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The Story of an Implementation

By Jacek Kijewski
Translated from the Polish by Pawel Moszumanski
Originally published in Linux Plus, February 2000

The implementation was conducted in Jan III Sobieski Hotel - one of the biggest, most luxurious and prestigious hotel facilities in Poland. The hotel offers a wide variety of services, ranging from suite rental, through restaurants to organisation of conferences.

The hotel has over 400 rooms and employs up to 600 persons. The office and administration centre is located in a four-story building. The hotel owns restaurants, underground car park, business centre, pay-TV, information desks at the airport, etc.

Jan III Sobieski is a giant entity which could be compared to a large factory. It is operated round-the-clock, as guests do not like to be kept waiting. Since the prices reflect hotel's high standard, the guests are keen on getting their money's worth. The expectations with regard to the computer system are, therefore, very high.

The system has to provide for uninterrupted operation in continuous traffic. Operating downtimes should be reduced to a minimum, as no time is available to shut the server down for maintenance. The system should provide for reliable customer service and ensure that the numerous, large and critical databases be adequately protected.

The following systems had been in use at Jan III Sobieski Hotel prior to the network implementation:

  1. The main hotel system developed by a German company operated on HP UX and alphanumeric terminals. The system supported room reservations, inventory settlements and accountancy. Its greatest weakness was the inability to communicate efficiently with taxation modules, as the system supplier could not keep up with the rapid changes in Polish legislation.
  2. The office centre was operated in Windows 3.11 and MS Office 4.3 (Word 6.0, Excel 5.0) environment. Since the applications' processing capacity became insufficient, a decision was made to switch to a 32-bit platform.
  3. Novell NetWare was the file server.

Why Linux?

The decision to implement Linux was made in 1998 when communication problems with the taxation module were aggravated due to frequent legislative changes. A decision was made to purchase an application designed by a local provider and offering better support. The hotel selected HS-Partner and their hotel and restaurant application.

The HS-Partner application (now HS-Partner - Protest) operates on Linux graphic terminals. The terminal comprises a PC in specialist casing, a touch-operated LCD display and software: XWindow and specialist libraries. It is based on QT with a number of adjustments implemented by HS Partner programmers.

The actual program operates on a server based on the SQL database - initially PostrgeSQL, now Adabas-D.

The terminals themselves provide for secure operation in the kitchen and the bar as they are resistant to temperature, humidity and do not need to be repaired. It is a very important feature in a hotel and restaurant environment.

The application was implemented in the first half of 1999. The management decided to switch to a 32-bit platform. The choice was restricted to two platforms - Windows NT and Linux.

Pawel Moszumanski, a manager of the IT department and a great Linux enthusiast, played the vital role in the decision-making process. Being aware of system capabilities as well as the hotel's operating needs, Moszumanski was able to convince the management to seriously consider the Linux option.

At that time, our company had already become known for forcing StarDivision, the developer of the StarOffice package, to enter the Polish market. We took an interest in StarOffice after we had experienced difficulty in promoting our Linux solutions. Still, the customers never ceased to ask the sacramental question: what about Word and Excel?

StarOffice was the only Linux package which could match Microsoft solutions. Its operating standards resembled similar solutions developed by the Redmond company. The only obstacle was the absence of a Polish distributor and a Polish language version.

After laborious efforts (the Polish market has always been disregarded by American software developers), our company finally became an official StarDivision dealer and we could offer solutions based on the system. Thanks to our PKFL activity and the recommendation of HS-Partner, we were able to establish contact with Jan III Sobieski Hotel.

The hotel management were faced with a difficult choice - either to spend a lot of money to develop Windows-based solutions or to acquire a system whose advantages were recognised only by the professionals without any marketing support. The main advantage of Linux was its ability to maintain a uniform system platform, while Windows' strength laid with its commercial popularity. Still, the numbers were on our side. The cost of acquiring Windows-based software exceeded the Linux solution five-fold.

For a large company like Jan III Sobieski Hotel, the cost of acquiring software is not as important as overall system development costs. As it turned out, the total software cost was ZERO!

Let's reduce TCO

The cost of owning a computer is higher than the actual purchase cost. The cost of installing 100 computers with NT Workstations would be: 100 (computers) x 2 (hours to install the system, network and applications) equals the monthly pay of a well-paid computer expert.

Additional costs would have to be incurred with regard to management, maintenance and support. Jan III Sobieski Hotel is a large facility and it takes more than a short walk to get from one building to another. A system requiring less maintenance would be the preferred choice.

The alternative solutions were the Zero Administration Kit, PC Anywhere and others. Still, they implied additional costs without a guarantee of proper operation.

All those features were already present in the Linux System. A PC could be transformed into a practically self-operated terminal, a remotely or centrally controlled workstation. The high reliability of a Unix class system also guaranteed safe data processing.

One Company - One Platform

The hotel management decided to implement a uniform system platform. A decision was soon made to introduce the StarOffice package provided that the HS-Partner system would be successfully implemented. The implementation was completed in August 1999. The next step was to unify the system platform. Negotiations were held on involving our company in the implementation process. Our company had become known for a number of successful StarOffice implementations based on Linux, for example in Warsaw's BoatHouse restaurant.

