Is Linux really a viable alternative?

In the beginning, there was UNIX and then, Microsoft Windows. Both cost enterprises a lot of money to purchase, implement and upgrade. But now, thanks to the efforts of the open-source community, more stable, cheaper and customisable options are available on the Web. Windows User explores one “free”, formidable alternative that organisations can choose over proprietary software.

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By  Robin Duff Published  November 25, 2001

I|~||~||~|When hundreds of corporate giants went on a retrenchment spree slashing jobs by the thousands to cope with the global recession, Microsoft stood unfazed, refusing to cut down its workforce.
A remarkable decision that probably guaranteed instant employee loyalty. But surely, somebody had to pay the price. Then, Microsoft sprung a surprise last year on an unwitting public. The Redmond giant announced that it was revamping its “upgrade licensing scheme”.

“Microsoft has not changed the prices for its licenses,” Ayman Al Takrori, SMB Programmes manager, Microsoft Gulf and Eastern Mediterranean (GEM) region, defended. “We have just made a little change in how customers can upgrade our technology after acquiring them,” he explained.

The change, unfortunately, is not as ‘little’ as it sounds. Customers who do not upgrade to the latest Microsoft products by the 31st of July, 2002 will not be entered into Microsoft’s new “software assurance” programme.

According to this scheme, clients will have to pay an annual fee that will entitle them to upgrade freely to new versions of the software for the period of the contract. Those who do not upgrade by the above date will not be permitted to enter the upgrade scheme and will have to buy fresh licenses to qualify. “Upgrades will cost between 25 to 29 per cent of the cost of the license per year,” explained Mr. Takrori, who recommended the Open License scheme for small-and-medium business companies.

Without doubt, the new software volume licensing programme will simplify Microsoft’s licensing procedures. For companies that budget for frequent upgrades, this procedure may help save money. But for small-and-medium businesses that are used to upgrading every three to four years, the new programme clearly bores a big hole in the pocket. Budgets for licensing will see a significant rise—“anywhere from 33 percent to 107 percent,” said market research agency Gartner.

Mr. Takrori can’t see what the fuss is all about. He insists that the change in the procedure had been the outcome of feedback from Microsoft’s loyal customers. “For a one-time upgrade, clients were paying 60 per cent earlier. Now, for two years, they will be paying around 58 per cent for all the upgrades of the software they have acquired,” he explained.

||**||II|~||~||~|Most people, however, are not convinced that Microsoft has their best interests at heart. Although the scheme was originally scheduled to be implemented from the 1st of October, 2001, protests from the IT sector have helped push the date forward to the 31st of July, 2002. Now, the clock is ticking for customers.

Cash-strapped organisations that can ill afford any further hike in costs are mulling alternatives as are others that have been hard hit by the surge of viruses the last year. So far, most of them have never explored the world beyond Microsoft. Using Windows has come to mean computing to most users. Could there be an option beyond that, where software can run on older computers, are more reliable, cheaper and wouldn’t put you in a tight spot by raising licensing issues?

The answer is yes; thanks to the pioneering efforts of a man called Richard Stallman, who began work on a free UNIX-compatible operating system called GNU (recursive acronym for GNU’s not UNIX), and founded in 1984, the Free Software Foundation (FSF), a project that works towards developing “free” software. “Free” as in “free speech, not free beer,” explained Stallman, meaning that liberated software is not necessarily free-of-charge; rather, it is free for people to copy, share, alter and use.

Stallman’s policy is simple. Develop software and keep its blueprints (source code) open to everyone so that people can freely download, use, copy and modify these programmes to suit their requirements. His idea was that if more people, primarily programmers, worldwide had the freedom to look at the code and tinker with them, more ideas would be birthed to make programmes better, bugs could be fixed quicker, modifications made faster, and upgrades available for download as soon as they are ready, thereby, improving the experience of computing.

