Smooth Sailing
A ship chandler saves on maintenance with open-source software.
By Maggie Overfelt


- (FORTUNE Small Business) John Hoss, partner and VP of Freeport Launch Service, doesn't have time to monkey with his computer system. Operating a nine-vessel fleet off the coast of Freeport, Texas, Hoss's 45-person company ferries supplies to oil tankers and cargo ships passing through the Gulf of Mexico. Each day the company coordinates with dozens of vendors to supply as many as three or four ships. And Hoss has been busier than ever since hurricanes Katrina and Rita trashed ports in Louisiana and Florida this year, driving more shipping business to Freeport.

Hoss has been using the open-source Linux operating system since 1999. He says he switched from Microsoft Windows to Linux because of the latter's lower cost and superior stability. "I am the IT, finance, planning, and HR departments, and sometimes the janitor," says Hoss, 45. "My requirements for a small-business network are simple but rigid. I want minimal maintenance."

Hoss found that while both his Windows and Linux systems were good at backing up data, neither could efficiently retrieve information lost after an accidental deletion or crash. Hoss would have to locate the correct backup tape, install reboot software (or a boot disk), and then rebuild the entire operating system, a process that took as long as two days.

About a year and a half ago Hoss's Linux-based Sun/Cobalt Qube server was discontinued. Hoss went shopping for a new, improved server that would require less maintenance. He checked out enterprise-level Linux servers from Novell and Red Hat but found them too expensive and complex for his needs. He finally decided to deploy the Mark 1 Net Integrator from Net Integration, a Linux-based server designed for smaller companies.

Hoss paid about $3,000 for his system, including the server hardware, all necessary software, and licenses to network his six office computers. (The system is compatible with Hoss's desktop applications, including Microsoft Office and Sage Software's Peachtree accounting package.) By contrast, a new Dell or HP server running Microsoft Exchange would have cost him more than $10,000 by the time he upgraded his software and licenses.

The server runs net integration's Nitix, a Linux-based operating system that uses self-regulating or "autonomic" technology to fix software problems before they crash the network. Pioneered by IBM researchers and inspired by the human nervous system, which regulates basic bodily functions such as breathing and blood pressure without conscious intervention, autonomic software "aims to improve a company's IT environment by focusing on four key areas: self-configuring, self-healing, self-managing, and self-protecting," says Dave Bartlett, vice president for autonomic computing at IBM.

Although fully autonomic operating systems don't yet exist, the Nitix system works well enough that Hoss's server has not crashed once since he installed it in January 2004. That's a better record than his Sun/Cobalt Qube server, which he says crashed a few times a year when installing third-party software. And it's a lot better than his old Windows server, which he says crashed each time he installed any new software.

Nitix takes less than ten minutes to find previous versions of lost or corrupted files. "Any server can back up your data, but it's all for naught if it can't restore it," says Hoss, who estimates that he's saving about $5,000 a year in backup costs. Best of all, Freeport Launch's revenues have doubled in the past five years, to about $5.5 million. Hoss attributes that gain partly to more efficient IT.

Linux so far has won just 1% of the overall market for server operating systems, according to the IT research firm IDC. Microsoft Windows controls about 60%. But the market for Linux-based operating systems is growing by nearly 30% a year. The biggest downside of Linux-based systems such as Nitix is their complexity and limited tech support. Instead of offering help directly, Net Integration relies on VARs to handle tech support. According to Hoss, server problems now take a few more days to resolve than in the past, when he dealt directly with Microsoft or Sun.

"The support could be a little better, but I haven't needed a lot of it," says Hoss, who once moonlighted as a network consultant and is more comfortable with tech than the typical business owner. "Linux is cheap. Linux is stable. It'd take a lot to sway me away from Linux."

John Hoss, partner and VP of Freeport Launch Service, doesn't have time to monkey with his computer system. Operating a nine-vessel fleet off the coast of Freeport, Texas, Hoss's 45-person company ferries supplies to oil tankers and cargo ships passing through the Gulf of Mexico. Each day the company coordinates with dozens of vendors to supply as many as three or four ships. And Hoss has been busier than ever since hurricanes Katrina and Rita trashed ports in Louisiana and Florida this year, driving more shipping business to Freeport.

Hoss has been using the open-source Linux operating system since 1999. He says he switched from Microsoft Windows to Linux because of the latter's lower cost and superior stability. "I am the IT, finance, planning, and HR departments, and sometimes the janitor," says Hoss, 45. "My requirements for a small-business network are simple but rigid. I want minimal maintenance."

Hoss found that while both his Windows and Linux systems were good at backing up data, neither could efficiently retrieve information lost after an accidental deletion or crash. Hoss would have to locate the correct backup tape, install reboot software (or a boot disk), and then rebuild the entire operating system, a process that took as long as two days.

About a year and a half ago Hoss's Linux-based Sun/Cobalt Qube server was discontinued. Hoss went shopping for a new, improved server that would require less maintenance. He checked out enterprise-level Linux servers from Novell and Red Hat but found them too expensive and complex for his needs. He finally decided to deploy the Mark 1 Net Integrator from Net Integration, a Linux-based server designed for smaller companies.

Hoss paid about $3,000 for his system, including the server hardware, all necessary software, and licenses to network his six office computers. (The system is compatible with Hoss's desktop applications, including Microsoft Office and Sage Software's Peachtree accounting package.) By contrast, a new Dell or HP server running Microsoft Exchange would have cost him more than $10,000 by the time he upgraded his software and licenses.

The server runs net integration's Nitix, a Linux-based operating system that uses self-regulating or "autonomic" technology to fix software problems before they crash the network. Pioneered by IBM researchers and inspired by the human nervous system, which regulates basic bodily functions such as breathing and blood pressure without conscious intervention, autonomic software "aims to improve a company's IT environment by focusing on four key areas: self-configuring, self-healing, self-managing, and self-protecting," says Dave Bartlett, vice president for autonomic computing at IBM.

Although fully autonomic operating systems don't yet exist, the Nitix system works well enough that Hoss's server has not crashed once since he installed it in January 2004. That's a better record than his Sun/Cobalt Qube server, which he says crashed a few times a year when installing third-party software. And it's a lot better than his old Windows server, which he says crashed each time he installed any new software.

Nitix takes less than ten minutes to find previous versions of lost or corrupted files. "Any server can back up your data, but it's all for naught if it can't restore it," says Hoss, who estimates that he's saving about $5,000 a year in backup costs. Best of all, Freeport Launch's revenues have doubled in the past five years, to about $5.5 million. Hoss attributes that gain partly to more efficient IT.

Linux so far has won just 1% of the overall market for server operating systems, according to the IT research firm IDC. Microsoft Windows controls about 60%. But the market for Linux-based operating systems is growing by nearly 30% a year. The biggest downside of Linux-based systems such as Nitix is their complexity and limited tech support. Instead of offering help directly, Net Integration relies on VARs to handle tech support. According to Hoss, server problems now take a few more days to resolve than in the past, when he dealt directly with Microsoft or Sun.

"The support could be a little better, but I haven't needed a lot of it," says Hoss, who once moonlighted as a network consultant and is more comfortable with tech than the typical business owner. "Linux is cheap. Linux is stable. It'd take a lot to sway me away from Linux." Top of page

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Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.