The hotel management take credit for approaching the subject in the most reasonable way - by stating the requirements and demanding results. They did not intervene in technical details and provided the programmers with the freedom to make the right decisions.

A present from Sun

At that time, a fee was charged for commercial StarOffice applications. Even though it was half the price of the MS Office package, we still had to import it, pay the customs duty, wait and transfer the money. At low margin levels, it was not a very lucrative undertaking - our company makes money on implementing, rather than selling software packages. In the late summer of 1999, StarDivision was taken over by Sun Microsystems and the StarOffice package became available to the public for free. We no longer had to waste our time dealing with bureaucratic chores and we were (and still are) the most competent company implementing the StarOffice package based on Linux.

What about the terminals?

We suggested that Xterminals be used, but the idea was not picked up by the hotel's IT department. Firstly, the terminals implied additional costs. The hotel had an adequate PC base and only some of the computers required upgrading. Secondly, a new server would have to be acquired to prevent the loss of the system's calculating power on the terminals. Server capacity was also questioned. The capacity of the Intel platform and servers with Linux support seemed limited and other hardware platforms were not an option. The present solutions ensure adequate processing capacity.

The management decided to postpone the decision on buying terminals until the existing stations became inadequate. A number of weaker computers would still have to be configured as Xterminals.

Setting to Work

The contract was signed in October and it involved training and system installation. We had to begin by developing a quick system installation mechanism. The company called MandrakeSoft helped by releasing Linux-Mandrake. This distribution was equipped with the KickStart mechanism which provided for automatic installation based on previously developed scripts. Our programmers wrote a set of scripts which installed the system and the required applications with the developed computer base. The script would be saved on a floppy disk and run to install the abridged version of Mandrake, the StarOffice package, configure the network and printers. Another set of scripts was used to automatically generate user configurations. All those tools enabled us to install the system on workstations practically overnight.

Technical Aspects of the Configuration

Workstations with the operating system and the StarOffice application are installed on the local disk. The users' home directories are installed from the server with the use of NFS. Authorisation control is conducted with the use of yp. IPXutils is used to communicate with the Novell server.

The only problem was NFS. NFS itself is not an optimal solution and is probably the greatest weakness of Unix systems. The majority of hotel users frequently browse through directories to find a given file - with 100 logged users, the capacity of the server using nfsd drops below the allowable level. The Kernel nfsa driver - knfs - was used. At present, processor load is negligent (the server has two processors) and the network operates correctly. We did not experience any other network-related problems. Thanks to remote access, user support became possible without running from one floor to another.


Training sessions were held in the hotel's training room. Two lecturers trained two groups each. Courses were taught daily - one group in the morning, the other in the afternoon. The course comprised 24 class hours on package operation, basic Internet and e-mail skills, etc. The users did not have any problems with the presented material despite the sudden change of the working environment. The training session lasted less than four weeks. Following the course, we provided the users with two weeks of start-up support - a job well done by Piotr Duszynski.

Most users are not familiar with the specific nature of the Linux system and the system itself. They use the window manager interface to open applications such as StarOffice, accounting applications and, in justified cases, Netscape. Practically none of the users know how to administer or configure the system, but such skills are not required.

Present Condition

The hotel currently relies on the above hotel system and the office centre operates the StarOffice package. The HP UX accountancy system is also used. The WWW and e-mail server operates on Linux. The Novell NetWare system is integrated with Linux using IPXutils tools. The Windows system is used for pay-TV, which is the only hotel service that keeps the IT department busy troubleshooting.

The Story of Success

The implementation was one of the few stories of success in the Polish computer industry. I would rather not make any references to major system failures experienced by large companies, but we tried to steer clear of the common errors. The hotel management defined the goals and the programmers developed the right implementation methodology. The IT department is always short of people during system implementations which is why we had to resort to outsourcing to a limited extent. Pawel Moszumanski's managerial skills cannot go unnoticed - he scrupulously supervised project goals and provided the team with organisational and technical support. Much of the credit goes to the hotel's staff who provided us with a friendly and stress-free working atmosphere. We also received massive support from Arek Podgórski, one of the top Linux administrators and system designers, and Piotr Duszynski, implementation expert. Lenin's theory that "all depends on the working class" was fully proven.

Other Applications

A business application should be the key feature of a computer system. A Unix class system proved to be a reliable platform for such applications. Business applications should be selected to match the company's operating profile, but the system's open architecture and stability should also be taken into account. The costs of maintaining and developing open applications and systems are half of those incurred in closed systems. Linux and other Unix class systems, such as SCO and Solaris, provide the perfect solution. The system selected for office applications should be well integrated with the business application system. Linux is the best solution in the Unix system category. It provides for a single stable platform, uniform administration system and lower costs. Network size is of minor significance - we have implemented a similar solution (featuring Xterminals) in 5 workstations at Warsaw's BoatHouse restaurant. A similar method can be applied in a network of 1000 workstations. Unix was developed for large networks, but Linux is more flexible and can be used in both small businesses and giant corporations. If its scaling capacity is exhausted, commercial Unix systems can always be applied.

Softomat's web site is http://www.softomat.com.pl. In the near future, the company plans to launch a mini service which will discuss their experience implementing the above as well as other projects.

Copyright © 2000, Jacek Kijewski (author), Pawel Moszumanski (English translation)
Published in Issue 51 of Linux Gazette, March 2000


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