This directly opposes the concept of commercial software, where the code has traditionally been “closed” and unavailable for modification to the general public. While on the one hand, this regimented hold over source code has ensured that only standard and uniform versions of the software are released in order to maintain consistency, it has compelled the consumer to live with the problems in the programme until an upgrade is released by the company.

||**||III|~||~||~|Stallman clearly disagreed with this, and to ensure that those who used open-source software maintained his civic spirit, the FSF released the General Public License (GPL), which binds users of “free” applications to post all modifications to the source code online for free copying, distribution and modification. As a result, several “free” and stable software applications-developed, maintained and updated by countless programmers worldwide have become available on the Web. Recognising its potential, a growing number of computer enthusiasts and enterprises are migrating— partially or fully— from unstable, over priced and buggy commercial software to more secure, stable, cheap and customisable alternatives on the Web.

One such alternative that has acquired the status of the fastest growing OS on the Internet is GNU/Linux, popularly called Linux; named after Linus Torvalds, who in 1991, developed the kernel for the GNU operating system. From a small coterie of hobbyists with whom he discussed the kernel initially on the Web, the number of Linux users has risen to an estimated 20 million.

According to Gartner, Linux has “emerged out of all the hype” of the past decade and become a powerful “IT infrastructure platform in selected roles; where it competes successfully against UNIX and NT/Windows 2000 as a network or appliance server and in Web server farms;” ‘selected roles’ being the operative phrase.

“Linux has now established durable roots and strengthened its credibility, particularly in Web servers and clustered server farms. The deployment of Linux is broadening, partly at the expense of Windows 2000 and partly in preference to costly Unix/RISC solutions. The Internet’s continuing growth is creating increased user pull, which, in turn, is creating pressures on independent software vendors (ISVs) to respond to Linux,” wrote George Weiss in a Gartner report.

Linux has had much success in the server market because it is highly secure and reliable, less prone to virus attacks, gives programmers the freedom to alter code, and also costs a lot less to maintain than competing brands. Research company International Data Corporation (IDC) stated in a report that the “only three client-operating environments (COEs) with current installed bases of more than 10 million users” were “Windows, the Mac OS, and Linux” and it expected “Microsoft’s and Linux’s shares of COE shipments to grow during the next five years” (1999 to 2004).

||**||IV|~||~||~|Reports from IDC also showed that Windows owned 49 per cent of the server market while Linux was not very far behind with 29 per cent of the market share. The reasons for migrating to Linux are many. While the most cited reasons are its cost-effectiveness and reliability, there are others who reiterate that the freedom that the open-source affords its users is enough reason to adopt it.

Mr. Hariprasad Reddy, managing director of a division of Index General Trading in Dubai, gave an analogy to explain why his small team of three shifted to Linux. “If you need to use a bridge to cross a road and Microsoft owns the bridge, it will insist that you buy their (Microsoft’s) car, fuel from their filling station and eat at their restaurant. I need to have the freedom to choose to buy my products from where I want. After all, it is my money,” explained Reddy vehemently. The result— “for me, windows are used only when I need some ventilation.”

Ahmed Ashadawi, President of the Saudi Computer Society (SCS) in the Eastern province of Saudi Arabia agreed that “freedom” was an important consideration for the SCS to back the open-source. Saudi Arabia has a dedicated Arab Linux user group that is working in conjunction with programmers in Egypt on “arabising Linux” in order to make it more accessible to the local populace. “We were attracted by the fact that this is a user-developed software, where people can share and contribute,” said Ashadawi. Moreover, “giving the source code to the military will enable them to secure it to suit their needs, localising the software will make it more accessible to our people, it will help develop a local market and reduce copyright pressure from foreign software companies, it will restrict monopoly and, most importantly, it will help our universities to do research and develop the code,” he explained.

Perhaps, an Arabic version of Linux would interest Dubai’s government departments as well. Said Abdul Hakim Malik, Director of Information Technology, Dubai Municipality: “Right now we are not using or testing Linux. One of the reasons is that we are waiting for the version which will support Arabic. Recently, an office for Linux has opened in Dubai, which, is a good start.”

