Case Study: In Redmond's Shadow, An Open (Source) Secret

Practically every day the Eastside Journal prints stories about Microsoft - the main employer in its circulation area around Redmond, Wash. But in a quiet, not-so-subtle way, the paper has thumbed its nose at the huge software company by running its Web site on Linux, the open source operating system.
Posted December 18, 2001

Cynthia Flash

Practically every day the Eastside Journal prints stories about Microsoft - the main employer in the journal's circulation area that includes Redmond, Wash.

While the daily news stories say "Microsoft, Microsoft, Microsoft," the paper's Web site in a quiet, not-so-subtle way has thumbed its nose at the huge software company. The Web site runs on Linux, the open source operating system, and flaunts that fact proudly by displaying Tux the Linux penguin at the bottom of each page.

The Web developers say they have nothing against Microsoft personally, but that they chose Linux because it was cheaper and easier to adapt than a Microsoft product. And for a group of eight small and medium-sized newspapers that must run lean, money and flexibility mean more than loyalty to the area's largest employer.

"Since our Web development team was only two people, and we ran the mail server and the firewalls for the company, we needed a flexible solution to deal with any weird system out there, and that's why we chose Linux," said Mark Wagner, the Eastside Journal's former Web specialist, who left in October.

Y2K Upgrade Forced Action The Eastside Journal Web site originally used the Solaris operating system and ran on Sun Microsystems hardware. The Eastside Journal Web team, which is responsible for maintaining Web sites for all of the Horvitz Newspapers, realized it needed to look elsewhere at the end of 2000 when it faced an expensive Y2K upgrade on an internal proprietary system that archived old newspaper stories.

The paper needed to increase its storage capacity for the archive and it was going to cost too much to buy more Sun hardware, Wagner said.

"Sun is more of an enterprise-level company. (Companies) like Amazon would benefit from the use of their hardware, but we were a very small shop," he said.

Buying new Sun hardware would have cost $8,000. Getting a completely new system for Linux cost $6,500 using Intel computers purchased from Penguin Computing in San Francisco.

Switching to Linux allowed the Web developers to port the newspaper's internal story archive to the Web and make it accessible not only to reporters, but to the public. Wagner said he considered using a Microsoft system, but determined any system would take too many people to administer.

Reporters in the newsroom write stories in Microsoft Word that must be converted to HTML before being posted on the Web site. Wagner said Microsoft has the ability to do HTML conversions, but the conversions needed to be customized to be viewed by different Web browsers.

"We didn't have 10 people to convert all the stories and put it on the Web site," Wagner said. "A lot of things we looked at were in the model of dedicated Web editors, where you had someone to handle the process as it went through and we weren't going to be able to hire the people to oversee the process on the site."

Instead, the newspaper purchased software from Westboro, Mass.-based Applix, Inc. which allowed the Web administrators to more easily convert the stories to HTML.

"It's especially important with the newspapers. Copy editors are working on a deadline everyday and they don't have time to do anything more than what they're already doing for the print version of the paper," he said.

Flexibility, Customization The Web developers also had to spend less time writing software because many of the solutions they sought were already available through the open source community. And they were able to disassemble small parts of programs that were written and customize them to fit their needs.

For example, the Eastside Journal had an agreement to provide stories to MSNBC. The Internet news service needed those stories sent in XML. Because the Eastside Journal site uses Linux, Web developers there were able to tweak their HTML conversion process to convert the stories into XML for MSNBC, Wagner said.

"We were able to go to the exact point where the HTML version of the stories were generated and insert another routine where the MSNBC version of the stories were needed."

Another example was interfacing with a sister paper, the Mercer Island Reporter, which runs on Macintosh computers.

"Linux had good tools for interfacing with the Macintosh," Wagner said.

Catherine Shen, vice president of strategic development for Horvitz Newspapers, said the hardware and software decisions were left in the hands of her Web developers.

"We went with Linux because we had a developer who went with Linux," she said. "And we have a content partnership with MSNBC. We're very ecumenical. These days, the more people you partner with, the better. And of course we use Microsoft systems in our office software."

And just because the newspaper uses Linux now, doesn't mean it will in the future. Partly because Wagner left and partly because of the economic downturn, the newspaper company is evaluating whether it should go with an outside vendor to run its Web site, Shen said.

"It's worked well, but we may go with a third-party vendor so it's off our backs. A third-party vendor would mean we would have to devote less resources in-house to troubleshooting and maintaining the publishing system."

Freelance writer Cynthia Flash writes about technology and business from Bellevue, Wash.

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