaw their first major project: a move to MICO, an open-source alternative for the system that transmits weather data over satellites. Open source appeared to be the right move, but since satellites are core to the company's mission, the product had to be reliable. "Any outages would be noticed on air. When we asked other MICO customers about their use, no commercial customers were willing to say that they had actually used it in production," remembers Chris McClellen, vice president of software engineering at The Weather Channel.
The team tested the technology for six months, evaluated other open- and closed-source alternatives, and felt confident it would serve their needs. According to Shield, the move to MICO paid off, and The Weather Channel experienced no downtime. The deployment lasted just a day as MICO was pushed to internal servers. It is still in production today, and more than 70 million Weather Channel consumers are able to receive information at any time of the day from host servers running open-source solutions.
On The Weather Channel Interactive side of the company, open source provides huge benefits. Today, Weather.com is the 10th-largest Web site in the world and runs almost 100 per cent on the open-source database MySQL.
"With the switch from a Sun Solaris environment to Linux on Intel, elimination of hardware maintenance, replacement of commercial software with open source, and the better price and performance of an Intel platform, we reduced costs by one-third and increased website processing capacity by 30 percent," reports Dan Agronow, CTO of The Weather Channel Interactive. Agronow says he has begun migrating other applications to open source, including Web servers, application servers, content management and systems monitoring.
To attract and retain staff.
"Today, when we look at a technology need, our first assumption is that the solution is open source," Shield says. Some 25 developers at The Weather Channel and the 19 developers at The Weather Channel Interactive share this philosophy. Using open source, staff can optimise technology from the outset for a specific use rather than rely on commercial products.
This environment helps attract and retain IT staff by offering challenging opportunities for creativity and problem-solving. As Shield notes, "When I scout new talent, I look for people who want to raise the bar. My most important interviewing questions revolve around a candidate's capacity and desire to learn more."
The staff relies on the open-source community (in addition to internal expertise) to answer support questions when they arise. However, for tools deemed critical, Shield makes sure his staff has the expertise. Developers are encouraged to give back to the open-source community from which they take. In areas such as graphic drivers and operating systems, Shield has no problem contributing code. In fact, he has found that after contributing, support questions are better received.


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