Meanwhile, it is not just a scattered group of hobbyists that have given Linux serious thought in the region. There is word that big oil companies in the region such as Aramco in Saudi Arabia and Oman Petroleum have invested a large amount of capital in deploying Linux in their respective organisations. Our source confirmed that the Aramco project was huge with 256 cluster servers implemented in the first phase to replace some of their mainframes.

||**||V|~||~||~|Eventually, the Linux project at Aramco will be comparable in scope to the 1024 node cluster recently bought by Shell. Oman Petroleum is said to have bought 64 cluster servers initially and then bought another 64 again for their b ackend solutions. Western GeCo, a UK-based oil industry services giant with multiple branches in the Middle East, is to use a Linux-based supercomputer cluster for ocean floor surveys. IBM recently signed the company up for a 513 node cluster.

Low cost of ownership is a significant reason for migrating to Linux as Syam Pillai, Vice President, Information Technology, Habib Bank AG Zurich explained. The bank is one of the few financial organisations in the Middle East that has begun deploying Linux in all its branches worldwide.

“Our main data sever still runs on Solaris but we have deployed Linux on 99% of our machines at our main branch and are in the process of converting the systems at the other branches as well,” explained Pillai.

At Habib Bank, Linux is used at the front end by staff members, on the teller machines, and for a number of applications such as WAP, cheque-handling machines and cheque production books.

For the bank, the decision to migrate to Linux was not difficult. It had seldom outsourced software; most of it had been developed in-house for security reasons. Four years back, it had committed itself to using Java and “running Java on Linux is just perfect,” explained Pillai.

“We are getting a deployment platform (Linux), which is license-free and Java is license-free. Virtually, everything we are getting is free and Linux is virus-free as well. So, the amount we spend on IT in our bank is a fraction of what other banks are paying.”

The most recent instance of a company that saved millions of dollars by migrating to Linux is Amazon.com. The e-commerce giant stated in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission that “migration to a Linux-based technology platform that utilises a less-costly technology infrastructure, as well as general price reductions for data and telecommunication services due to market overcapacity” had helped it cut technology expenses by about 25 per cent, from $71 million to $54 million. The disclosure is likely to provide guidance for other companies seeking to cut expenses in a stagnant economy. Amazon was running UNIX earlier.

But affordability alone rarely dictates a big enterprise’s decision to migrate to a different server or operating system and it is not reason enough for other IT giants to begin supporting it. A Gartner/Datapro survey provided the answer by stating that Linux was rated much higher than Windows NT and other Unix operating systems in terms of interoperability, flexibility, Internet readiness, Java support and ease of management as well.

Leading names such as Sun, Compaq, Oracle and IBM have publicly declared their support for the open-source community and invested much time and capital into ensuring that their respective hardware or software support Linux. Oracle’s latest offerings, the 9i family have been made available for Linux. Sun open-sourced the code to its Star Office, a product that is comparable to Microsoft Office in both functionality and user friendliness, is compatible with both Windows and Linux operating systems and is available for free download as well.

Likewise, Compaq is opening the source code to its Tru64 Unix-clustering technology, which will help Linux developers make the OS more reliable and powerful. “It is also providing a Tru64 Unix-Linux affinity programme, which consists of porting Linux APIs to Tru64 Unix, meaning that Tru64 Unix will be able to run Linux applications,” said Hamid Hassan, Enterprise Business Group Manager, Compaq Gulf and Levant.

Compaq currently has more than 30% of the market share of Linux servers worldwide and is working closely with Red Hat Middle East to bring ProLiant/Red Hat Linux-based solutions to the regional market. According to IDC figures, Compaq sold 22 percent of Linux-based server units shipped in the first quarter of 2001, and 31 percent of market share by revenue last year. “It has sold more Linux servers than anyone else, even though it’s been saying much less about its Linux strategy than other companies,” added Hassan.

