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Free software users at work

by John Sullivan Contributions Published on Sep 07, 2005 11:08 AM
These are testimonials from individual users and developers describing their experience with free software in the workplace.

Some of these are available in Spanish.

From Paul Cheffers:

I've been an FSF associate member for 7 years now.

Several years ago I emailed you about the success my department had in using the PDFBox Apache free software suite of Java JAR files to add Merge PDF capability to the Java Web app we maintain.

Since that time the PDFBox app has been rock solid and is used every day by around 500 users of the system. One of them told me over the phone that the Merge PDF ability was the best thing that had happened to her since she started working for the government here in the southern hemisphere.

It's a big time saver and click saver, since before this time people had to open N documents individually, and now they get to open them into one window.

Not the only glowing reference to that free software code.

More recently, my department has started attempting to do the rote data input for our system with the Selenium and/or Qualys Chrome Web browser extensions. These are usually used to create Unit Tests for Web based systems, but since the tests can be exported as HTML files, then we simply create a Perl script to write our HTML Unit test with the actual data entry we require.

Initial tests are positive, and I think this is going to add a dimension we didn't have before to our use of the Web based systems I maintain and extend.

Thanks for all your advocacy of free software systems. I just want you guys to know that when appropriate I do advocate for their use by the government I work for here in the southern hemisphere.

We use free and open source software and find it very useful. Our intranet uses MySQL and PHP to provide dynamic Web sites. One of these sites uses DokuWiki for network documentation. I use Python to write system administration scripts. The Web sites and Python scripts are written using the SciTE text editor. I make extensive use of xVNC for remote administration of workstations. Both myself and my users appreciate the ability to quickly take over control of a workstation, either to fix a problem, or to show a user how to accomplish a task.

We have installed Firefox as our default Web browser. The tabbed browsing is especially useful, since users can have several tabs open for different sites on the intranet, giving them quick and easy access to essential information. It is useful for us to be able to create PDF files to send to clients, and for this we use PDFCreator. This installs as a printer driver, which means that creating a PDF is as simple as printing a document.

All of the free and open source software that we use is reliable and easy to use. The licensing makes administration much simpler than with proprietary software, since we can install the software on any computer that needs it, with no concerns about having to buy extra licenses, or keep records of how many licenses we have bought.

Russell Phillips
System Administrator
David Allen & Co

I work as a Clinical Informatics Analyst at the Children's Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota located in the twin cities of Minneapolis/St. Paul. In the past two years, I have developed a Disease Outbreak Detection System at our pediatric health-care organization using three free products: GNU/Linux, Perl, and R (the statistical programming language). The system (a Syndromic Surveillance System that was developed as part of national bio-surveillance initiatives) analyzes daily patient data from our clinical information system in order to detect disease outbreaks. Our system has proved to be extraordinarily stable, fast, and effective. We also collaborate with the Minnesota Department of Health on this project and send them the results from the system everyday.

Sivakumaran Raman, MBBS, MS

To do my scientific research without free software is absolutely unthinkable. I work in scientific computing, and make substantial use of task farms and beowulf clusters as a compute resource, on a daily basis. The reliability, stability and security of linux is absolutely vital in this instance. Furthermore, the availability of associated software such as gcc, the gimp, xmakemol, xmgrace and xdrawchem (just to name a few) is something I completely depend on. As for emacs, I use this software every day and I believe it helps me to work as efficiently as possible.

Research in scientific computing owes a lot to free software!

Dr. Tiff Walsh
Dept. of Chemistry
Centre for Scientific Computing

I've been working as a programmer and teacher for almost 10 years, and over these period, my work has become more and more dependant of Free Software. In my first professional years, virtually all software used by my employers was proprietary, but since about 5 years ago a trend towards using FS solutions began and has consolidated to the point that, for a long time now, I use almost exclusively FS at my jobs. I've programmed web applications [1], state-of-the-art electronic voting systems [2] and, right now, satellite control systems for scientific missions [3] using exclusively free software.

When it comes to software development, the GNU tools (Emacs, gcc, gdb, autotools, make, etc., etc.) have, in my experience, no competitor in terms of flexibility, reliability and, for those willing to learn, usability. And the swiftness, amount and quality of community-based help and support is far better, in my experience, than any offered by proprietary solutions.

In my current job [3], I am also witnessing the consolidation of FS in an area traditionally dominated by closed solutions: safety-critical, embedded systems. A few years ago, using a real-time OS meant buying some of the expensive and closed commercial ones which where certified by contractors such as civil aviation, ESA or NASA. Now, we're using RTEMS, a GPL real-time kernel, so that our whole tool chain is free and our contractor (ESA) is happy with it. Of course, in mission-critical products, having access to the source code is almost a necessity: with our all-GPL solutions we have it for free, both as in beer and, most importantly, as in speech.

I would never work again for a company which uses non-free tools.

