By Larry Barrett Print this article Print

The tangle of cables in HON's factories is gone, replaced by wireless systems. Gone, too: the furniture maker's downtime.

s Billion-Dollar Linux Commitment">
IBM's Billion-Dollar Linux Commitment

Last year, IBM invested more than $1 billion to bring Linux, a Unix offshoot, to its full line of servers and to its software portfolio. The money also went toward hiring and training consultants to service Linux accounts. E*Trade is one of many large accounts that has moved to a Linux-only operation in the past year.

Fields replaced all the dumb terminals that were scattered throughout a production site with Intermec workstations running the Linux operating system and a piece of management software from The SCO Group called Volution Manager. HON got rid of all their serial cables in favor of wireless receivers hung from the rafters at each of its 12 manufacturing plants, giving production managers the ability to move the workstations around the plant without limitations.

"For HON, reliability was all they cared about," says Brad Dew, a product manager at The SCO Group. "Linux gave them the ability to control their environment and control their business. Their business is furniture, not computers."

Each manufacturing plant has up to 60 production lines operating at a given time. Each line requires its own workstation.

Fields says each workstation completely loaded with the Linux operating system and management software cost about $6,000. With a total of roughly 350 manufacturing lines, the total investment was a little more than $2 million.

"Cost wasn't the primary reason we went with Linux," Fields says. "I do know that it would have cost considerably more had we gone with Windows but that really wasn't the selling point to us. We just really liked the smaller footprint of hardware and the fact that we could manage the whole thing remotely."

As an early Linux adopter, HON recognized it would be running a less-mature technology platform with significantly fewer applications. On the other hand, the open-source platform, which has tens of thousands of software-writers contributing to its development each year, provides more stability and independence than a single software vendor.

"For cut-and-dried applications, businesses are finding Linux is comparatively inexpensive next to the fancy features that you get with a Windows NT or Unix server," says Peter Kastner, chief research officer at Aberdeen Group. "For run-of-the-mill manufacturing processes, Linux provides a perfect environment. The money you're saving by not buying proprietary software and hardware can be used for other projects."

According to CyberSource Ltd., an Australian information technology consulting firm, a company with 250 computers on a Windows operating system would spend $734,000 over a three-year period for software, hardware, licensing and support. That same company would spend $483,000—34% less—using Linux.

"We knew that using Windows would have cost more in terms of memory and licensing than going with Linux," Fields says. "But more important, a desktop version of Windows isn't reliable enough to handle the mission-critical applications we need. The downtime was driving everyone crazy."

HON began rolling out the new workstations in January 2001 and finished the project—give or take a few stragglers— in June of this year. When a new product was scheduled for production, HON rolled in a new workstation running the Linux software. The Volution Manager software can be accessed from any Web browser, giving the technology staff the ability to monitor the entire network from HON's Muscatine, Iowa, headquarters. If something goes awry—like a bug in the software that transmits the data from the bar-code reader to the server—the staff can fix the problem remotely. HON's systems are available more than 99% of the time now—compared to less than 95% of the time previously, Fields says.

When a new product is to be manufactured—for example, a dark-toned wood desktop or a gas fireplace—the computer prints out a ticket with the specifications, shipping date and destination. This ticket is then carried with each individual product all the way through the production line. At the end of the line, the ticket is scanned, telling the server what's been completed and where it will be shipped.

A label is then printed out and attached to the box, tell- ing employees exactly what it is and when and where it's to be delivered. Fields says production capacity has increased by "at least double digits" since the workstations were installed.

"The best part about the new system, aside from the fact that it virtually eliminates any downtime, is that at any point we can use the management software to find out exactly how many products are being manufactured on every line in every plant," Fields says. "I don't want to comment on how the business people here view the improvements that we've made, but I do know that are floors aren't getting swept as much as they did in the past."

This article was originally published on 2002-11-01
Senior Writer
Larry, of San Carlos, Calif., was a senior writer and editor at CNet, writing analysis, breaking news and opinion stories. He was technology reporter at the San Jose Business Journal from 1996-1997. He graduated with a B.A. from San Jose State University where he was also executive editor of the daily student newspaper.
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