Will businesses buy Linux?

Open source software is gradually making ground in the enterprise market, with Linux leading the way to the hearts & minds of corporate IT managers. But can Linux really scale to the needs of big business, or is it doomed to remain the preserve of web-servers and software fans?

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By  Mark Sutton Published  November 25, 2000

Open source software is gradually making ground in the enterprise market, with Linux leading the way to the hearts & minds of corporate IT managers. But can Linux really scale to the needs of big business, or is it doomed to remain the preserve of web-servers and software fans?

Linux, every computer geek’s favorite operating system, continues to go from strength to strength.

Major hardware vendors are shipping more and more products that support Linux; the ranks of the open source community have been swollen by the GNOME project; Linux deployments in universities and other educational facilities continue to turn out new developments and engineers with Linux skills.

There are an estimated 34 million Linux users worldwide, with one third of all web-hosting servers, supporting one half of all the websites in the world running on Linux. Projects for the Arabisation of the code promises to put Middle East developers on an equal footing with the rest of the world soon.

But for all the talk, Linux still seems to be lacking popularity in one key arena — the enterprise — and failure to break into the big time could mean the OS becoming nothing more than a diversion for computer scientists.

Compaq warned as much at the start of October, when Judy Chavis, Linux/Unix product marketing manager for Compaq announced that the company would use Linux for Internet infrastructure services for a worldwide e-commerce site it has planned.

“We’re definitely at the stage where we need reference sites, otherwise we’ll be in danger of losing all this momentum and it [Linux] becomes one of those ‘just for geeks’ things,” she said.

It is not an uncommon opinion — Linux has been around for quite a few years now, and despite the obvious attractions of a free operating system, it still cannot seem to shake off the image of bedroom programmers poring over lines of code.

Business users have adopted Linux for some operations, but outside of web, print, file and email servers, and developer workstations the system is apparently overlooked. Many companies are still reluctant to deploy Linux, especially for e-business applications, despite the efforts of hardware vendors to push the system into the corporate market.

Dell and IBM have been the most visible in promoting Linux to the enterprise. In June, Dell chose Linux as its third global strategic operating system that it factory installs and supports.

The deployment was accompanied by the launch of the One Source Alliance, a venture between Dell and Red Hat, one of the premier Linux distributions. Dell says that supplying Linux fits with its built-to-order business model to give customers what they want.

Tejas Vakil, vice president of enterprise business for Dell EMEA, explained: “The One Source Alliance reinforces Dell as an early leader in today’s huge market for Linux-based web servers and appliances, and provides a strategic advantage in how Dell builds, deploys and services global Linux solutions. Linux is our Unix offering and we’re working together with Red Hat to capitalise on the enormous opportunity for the Internet infrastructure build-up.”

Dell recently shipped the latest version of Red Hat Linux, version 7, pre-installed on its PowerEdge servers and Precision workstations. The OS is also available on all Dell hardware, down to notebook computers. Users receive technical support from Red Hat, for a limited period.

Vakil says the offering, including the availability of an unlimited support contract for the EMEA makes a Red Hat 7 a perfect choice for customers growing or building e-businesses, and addresses one of the biggest problems with Linux — support.

The focus of the One Source Alliance is also spreading. When Dell began considering Linux in the middle of last year, its usefulness for web servers, running Apache Web Server software, was already gaining ground, and Linux solutions for print, file and e-mail servers were readily available.

Applications were not so common however. “Linux still lacks the extensive selection of application programs offered for Windows platforms,” David Pasley, senior software technologist for Dell wrote in July 1999.

The situation is changing though. “As part of the One Source Alliance, Dell is working with Red Hat on high availability Linux, storage area network support, OpenManage support and SAP porting — Dell is the lead hardware partner for SAP with Red Hat on IA 64.” said Gareth Williams, area manager for Dell Gulf region.

“Dell also commissioned TCS to build a software test harness for industrial strength software testing — this code has now been released to open source.”

Analysts see this support from the vendors as going some way to spreading the word about Linux. Dan Kusnetzky, vice president of system software at IDC, reports that Oracle, SAP, Sybase, Informix and many others are now offering applications, databases and development tools for Linux.

About 23% of North American and Western European organisations report at least one Linux-based system, with 80% indicating they are open to purchasing more. But the gradual uptake of Linux in the West seems to have been something of a quiet revolution, rather than being driven by the big vendors.

Kusnetzky says that Linux has got into many organisations through the back door. “Linux has been installed inside of organisations for quite some time,” he said. “For the most part, however, this usage is hidden because Linux was not one of the approved choices for clients or server operating environments.

"Knowledgeable users brought it in to solve specific problems, and didn’t let the IT organisation know. Now that Compaq, Dell, IBM, HP and others have stated that Linux is one of their strategic platforms, many of these previously hidden Linux systems are becoming more well known.”

So will the Middle East follow the West in this quiet revolution? It seems to have started already, although the enterprise is still lagging. Gareth Williams admits that the Middle East is some way behind the US in Linux adoption.

“Typically the US market is ahead in terms of uptake of new technologies,” he commented. “Dell has seen a steep increase in the uptake of Linux products in the US, hence the decision to add Linux as a factory-installed operating system. Dell is now starting to see a growing demand for Linux products in the Middle East.”

IBM, another proponent of Linux, does not see the same demand in the region. “We have DB2, Websphere and MQ Series for Linux,” said Tarek Niazi, software marketing manager for IBM Middle East. “They are available [here] but I am not sure that any orders have been placed for them.”