Last year, IBM invested $1 billion dollars into Linux and, more recently, it announced that it would donate $40 million worth of Java-based software to an open-source software development community called Eclipse, in an effort to galvanise it further. IBM Middle East has a Linux team working to “create awareness and demand generation in the region,” said Massimo Marchetti, high-end systems & Linux sales manager, Gulf Business Machines (GBM). “Linux is central to the IBM e-business strategy in the sense that we see it ‘changing the rules of the game’ (it is not just another operating system),” he explained.

||**||VI|~||~||~|Again, a survey done by Tech Republic has proved that stability has been as much a reason for people to migrate to Linux as its affordability. According to the survey, if 40% of users migrated to Linux because of the cost, a good 39.2% moved because they were convinced of its reliability. In the desktop environment, however, Linux has made little progress in comparison to Windows, which owns 88% of the market share.

While various Linux distributions are working furiously to get to the point where installation and usage will be friendlier for ordinary users, they still have several miles to clock before they get there. Narasimha Rao, network and technical manager of Darwish bin Ahmed and Sons, an Oracle Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) solutions provider in Dubai, disagreed. “Any good Windows user can easily gain the basic Linux skills as well because it comes with a user-friendly GUI interface now,” he said.

The management at Darwish bin Ahmed and Sons has always encouraged its IT team to test and try new products and technologies. “I am actually a hardcore Windows user but I am giving Linux a fair try,” said Rao. Knowing that the Oracle database performs best on a UNIX platform and given that Linux comes from the same UNIX family, his team believes that an Oracle-Linux combination would be ideal for their clients. “Right now, we are testing Linux to see if it is the right solution to deploy for Database and Web servers. Linux Boxes can be deployed as very cost effective firewalls, mail servers, file servers, gateways and so on. They are also good for web browsing and web-based operations, and presently, there are very few virus attacks on Linux systems. So, we are considering it as a possible alternative for our clients,” he explained.

“Moreover, where client deployment is concerned, all the current applications are web based. So, the client only needs a good web browser, which Linux systems provide. Looking at the client’s requirements, applications usage, support required and awareness, we may recommend a Linux- based solution,” confirmed Rao.
Worldwide, consultants are recommending Linux-based solutions to their clients as well.

Companies and government organisations, meanwhile, have begun to realise that Linux isn’t just another operating system. The US postal service uses over 900 Linux clusters to sort all its bulk mail and it costs less than half the cost of the next cheapest solution. Cisco’s worldwide printing services run on Linux. The entire IT system of Italy’s public transportation company runs on Linux. The government of Mexico City announced that it could no longer justify the rising cost of commercial software when the cost of Linux is so low and went for the latter. The money saved will be used for social welfare programmes instead. Japan has recently announced that it is going in for a Linux overhaul as well.

“One good thing about Linux and Unix is that you don’t have to reboot a hundred times,” said Rao. And more importantly, “Linux is not a power-hungry OS,” he added. “It can work on Pentium I or even on 486 PCs. I am sure that many companies will be having old PCs stacked in their storerooms waiting to be disposed. These PCs can be reused with the existing processor and memory by installing and configuring them as simple Linux-based DNS / DHCP servers, Gateways and so on,” he explained.

Clearly, as more organisations begin to use Linux, Microsoft recognises the upstart system as a threat to its profit margins. As a result, in May 2001, Microsoft announced a new scheme called “shared source”. According to this, big enterprises that have invested heavily in Microsoft enter into an agreement, that gives them access to a certain fraction of the Windows code so that they can alter and modify them to suit their requirements within their office. But Microsoft itself will release only “one standard version of Windows at any given time to maintain consistency,” explained Mr. Haider Salloum, Product marketing Manager, Microsoft Gulf and Eastern Mediterranean region.

“The shared source, as a philosophy, addresses the concerns that our customers have,” said Salloum, who stressed that Microsoft’s new policy is to sell ‘software as a service’. “The problem is not with open source. But it does not have a proper business model. A lot of developers worldwide are working on open source but there is no proper solution providing,” he added.

Commercial distributors of Linux such as Red Hat, SuSE, Debian, Mandrake, Slackware and Caldera are likely to disagree with that statement. People are given the freedom to download GPLed portions of these Linux distributions from the Web and customise them if they like. But each one makes available a commercial version that gives customers who purchase their products access to additional products, manuals and after-sales support as well.