Finally, I've also spent a couple of years in the academia. Of course, everything in there was free: we were doing science, after all, and we would never use closed solutions in our research. But also for our teaching: laboratories in our faculty [4] used (and still use) computers with GNU/Linux as their only OS, and we encouraged our students to learn and use this kind of systems for their assignments. Our systems administrators, who have to maintain a considerably sized network, are also empowered by predictable, robust and enjoyable tools, which make their job easier and more fun. A win-win-win situation!

Jose A Ortega Ruiz
Institute of Spatial Studies of Catalonia
Barcelona, Spain

[1] [2] [3] [4]

When I began programming seriously, I realized that I would need some way to easily and efficiently develop my programs. I remember thinking surely any such collection of software would be several hundred dollars at least. Although I did discover that there were development suites available at that price, I discovered an affordable alternative. gcc and gnu make were affordable (obviously), but what I discovered was how powerful they truly were. Now I couldn't imagine developing without these tools.

Free software is vital to the education of programmers; without the freely available tools, I would have never learned how to develop programs myself, and it is certainly an invaluable resource at my college. Free software makes accessible those tools formerly restricted only to the wealthy and the pirate.

Colin Williams
Hendrix College

I work as a regional network administrator for a Fortune 500 company. When I began with the company a year and a half ago, we were a 100% windows based enterprise. During a Peoplesoft project launch, we had some very serious issues with the implementation, and no one could pinpoint the cause.

I was asked to setup a NOC with 2 days notice. I quickly got a retired server up a running with a functional Ubuntu install in less than 6 minutes. Using nagios, MRTG, etherape, etheral, and other GPL'd tools, I was able to meet my deadline and begin addressing the issues immediately.

Coincidentally, my free NOC was an order of magnitude more accurate than our enterprise level Solarwinds monitoring, provided by a 3rd party NOC service.

With the success of the GNU/Linux based NOC, we are now implementing Linux citrix thin clients in the field, bringing to life machines so old, they could not be declared assets on our company's financial statements, and having them out preform the full-install windows machines we had been using.


I use GNU software almost exclusively for my embedded applications, and have done so for nearly a decade. (The lone holdout is a legacy application that will be migrated to a GNU-compatible platform shortly). None of the commercial alternatives I have encountered in my career could compete with the flexibility, stability and transparency that comes standard with GNU tools.

One project I recently worked on required a complex floating-point calculation to be performed on an integer-only, gcc-compatible microprocessor. Changing processors was not an option. After a few hours with gdb and the source code for gcc's floating-point implementation, I was able to easily identify and isolate hotspots in my algorithm. With some minor refinements to that source code to take advantage of the fact that I didn't need the full 64-bit precision offered by gcc, I was able to reduce the time of one iteration of my calculation from 5 minutes to well under the ten seconds demanded by the customer--- without modifying the source code for the algorithm itself. (The project was ultimately terminated due to unexpected destruction of the target platform: the Mir Space Station).

Another project required compatibility with an external debugger, but the target hardware did not provide a JTAG or any other traditional access ports to communicate with the debugging host. To make matters worse, there were parts of the application that had to continue operating even if the rest of the code was halted due to an exception or breakpoint. Using existing documentation for the GNU debugger's Remote Serial Protocol, I was able to craft a gdb-compatible debugging agent that could step machine instructions, set breakpoints and observe/manipulate data values in my embedded application without destructively interfering with the critical, always-on parts of that application. As if that wasn't enough, I was also able to leverage the powerful scripting and logging abilities of the GNU debugger to build extensive, cross-platform, automated unit and system tests that significantly improved the quality of the delivered software. The source code for that project ultimately became the "gdbstubs" project, now hosted on SourceForge.

The GNU/Linux operating system running on my workstation hosts gcc and other development tools just fine, but the real action in my book comes when you use GNU tools and technologies to produce interesting and powerful embedded applications.

Bill Gatliff
Independent Embedded Consultant

As a freelance writer who is at present entirely focused on the homeless and the hungry both here in America and in other countries and remote parts of the world, free software is one of my main tools for research, acquiring information, and organization. It is good that the software is free as the job tends to not pay a whole lot you might say. The ability to communicate with others, sharing information, and making contacts would not be as beneficial to the end goal were it that I was required to pay exhorbitant amounts of greenbacks while conducting extensive research.

Were it the case that I had no other choice, I would have spent at least 200 or more on operating system licenses and word editing software. The choice of free software means that those 200 can go to something else, perhaps as a donation to a food kitchen. In this respect, the donation of the programmers time has yielded yet another contribution.

Jonathan Kopka

fedora core 2, sylpheed (sylpheed-claws), openoffice, abiword, nano, firefox, drupal, mysql

In a email from an Australian customer with a (GNU) Redhat Linux (Fedora 3) server:

Subject: International Email

Hi Richard,

Just some feedback for you – the squirrel mail solution worked splendidly for me. The hotels I stayed in while in India and Singapore had wireless pay-as-you-go Internet access available, so I could sit in my room in the evenings and catch up on all my mail. The squirrel mail facility is very fast so I was very happy.

Richard Ames

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