Business builds on Linux

Business users have been slow to adopt Linux, despite the obvious attraction of a fee-free operating system. Now with the arrival of Red Hat in the Middle East, increased support from hardware vendors, and the availability of enterprise-level applications, the operating system looks ready to take its place in the corporate infrastructure.

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By  Mark Sutton Published  July 29, 2001

Introduction|~||~||~|Hardware vendors have been actively promoting the Linux operating system over the past few years. The lure of being able to offer customers a free operating system has been strong for companies including Compaq, IBM and Dell, but for all the initiatives, alliances and announcements, corporate uptake of Linux, especially in the Middle East, has been almost non-existent. The hype had gone on for so long that one Compaq marketing manager commented that if serious Linux reference sites didn’t emerge soon, then Linux would end up as “one of those just for geeks things.”

But the situation looks set to change. Following early success stories of companies running Apache Web server on Linux, and universities pushing the capabilities of the operating system, Linux is starting to appear in corporate environments, running mission critical systems. Red Hat, the most popular vendor of Linux, with around 70% of the market, has recently opened an office in Dubai to build regional operations. The investment looks to be paying dividends.

The road to the corporate market has been a long one for Linux. Compaq began promoting Linux in 1995, after the acquisition of Digital. Since then, the company has rolled out the operating system on a number of its key hardware platforms, including its Proliant and Alpha servers. Yasser Ragaei, product marketing manager for high performance servers, Compaq Gulf & Levant said “Linux is beginning to gain trust, however we don’t hear a lot about customers that are deploying Linux today for enterprise applications or financial management applications. It has been gaining a lot of market acceptance, in non-business critical environments, but we expect that it will have more important functions over time.”

To encourage development vendors have had to address a number of user concerns about Linux. Low stability, lack of expertise, lack of support and lack of applications are all often cited as a reason why companies aren’t going for a free operating system.

Technically, Linux has improved. Dr Khaled Al Ghoneim, head of the Saudi Arabian Linux user group predicts that many more people would adopt the OS if they were aware of the technical capabilities. Certainly in the US and Europe it is being used for high end computing tasks. One particular area of development is Linux supercomputer clusters. Sandia Labs is running the world’s largest Linux supercomputer, which can generate 2.7 teraflops of processing power. Linux supercomputers have already been deployed for oil & gas exploration by Shell in the Netherlands. SGI released the first Itanium based system in the Middle East, a workstation running Linux. While Microsoft struggles to prepare a 64 bit version of Windows, Linux presents a tried and tested solution.

At the lower end of computing, the open source community has developed a whole host of applications and interfaces that can recreate a Windows-GUI type desktop to such a degree that most users would not notice the difference. The latest version of the kernel also allows for support for a number of different consumer applications, like DVD playback support.

||**||The need for training|~||~||~|Linux expertise is also seen as a major factor in the uptake of the system. Compaq offers Linux certification for engineers with its Accredited System Engineer (ASE) programme. Over 10,000 engineers from Compaq, partners and customers have been ASE certified in the EMEA region so far. In May IBM launched its free Linux training initiative to partners. The first sessions in the region met with an enthusiastic response, as companies look for an alternative to NT to offer customers.

Perhaps more important than training from the vendors is the popularity of Linux in universities. With no licence fee to pay, and all the source code available for experimentation, Linux has found many supporters in computer laboratories and research centres. The weight of support is such that Forrester Research is predicting a major boom in the uptake of Linux in 2004, when the current generation of Linux students will graduate. Dr Ghoneim explained: “Many ISPs and other companies in the West switched to Linux because the graduates who came to work for them were very experienced in Linux. In a couple of years we will see that effect here.”

The lack of applications is also gradually being addressed, although perhaps more slowly than other issues. Compaq is transferring its compiler technology from Tru64, its proprietary Unix to allow more development on Linux, and improve compatibility with Unix, Ragaei says. IBM has expanded many of its Websphere and Lotus offerings to Linux, SAP is available, and open source offerings account for a growing number of business deployments.

Oracle has made its complete range available on Linux, including the latest release of its 9i database. The company also boasts a genuine enterprise customer in the Middle East: “We actually have a telecommunications customer that has gone live on Oracle E-Business Suite 11i, running several modules, not just the core,” said Ayman Abouseif, marketing director, Oracle Middle East & Africa.

||**||Who provides support?|~||~||~|But probably the biggest restriction on Linux’ development in the region is the lack of support. Many companies are interested in the operating system, but reluctant to deploy it without adequate support. Even where companies could get a Linux expert in house, they were not prepared to risk mission critical systems in the hands of just one ‘guru’.

With the opening of an office in the region Red Hat hopes to be able to address these problems. “Since we started operating in the Middle East, we were surprised at the number of potential customers,” said Yahya Kassab, business development manager for Red Hat Middle East. “We found that Linux exists in many solutions in the Middle East, but it is mostly as a part of the solution, and the reason for that is that companies don’t know who to talk to when they implement Linux. This problem is solved by Red Hat being in the Middle East.”

The Red Hat model is to ‘sell’ Linux, bundled with free open source software, including support as well. The Professional Edition comes with 90 days support, while the Deluxe Edition has 60 days support. Red Hat offers customers support contracts depending on their need and requirements. Alongside the support offered by hardware vendors, this provides the comfort level that enterprises are happy with, Kassab says. “The only problem that customers were facing with implementing Linux is that nobody was supporting it.”

To begin with, Red Hat, which will be based in DIC, will work on training for partners and customers, to raise awareness and expertise. Training programmes have begun, and the company will be appointing partners in the next month. Partners will need to be able to ‘sell’ the concept of Linux, as much as shift boxes. “We need to partner with companies that are focused, interested and believe in Linux and the open source technology,” said Kassab. “Linux is very saleable, but it needs some kind of education, because people still don’t understand the concept of open source—they know that Linux is free but they don’t know much more than that.”

Kassab believes there are plenty of opportunities for Linux in the region. There are over 3,000 Middle East Web sites hosted on Apache/Linux servers, and the number is expected to grow. The low total cost of ownership of the solutions make them highly attractive, both in terms of the size of the businesses and regional markets. The cost-conscious SME sector in the Middle East is a focus for IBM, Compaq, Oracle and Red Hat’s Linux-based solutions. “Anything from small-to-medium businesses to server appliances can be done at a fraction of the cost with robust, open standards technology,” said Massimo Marchetti, high-end systems & Linux sales manager with Gulf Business Machines.

Linux is also attractive to countries that have a pool of IT knowledge, but not the capital to leverage it fully. “In Jordan King Abdullah has plans for IT, Egypt is doing very well in IT—these countries have the talent, but they don’t have the power to implement huge solutions. Here Red Hat can play a major role, because implementing it is very cost effective,” says Kassab.

But how do partners make money on Linux? With Red Hat, partners will receive training, marketing, support and possibly discounts on the products, says Kassab, Red Hat support the product. “Linux is an added value, because simply the resellers will do more margins with less prices, taking into consideration that Linux is much more powerful and stable than other operating systems.”||**||

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