Doing more with open-source and recycled systems

In times of economic stress, all companies and departments are challenged to do more with less, and this includes manufacturing IT departments. On a regular basis, manufacturing IT has to address new user requirements, continual product upgrades, hardware that rapidly becomes obsolete, and new security threats.
By Dennis Brandl January 1, 2009

In times of economic stress, all companies and departments are challenged to do more with less, and this includes manufacturing IT departments. On a regular basis, manufacturing IT has to address new user requirements, continual product upgrades, hardware that rapidly becomes obsolete, and new security threats. But even simple projects in these areas can be difficult to justify if they require new servers or expensive commercial software. The types of projects I’m referring to here may include equipment track-and-trace systems, automated network intrusion detection, wireless rogue point detection, specialized device servers (such as bar codes, weight scales, and industrial printers), and Six Sigma project management support. To get these projects back on track, consider the low-cost alternatives available through open source software and recycled servers.

For example, the starting point for many of the projects listed above is usually a database, such as the open source MySQL database. Most projects will also require a database or application server which usually drives up the project cost. The low cost alternative is a Linux-based server running on surplus hardware.

A good starting point for a Linux server is Ubuntu. Ubuntu is one of the most popular distributions of Linux. Ubuntu is named after an African term for caring, sharing, and promoting co-operation. You can download an .ISO file for the Ubuntu desktop or server versions from the Ubuntu Web site. The .ISO format file is used to create a bootable CD, using tools such as Microsoft’s ISO Recorder or other free software. Ubuntu can be run directly from the CD without installation, providing a simple way to learn about Linux and the many available open source packages.

An Ubuntu server is a good platform for a low-cost project because Ubuntu takes much less computing power, memory, and disk space than the equivalent Microsoft operating systems. Servers that are unusable running Microsoft Vista or Windows Server 2008 can run Ubuntu and provide excellent performance. The Ubuntu distribution supports a wide variety of PC hardware configurations and includes automatic hardware detection that installs the correct hardware drivers. This flexibility allows you to recycle servers that are obsolete and underpowered for Windows, or even to build systems from surplus parts. Be careful, though, as Ubuntu and other Linux distributions do not always have drivers for the latest hardware or for highly specialized peripherals, so you may have to do some research with the vendor or through the Ubuntu forums.

If you do start using Ubuntu, be prepared for culture shock. The package and tool names can be confusing and non-obvious, especially for anyone that has experience with only Microsoft products. Many packages have names that are cute word plays on their functionality, the author’s name, or the author’s pet’s name. Fortunately, most of the widely distributed open source software have documentation and support forums. Ubuntu also includes the OpenOffice package, which includes word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation tools. OpenOffice is a free alternative to expensive commercial packages and can be used to help document your projects.

The best Ubuntu tool to use for locating and installing shareware is the Synaptic Package Manager. This is included with the download and provides a list of all major packages available for Ubuntu, and there are hundreds of packages available which include word processing, databases, networking, multimedia, graphics, and programming tools for Perl and Python. A good manufacturing IT toolkit is a combination of Ubuntu, MySQL database, the Apache Web server and Python programs on a recycled server. This inexpensive toolkit may be all that you need to implement many of your high value projects on a limited budget.

Author Information
Dennis Brandl is president of BR&L Consulting in Cary, NC, dbrandl@brlconsulting.com .