Not a lot of people know that Europe has an equivalent of the US Food and Drug Administration; but it has, it's based in London's docklands, and it's taking the Unix/Linux route to fulfil some pretty special and exacting networking requirements.
The European Agency for the Evaluation of Medicinal Products (EMEA) is one of the European Community's smaller agencies, but it's responsible for the evaluation, approval and monitoring of all drugs for sale in the EU, together with Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein. It performs similar functions to the FDA, but its model is networked rather than centralised, using commercial Unix systems (currently Sun) together with Windows clients, and its first Linux systems are being deployed by Enterprise Management Consulting, as part of an-going two-year project.
Hans-Georg Wagner, head of EMEA's communications and networking unit, is a self-confessed Linux fan, and hopes to be able to give Linux a bigger slice of the pie in the future, but is currently taking a hard-headed view of what Linux can and can't do for his organisation. EMEA requires 99.99 per cent uptime on its core systems, and in his view that pretty much dictates commercial Unix running on non-Intel platforms, because although Intel servers are attractive from the bangs per buck point of view, reliability can still be an issue, and Wagner can't afford to have his servers falling over. So for now, Unix does mission critical, while Linux comes in around the edges where uptime isn't quite such a necessity.
He does however have high hopes for Linux on Intel: "In about three years time," he says, "I think Linux on Intel will be eating massively into the server market, and this will include datacentre applications."
The current Linux deployment provides secure document exchange facilities at a saving of around 1m Euros compared to similar proprietary systems. Enterprise Management's system provides similar functionality at a fraction of the cost, and in addition has the potential to be expanded into related areas of EMEA's operations.
This is obviously not the kind of infrastructure that can be organised overnight and when we spoke to Malcolm Macsween, the project manager, it was apparent that the alternatives had been carefully considered at every turn. "With the size and scale of something like this " Macsween said, "The design must be approved, the plans must be carefully considered and justified before the project gains acceptance. The reason this has gone ahead using Open Source is because all the options, including proprietary solutions, were evaluated and only when the Open Source solution had proved its merits, did the work commence".
Because of its role and the way it executes it, EMEA has demanding document interchange requirements. Drug companies need to be able to provide submissions, the various national approval bodies have to exchange documentation, and that documentation has to be translated accurately into (currently) ten languages. All of this has to be done securely, and as Wagner points out, with the imminent addition of another ten languages, the cost of shipping people around Europe for meetings will become crippling.
So he envisages the existing document interchange system extending into groupware and conferencing systems. EMEA's current operations could also be extended through the delivery of pharmaceutical information to a far wider audience. For example, says Wagner, there is currently no comprehensive central repository of up-to-the-minute information permitted for use in the European Union, which means, for example, that general practitioners don't always have the complete information they need at their fingertips when prescribing drugs. Giving them online access to EMEA's data would therefore be a logical step, and EMEA could also provide pharmaceutical information to the citizenry in general.
Which would take the agency into e-business and e-commerce type applications. Linux, particularly if it grows up as Wagner anticipates, will at least be a candidate for providing some of these systems.
And EMEA's own internal systems? What are those Windows clients doing in there? It is, says Wagner, European Commission policy to encourage the use of open source, and his view is that open source productivity applications are now sufficiently competent to replace Windows. The cost of switching, however, lies in the investment organisations have already made in MS Office templates and macros - if you need to throw all of these away and start again, then you'll clearly face problems.
But he was deeply unimpressed by Licensing 6, and intends to hold out with Windows 2000 for now, making the decision on an upgrade or a switch by 2004. "Like many other organisation, we were not best pleased [by Microsoft's new licensing regime]. We are to some extent shielded from the costs by the Commission's special framework licence with Microsoft. But our objection isn't so much cost - it is that we are no longer masters of our own upgrade cycles." ®