Hospital dumps Microsoft Exchange for Linux-based clone

In the end, it all came down to the price

Taking a page from the doctors at Moses Taylor Hospital, IT staffers at the facility in Scranton, Pa., last year diagnosed their messaging system and came up with an effective treatment that has turned out to be a lifesaver.

The patient in this case was an aging Microsoft Exchange 5.5 environment that couldn't support increased message loads and was going to cost a bundle to upgrade.

After conducting an evaluation of alternatives, the hospital decided not to upgrade to a newer version of Exchange. Instead, it went with a Linux-based Exchange clone that it felt could meet the needs of its 700 users without forcing them and IT to learn a whole new system.

As it turns out, it wasn't feature sets that swayed the decision. It was the price, according to Frank Fallo, manager of network systems and workflow development at Moses Taylor.

"[With Exchange], I saw extremely high cost, especially the [client access licenses]," he said. "The Microsoft billing structure was considerably more expensive, and that is just talking about the software side. If you want to include hardware, we also needed a more robust server."

Fallo got the more powerful hardware anyway, but it is running PostPath Server, a Linux-based clone of Exchange, on top of the Linux Centos operating system.

"We have estimated that PostPath saved us 50% over the cost of Exchange," Fallo said, not counting what Microsoft Corp. would have charged for maintenance and support. (He declined to get into the project's specific dollar figures.)

The hospital also went from three staffers managing e-mail to one.

Another benefit is that PostPath is a "very good representation of the Exchange server," Fallo said.

So good, in fact, that everything on the network that talks to the server thinks it is Exchange, including Active Directory, making integration of Microsoft and third-party tools and other add-ons much less of a headache, Fallo said.

The integration also includes the Outlook clients that run on desktops at Moses Taylor, a 173-bed hospital that was opened in 1892 by New York merchant/banker/industrialist Moses Taylor to care for the railroad workers and coal miners of the region.

Fallo said the integration with Outlook has eased any training issues for the hospital and numbed the inevitable end-user complaints.

However, the one client difference that has worked in Fallo's favor is the AJAX-powered Zimbra Web mail client that PostPath uses. The hospital likes it better than the Outlook Web Access client of Exchange 5.5 (Microsoft has since improved its Outlook Web Access client).

"You can basically do anything with the Web mail client that you can do in the [Outlook] desktop client," Fallo said.

While the PostPath benefits are a reality now, Fallo had to validate them with a proof of concept before he got the green light to migrate. "There was concern we were moving away from the Microsoft platform," Fallo said. The hospital is basically a Microsoft and Dell shop.

Fallo downloaded the free 12-user trial from PostPath and ran it side by side with Exchange for more than six months. When it was clear that PostPath was viable, Fallo began the migration using tools from third-party vendors, PostPath and even Microsoft.

"We did the same cleanup and tidy up for the migration that we would have done with any migration," he said.

Fallo said the PostPath management tools are on par with Exchange's, but he noted that users should realize there are still some command-line features.

"You don't have to be a Linux guru, but need to know your way around as an administrator," Fallo said. Later this year, PostPath will introduce PostPath Administrator, which is a GUI-based tool.

Solving message-store issues

Fallo said that PostPath also has solved message store issues that led to some painful management in Exchange.

Exchange's Jet Database Engine puts a limit of 16GB on the data store, at which point the message service shuts down. The limit forces administrators to put restrictions on in-box sizes.

Moses Taylor's message store in Exchange was at 15.7GB. With PostPath and its simplistic file structure, the hospital has been able to eliminate restrictions on mailbox sizes using a Dell storage server.

"We may go back [to limits], but right now, we are pleased we don't have to do that," Fallo said.

In addition, the hospital has been able to give e-mail to 105 employees who never had the service because of Exchange's storage limitations.

Message recovery also is easier.

"If we had to restore a single mailbox in Exchange, we could not do it. We had to restore the entire message store. That is the way we were configured," Fallo said. "PostPath is a simple file structure. We can recover a single message for a single person."

It has now been six months since Fallo made the switch.

"I think we made a wise decision," he says.

This story, "Hospital dumps Microsoft Exchange for Linux-based clone" was originally published by Network World.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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