Bill Roth, Ulitzer Editor-at-Large

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The New Campaign

Open source software is the clear winner for the DNC

Democrats are taking full advantage of Linux and open source software (OSS) in their bid to win the White House in 2004. Leveraging the successful e-campaign strategies pioneered by Howard Dean during the primary season, all of the democratic candidates embraced Linux and OSS in some fashion. There are even companies springing up to support this growing trend.

By the admission of many, Howard Dean's run for the White House revolutionized how campaigns are presented on the Internet, and how they raise funds. Dean started out with an application server based on Linux. This evolved to the point where all nine of the Democratic candidates evaluated OSS. Dean, retired General Wesley Clark, and North Carolina Senator and VP candidate John Edwards had at least some part of their Web infrastructure on Linux and LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL, and PHP) technologies.

In situations where scalability, reliability, and rapid application deployment were not crucial, there was no push for Linux. Many of the campaigns were using Microsoft Exchange as their internal e-mail server. Where scalability, reliability, and rapid application deployment were vital to organization's needs, OSS was the clear winner.

Massachusetts senator and presump-tive Democratic nominee John Kerry is running his entire Web infrastructure on Linux. The main driver behind the move was not the presumed cost advantage. It was the platform's ability to support rapid prototyping, says David Brunton, founder and VP of services firm Plus Three, which had a hand in constructing the site.

The campaign needed extremely rapid development cycles. "The key consideration was how fast you could go from having an idea to having something online." Changes to Web sites had to be done several orders of magnitudes faster than traditional corporate development cycles. Brunton explained, "Folks had to check out code, change it, and deploy it in 1-2 minutes, not 1-2 days."

Scalability was a key consideration as well. "All candidates who needed scalability deployed their infrastructure on Linux - specifically their Web infrastructure," said Brunton. One of the Plus3-built sites is Democrats.org, a site for democratic grass roots organizers. The site was initially plugged in to a 40-megabit Internet connection. As a result of awareness efforts by the DNC, the network connection needed to be upgraded because of the enormous spike in traffic. Traffic on these sites tend to have very sharp spikes in load, driven by an election or an ad campaign.

Reliability was also paramount in order to keep the donation flow going. John Kerry raised $3.5 million on his best day of online fundraising. In this context, "Fifteen minutes of downtime could cost between $60,000 and $70,000," said Brunton.

Plus Three appears to be making a solid business out of helping progressive candidates, nonprofits, and nongovernment organizations. They initially focused on progressive candidates and causes, but the market soon became saturated. They expanded their business to unions like the UFT teachers' union in New York, the national AFL-CIO, Senator Kerry's campaign, and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. They have also expended their work into the Ohio and Missouri state Democratic parties as well.

OSS also enables a business model that previously did not exist. "None of our clients pay software licensing fees," said Brunton. "If they were using competing solutions, they would still pay for customization and training, but also software licensing fees." He added, "What it means for Plus Three is the difference between getting into the market and not getting into the market."

Notably absent from the list of technologies being used by the campaigns is Java. The principal reason is that Java requires a richer development environment, and has a longer development cycle because of it. JBoss and Geronimo notwithstanding, licensing costs are a factor as well.

OSS technologies are also being used for data mining. The DNC has created a billion-record voter information database on MySQL called DemZilla. This clearly puts to rest concerns about a common refrain of the commercial database vendors, that open source databases like MySQL are not scalable. Also notable is the DNC's willingness to move away from commercial versions of Linux, as DemZilla is running on a custom version of the 2.6 Linux kernel, leveraging some of the "look-ahead" technology in order to speed up database lookups.

Facing a huge fundraising disadvantage against the Republicans this year, the Democratic National Committee appears to be looking to OSS technology to help it gain an edge in the battle for the United States Presidency in 2004.

More Stories By Bill Roth

Bill Roth is a Silicon Valley veteran with over 20 years in the industry. He has played numerous product marketing, product management and engineering roles at companies like BEA, Sun, Morgan Stanley, and EBay Enterprise. He was recently named one of the World's 30 Most Influential Cloud Bloggers.

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