Big businesses don’t waste time downloading Linux from the Web. But they have the freedom to do so if they want. Moreover, they need to purchase only one commercial copy. “The first time people hear about Linux, they are surprised to hear that they can buy one CD and load the software on all the other machines without licenses,” said Yahya J. Kassab, business development manager, Red Hat ME. Red Hat is the first of the commercial Linux distributors to set up an office in the region in order to make Linux solutions more accessible to clients in the region.

But the first company to found a Linux user group in the region and offer Linux training programmes and solutions to businesses in the region was Golden Sun Internet Consulting and Research. Ironically, GSC Prabhakar, the CEO of Golden Sun is a former Microsoft employee. “Currently, we are working on LINUX-Windows connectivity solutions,” said Prabhakar. “We cover SMBs to larger enterprises looking for specific Linux-based solutions, which include Linux-based networking, firewalls, routers, Web, mail, FTP and proxy servers, and Industry-strength packaged application servers like Oracle, DB2, and IBM Web sphere.”

Now IBM has joined the bandwagon by offering both Linux training programmes as well as Linux solutions for businesses in the region. We offer “full support from the design of the system to its installation and support in running it,” said Marchetti. IBM offers different Linux-based solutions depending on the nature of the client’s business. A distributed enterprise solution from IBM “targets insurance companies, banks, hyper markets and governments” while its Linux clusters that “are pre-built, tested, integrated configurations providing scalability, high-availability, rapid setup and installation for parallel environments” is thought to be specifically for petroleum companies (Oil Reservoir and Seismic applications) or research (universities or private enterprises) agencies.

Compaq, likewise, has stated that it is offering solutions to fit every environment from simple file shares through highly-available clusters to high-performance computer clusters for research institutions.

With Linux, the learning curve is very steep. Moreover, the fact that it is not born in a commercial environment does raise issues about the availability of competent solution providers. Salloum of Microsoft raised fears of clients being locked to the services of companies that offer Linux-based solutions.

Prabhakar of Golden Sun said such fears were unwarranted; “Technological deficiency is a temporary phenomenon; what you don’t know today, you will know tomorrow. Moreover, training programmes for network engineers of companies are intended to ready them to handle in-house technical problems. The same thing holds good for proprietary software as well. People undergo training programmes all the time to handle the problems that arise with their software also. What’s the difference?”

Meanwhile, Linux is now being targeted at academic institutions in the region so as to make the next generation more ready for the new operating system and the open-source concept. IBM, in fact, has signed an agreement with the Higher Colleges of Technology, “with whom we have agreed to start a partnership including a Linux University Programme,” said Marchetti.

Kassab of Red Hat promised that more such agreements with academic institutions in the region are in the offing. Ashadawi of SCS confirmed that the King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals is among some of the universities in Saudi Arabia that already uses Linux.

But Linux is not just serious business. Recently, it gained popularity in the entertainment industry as well and has been used to develop, among others, films like the Titanic, Antz, The Prince of Egypt and, more recently, Shrek.

The success and popularity of Linux has, in a way, bulwarked the cause of the open source community and brought to light other “free” software that have been widely used but rarely heard of such as Apache, which commands more than 61 per cent of the Web server market share as opposed to Microsoft’s 28.49 per cent, Perl, the dominant language in CGI scripts and BIND, the “free” programme, which allows us to type in a URL such as www.google.com instead of 194.120.5.3.

The popularity that open-source, more particularly, Linux has gained over commercial software is forcing commercial software giants to rethink traditional modes of making money. Software may, eventually, become free. Instead, companies may charge for support like most commercial distributors of Linux do.

Meanwhile, Microsoft has begun to show signs of buckling under the open-source pressure. From a tight-lipped, closed-source policy, it has conceded to a shared-source agreement, even if it is only with enterprises that have invested heavily in Microsoft. That is a reasonable first step! ||**||

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