Dr Saud Ahmed Al Semari, director of the centre for communications and computer research at King Fadh University of Petroleum & Minerals (KFUPM) in Saudi Arabia, reports the same situation.

“Currently Linux is limited to universities and ISPs [in the KSA]. The business sector is still linked with Microsoft NT, but that is the case even if you go to other countries like the US. There is a huge investment now in Linux for commercial applications, probably in five years or so you will see a big change in that picture. Personal users, especially those who are affiliated with computer science, are shifting towards Linux.”

There are a number of ISPs in the Kingdom that use Linux, but most are reluctant to admit it. It seems, as was the case in the US, that there is a taboo about using open source software.

“The commercial deployment of Linux has been there much earlier than we knew,” said Dr Khaled Al Ghoneim of King Saud University, and head of the Linux user group in Saudi Arabia.

“The companies were hesitant to announce it. Cisco had Linux as its print server for nearly three years. But companies take a low profile in adopting Linux — that is the case here also. They don’t want to look like they are adopting a cheap solution in terms of monetary value.”

However, Dr Ghoneim said that the technical superiority of Linux, and the growth of open source software should make a difference. “As soon as people realise that it is very good technically, I am sure they will adopt it.

Also, now Solaris is released as open source, companies will understand the value of open source software and the taboo about using Linux will disappear slowly as it did in the US.”

He also sees another reason why Linux deployment is likely to reach the enterprise in the Middle East — expertise. With so many Linux projects and so many power users switching to Linux, he expects to see companies moving to harness that Linux/Unix expertise in a few years.

“Many ISPs and other companies in the West switched to Linux mainly because the fresh graduates who came to work for them were very experienced in Linux. It is cheaper for companies to switch to Linux/Unix than to train them on NT or whatever. The college [King Saud Univeristy] has been using Linux for about four years and in a couple of years we will see that effect in industry here.”

The expert-driven approach to Linux deployment may not be in the best interests of businesses, however. Philip Dawson, senior research analyst in infrastructure services with the Meta Group warned:

“There are a lot of hidden costs with Linux. A lot of people are de-risking the use of Linux by using a Linux guru who supports and develops the product they are running their businesses on — but what happens if your guru leaves?

"The bespoke skill set goes with him — not necessarily the Linux knowledge, you can get that from another support person, but if the guru has tailored your applications, and tweaked them, then that is where we see issues.”

Dawson is also not convinced about the scalability of Linux. Much has been made of the potential for Linux to provide cheap, powerful computing. Dr Abdulaziz Almulhem, assistant professor in the department of computer engineering at KFUPM said: “There are some companies that are providing Linux workstations that can give you up to 90 gigaflops, a tremendous amount of computational power for about $10,000. The graphics for the film Titanic were rendered using 160 433 MHz Alpha PCs running on Linux over a 100M/bits/s Ethernet.

"Linux has the cluster computing advantage — instead of throwing away old 486s you can connect them through a Gigabit Ethernet using Beowulf to give you PC recycling and cheap computing.”

The problem is that while Linux can handle horizontal scaling across a large number of single-processor machines, scaling to a vertical environment with multi-processor machines is not so straightforward.

“Clustering is fine for availability, but generally, management of the cluster if you have got multiple nodes is extremely difficult,” said Dawson. “[Management] may be easy to do in a technical environment, but if you are managing a cluster in a data centre or financial services or whatever business use then that is a different area.

"If you’ve got to have five minutes outage a year the issues are completely different to doing technical clustering for scalability of a scientific calculation in an academic environment. I don’t think single node scalability has been addressed.”

Dan Kusnetzky argues that typical deployment of Linux, with separate applications or components based on different machines in a web farm means that the current limitations in single machine scaling are not significant. Linux is currently capable of scaling to four or eight node processors, but whether further scaling is possible remains to be seen.

However, Dawson has other concerns for the enterprise future of Linux. “Porting an application [to Linux] is one thing but integrating it and running it is another,” he said.

“Porting isn’t that difficult, but it is different porting to a platform to developing natively on a platform. To move to the application server where you are actually running applications that are integrated into the data centre, rather than standalone or departmental applications, then management of the integration is key.

Linux has yet to prove that it can handle a complex, integrated environment, Dawson believes.

“A web server requires one or two processor scalability and maturity of the load balancing, with the integration done by the web software — Linux is a good operating system for that,” Dawson explained. “But if you are talking about a four-processor ERP application server talking to a large Oracle DB2 database, then I can’t see either of those two platforms being easily managed by Linux in the short term.

"Potentially, in three years time, the application server might [be able to handle it] but then that is subject to integration with the management framework, with deployment of a SAN and the sheer fact that the operating system has to scale to a four-way node.”

Dawson is also concerned that commercial development of Linux could ultimately spell its open source downfall. “I think the problem with Linux will be, is that people are beginning to package in a service element and a product element for different components of Linux.

"There is Linux for clustering, people are doing things for systems management, things for dealing with scalability issues, if improvements are made to the standard Linux and it is packaged differently, then it starts fragmenting the source stream. If it starts forking into different products, what do people do with the different versions of Linux?

"I am concerned that it limits them in deploying different versions of Linux — it is similar to what we saw with the Unix industry 10-15 years ago, and that helped give Microsoft a leg up.”

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