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A Sunny Forecast for Open-Source

Weather.com's move to an all-open-source Web site infrastructure has enabled the company to lower costs while meeting increased capacity demands.

April 26, 2004 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Four years ago, Weather.com, the online counterpart of The Weather Channel Interactive Inc.'s 24-hour TV channel, relied entirely on proprietary commercial software to serve up millions of Web pages of maps, forecasts and hour-by-hour weather data every day.
Today, the Atlanta-based Web site serves more than 50 million pages on stormy days, but it runs almost entirely on open-source software and commodity hardware. And since the move to the new architecture, it has slashed IT costs by one-third and increased Web site processing capacity by 30%.
"Where it makes sense, we will always look at open-source alternatives," says CIO Dan Agronow. The reason is simple, he says: Despite the self-serving air of fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD) that commercial vendors create around open-source software, lots of open-source products work very well and can be deployed and run for about half the cost of commercial products.
Agronow recalls one time when an IBM sales representative warned him that he'd likely lose his job for dumping IBM's WebSphere application server and formal support program for an open-source alternative.
"We've heard a lot of the FUD about how you can't replace Netscape with Apache, or WebSphere with Tomcat [application server software], but when we've tried it, we haven't seen the gotchas that the vendors all tell us about," says Agronow, who worked at IBM as a technical project manager for 14 years before joining Weather.com.
"My experience is we have actually received better support of open-source software than we have with commercial software," he adds.
The Linux Switch
But that's not to say there haven't been technical challenges. One of those surfaced in 2001 when Weather.com was still running WebSphere but decided for financial reasons to change operating systems, migrating from a Sun environment of Solaris running on Sun 420R servers to Linux running on IBM xServer 330 servers.
"We had problems like installation scripts not working or the GUI not connecting to do the proper administration. There were various things that were subtle differences between the platforms that hadn't been totally worked out on Linux," recalls Jon Badenell, Weather.com's chief architect. "Nothing was a showstopper, but it was not a turnkey installation either."
Working with IBM, Weather.com's 23-member team of systems administrators, developers and architects resolved all of the inconsistencies. In the process, they boosted both their confidence and skills as open-source experts. And Weather.com saved hundreds of thousands of dollars by moving off the Sun servers, Badenell says. "Literally, in some cases it was orders of magnitude cheaper to go to the Linux boxes," he says. "We replaced machines that



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