Law Firm IT Director Discovers Open Source

by Ostatic Staff - Jan. 11, 2010

If you've ever wondered how IT departments come across and adopt open source software, consider Lance Rae. Lance is an IT Director for a mid-sized law firm in New York City. We were chatting about his firm's use of open source, and I decided it was worth recording our Q & A for posterity - and posting on OStatic.

 In this conversation, we discussed Nagios, the process of evaluating software, MonitoringForge, and how utilizing one open source tool can lead to a cascade effect, with others surely to follow.

What is your background? One normally doesn't think of law firms as bastions of IT innovation or early adoption. Yet you are the IT Director of a law firm and utilize open source software in the IT department. How did this happen?

I was a consultant for over six years before I came to my current in-house position.  During my time as a consultant I always tried to find a FOSS alternative to some of the proprietary solutions that were being implemented.  More often than not, the FOSS solution just didn't cut it either due to a lack of features or integration with other systems.  This was the during the late 90s and early 2000s and outside of and, it was tough to find alternatives.  While I'm a fan of FOSS, I never believed in shoe-horning a program into place when it just wasn't the right fit.

Fast-forward to 2004 and my new position as IT Director for a mid-size law firm in New York City.  My predecessor left me with a great staff as I settled in and started to review the firm's technology stance.  One of the first things I realized needed attention was our systems monitoring.  There was a relatively inexpensive monitoring system in place, but it was kludgy to configure and its licensing terms were onerous.  There were still large gaps in what we were monitoring and adding more hosts or services would have required additional licensing.

So you began to look for alternatives. What tools were under consideration? How much effort was required?

Nagios was the primary one - and that was because of a clued-in intern who was a staunch Linux advocate.  During a weekly meeting he offered to setup a parallel monitoring system using Nagios.  Using an old desktop and the documentation from the Nagios site, he was able to mimic the proprietary monitoring solution within a day.  From there, we continued to add 'features' to the Nagios system - server room temperature and humidity, external web site checks, printer checks, and SQL checks to name a few.  Within a few months, we had turned off the proprietary solution and cancel it's maintenance contract.  In one of my better management decisions, that intern was hired on full-time.

Nagios is one of several open source monitoring solutions, including GroundWork, Hyperic, and Zenoss, just to name a few. Did Nagios 'open the floodgates' to other open source tools?

The success with the Nagios project (and having another FOSS fan on staff) made us start to look for other opportunities to use alternative solutions.  In short order we were running NTOP for bandwidth monitoring, CACTI for trend analysis, and NESSUS for security scans.  The introduction of VMware to our environment helped spur things on since it was so much easier to run up a server or try out a Virtual Appliance.  Most of these systems have a web front-end, so day-to-day use can be handled by the CLI-challenged.  We added Monarch from GroundWork to allow anyone in IT to add and configure hosts and services in Nagios.

And how have these tools held up? Did they stand the test of time? How have you managed to maintain them?

A couple years ago my pro-Linux staffer left.  For the most part, anything involving a Linux box fell on me.  I wasn't without support though. Most of my questions were solved with a quick search on Google or a project's knowledgeable.  Another great resource for me was the International Legal Technology Association (ILTA) OSS group.  ILTA is a volunteer organization dedicated to technology in the legal space and the OSS guys are an exceptionally helpful group.

While searching for a way to monitor our VMware ESX servers I came across The site was brand new at the time and while it didn't have the solution I was looking for, it pointed me in the right direction. I learned about monitoring projects I had never heard of as well as some useful front-ends for configuring systems we were already using. In fact, I liked it so much, I joined the advisory board!

 So there you have it - even law firms can use open source software. 

John Mark Walker is a long-time open source agitprop and community organizer. He is the founder of the UbuCon, the 2nd incarnation of GeekPAC and Community Root, LLC. You can read all of his musings at Follow him at Twitter - @johnmark - and - @johnmark