Leading independent property firm Strutt & Parker has the UK's longest running Open Source support contract. From a modest introduction to OSS, the firm now connects its 28 offices with an Open Source communications infrastructure supported by The Linux Centre, and considers Open Source technology for all its new technology developments.
Founded over 120 years ago, Strutt & Parker is as much of a British institution as the country houses and stately properties it is best known for selling. Conjuring up images of homes that most people can only aspire to, the Firm’s name is associated with the utmost in quality and refinement.
Fitting then, that over the past seven years Strutt & Parker has also been one of the United Kingdom’s most pioneering Firms in the use of Open Source Software (OSS). Over this period, Strutt & Parker has used OSS to reduce its IT costs whilst increasing value and functionality of its technology infrastructure: both internally and for its customers.
One of the largest privately owned, independent property firms in the UK, the Firm runs a national network of 28 offices and employs a team of over 650 personnel dedicated to assisting (deleted) clients seize opportunities and solve problems relating to all aspects of high quality commercial and rural property. As such, whilst its outward image is one of Great British tradition, behind the scenes is a fast-moving business infrastructure capable of shaming any ‘new economy’ company.
Strutt & Parker was first introduced to OSS back in 1998, but then as now, it has never been concerned with the technical detail or ideology. The decision to use OSS was a purely commercial choice: “We were looking for a secure, reliable solution for email, Internet access and remote working across the branch office network. We needed a unified system that could be looked after and administered by the suppliers,” comments Anthony Cane, Senior Partner at Strutt & Parker.
At this stage Enterprise Management Consulting was amongst several software vendors asked to tender for the contract. The fact that the company was developing one of the UK’s foremost centres of expertise in OSS was of very little interest to Strutt & Parker. Once the proposals were compared, however, Strutt & Parker’s interest in OSS rapidly increased.
“The EMC tender was significantly lower than any of the other vendors,” continues Cane. “But it was not a ‘budget option’. It offered more functionality and better quality service and support. At the time, our only worry was that it was all too good to be true, but seven years on with the system still running the system has more than proved itself.”
Using freely available Open Source Software running on Linux servers, EMC were able to channel the budget back into better, more resilient hardware and, more importantly, higher levels of service and support. Also, in addition to the lower initial costs, the use of OSS and Linux as opposed to Microsoft Windows, also freed Strutt & Parker from yearly software license fees.
“Initially it was important to us that we weren’t using a substandard product to cut costs, but over time it became clear that the opposite was true,” Cane explains. “Staff continued to use Microsoft desktops with all their familiar applications, the only change was new functionality, and a more robust, reliable system.”
Having seen the simultaneous savings and improvements that could be achieved through using OSS, Strutt & Parker were naturally keen to explore other areas where it could be implemented. At this stage, EMC played a vital role in guiding the Firm’s decisions.
“There is a temptation to view OSS as a free replacement for all proprietary software. OSS can deliver unbeatable value to any business but it has to be used selectively, and must be well implemented and well supported,” comments Malcolm Macsween, managing director of EMC and director of operations at The Linux Centre, the company’s specialist OSS support and development centre. “One of the most valuable services we offer, is in advising companies as to where OSS offers a good fit for their needs and importantly where it doesn’t. Without this insight, using OSS can be a very false economy.”
But whilst caution has been exercised over the years, under the expert guidance of EMC, OSS has become the mainstay for much of Strutt & Parker’s IT infrastructure. The initial installation of communications servers has been built upon to incorporate anti-virus for mail, spam filtering and web content filtering, all of which are fully managed open source solutions.
“The nature of Linux servers makes them ideal for remote management over the Internet,” explains Macsween. “This makes our lives easier, but it also presents a significant saving for an organisation like Strutt & Parker with a distributed office network. We can resolve almost all day-to-day issues over the Internet, and ensure that security software is kept up-to-date without the need to visit each individual office.”
The reliability of the Linux based communications servers has also lead Strutt & Parker to host its website, corporate intranet on Linux servers, and to provide remote access to the Firm’s accounting system and even its core estate agency database using OSS.
“Linux and OSS are vital in the running of the IT infrastructure,” explains Melita Jenkins, Strutt & Parker’s Operations Manager “Although we still use Microsoft on our Desktops, Linux and EMC cover pretty much everything else. Over the years we have learnt that it is always worth considering EMC and an OSS solution before proceeding on an IT project. Invariably we select Linux and OSS.
Looking to the future, the Firm has recently completed a trial of a ‘roaming profile’ solution using the OSS virtual private network (VPN). This has allowed staff in the Cambridge, Ipswich and Norwich offices to access their own desktops by simply logging on to any machine across the three offices.
“Staff feedback on the project has been great” continues Jenkins. “There are several other projects which we are considering. We have no doubt of its reliability and flexibility and it can also allow you to achieve far more with your IT budget.”
“From what I have read, many of the leading IT industry analysts are now wholeheartedly recommending OSS for core infrastructure projects. It seems that, having started seven years ago, Strutt & Parker are well ahead of the game,” concludes Anthony Cane. “The partnership with EMC has been instrumental in guiding Strutt & Parker’s use of the best available technologies, allowing us to stay ahead in the very competitive property market.”