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Wikipedia simplifies IT infrastructure by moving to one Linux vendor

It's moving 400 servers to Ubuntu Linux from a mix of Red Hat and Fedora

By Todd R. Weiss
October 9, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Since the free, online Wikipedia user-created encyclopedia began in 2001, the Linux-based IT infrastructure behind it has been expanded and lassoed together to keep up with the demands of the popular Web site.

That meant that often it was haphazardly expanded by tossing in a new server with a different operating system each time. Over five years, the servers were running a variety of versions of Red Hat Linux and Red Hat Fedora, making it more complicated to install applications and maintain the servers.

Soon, that problem will be gone.

In a few months, Wikipedia will finish a major transformation by moving from a combination of versions of Red Hat products to Ubuntu Linux Version 8.04 on all 400 of its servers that support the Web site.

The changeover began in 2006 as the growth of the site took off, said Brion Vibber, CTO of the San Francisco-based Wikimedia Foundation Inc., the nonprofit group that supports the online Wikipedia encyclopedia and other projects.

"We had a mix of things: some Red Hat 9, some Fedora -- several different versions," Vibber said. The group used a custom-scripted installation procedure, but found that having a multitude of versions was more difficult to maintain for its small five-person IT staff around the world.

The move to all-Ubuntu was primarily done with the goal of "making our own administration and maintenance simpler," he said. "We decided that we want to standardize on something."

The switch has been done over time, starting with caching proxy servers in 2006 and moving on to other servers in segments. Today, the group is continuing to transition its main application Web servers to Ubuntu as part of its regular maintenance schedule, Vibber said.

Most of the group's 400 servers are in a data center in Tampa, Fla., while a few reside in secondary data centers in South Korea and Amsterdam.

"It definitely has gotten a lot simpler," Vibber said. Mass upgrades can be done more easily, and the data center can be managed as a unit, he said.

"We can run the same combination everywhere, and it does the same thing" and runs the same software, Vibber said. "Everything is a million times easier."

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The mixture of Red Hat operating systems was created as Wikipedia quickly grew, backed by a group of volunteer IT people who created it out of what they had available. In 18 months, the original site went from around 15 servers to 200, making maintenance and operations a whole different ballgame, Vibber said.

Gordon Haff, an analyst at Illuminata Inc. in Nashua, N.H., said Wikimedia's switch from Red Hat to Ubuntu is also likely a result of Ubuntu's making the enterprise server and consumer desktop versions of its operating systems available for free to all users, with no lightening of the systems for nonpaying customers.



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