In-Depth

IT slow to embrace enterprise Linux

Just over a year ago at the LinuxWorld 2003 conference, Colin Hope-Murray, CTO of global infrastructure at Unilever, headquartered in London and Rotterdam, The Netherlands, delivered a bold pronouncement at an IBM-sponsored press event. The message? Going forward, Linux would become the company’s strategic enterprise server platform. Initially deployed on so-called “edge” servers delivering print, DNS, firewall and proxy functions, over the next decade, the company expected Linux would eventually graduate to the platform of choice for its mission-critical systems.

Despite all the hype Linux has drawn, outside the vendor community Corporate America has gone largely mum on the subject. Hope-Murray, who was so vocal last year, declined requests last month to update ADT on his company’s Linux progress. And a customer that participated in a similar session sponsored by BEA at this year’s LinuxWorld conference also would not comment. It has become quite difficult to find anybody outside of a dot-com survivor or public agency to discuss how they are using Linux.

Credit the sudden silence to the flurry of lawsuits filed and threatened by SCO Group Inc., which claims that much of Linux is a repackaging of the Unix code it supposedly owns.

But beneath all the fear, uncertainty and doubt, Linux is hardly dropping from sight. From its hobbyist roots, Linux has become a CIO issue, thanks to the promise of making the operating system practically irrelevant when it comes to platform choice and cost. And, according to anecdotal data, the threat of SCO litigation is hardly stopping Linux momentum. At a recent Gartner Inc. data center conference, only 20% of CIOs surveyed indicated that the SCO litigation would significantly impact their Linux deployment plans.

Potentially much cheaper than Unix, the question with Linux is do you get what you pay for? Like any emerging platform, Linux still has its share of rough edges. Bug fixes are frequent, third-party software vendor support is a work in progress, and scalability issues remain. For instance, when it comes to handling large workloads, Linux currently scales out but not up. Consequently, you can run a molecular modeling problem on a farm of clustered Linux machines. Yet a more tightly coupled transaction processing application will likely choke on the four-CPU machines that are, for now, Linux’s upper limit.

“Few people are moving off Unix to Linux to host large database apps,” noted Sean Rhody, solutions architect at CSC Consulting Group in El Segundo, Calif.

Nonetheless, to the growing array of Linux enthusiasts, growing pains are just a typical symptom of any young platform. George Weiss, vice president and research director at Stamford, Conn.-based consulting firm Gartner Inc., said he has seen it all before with Unix. He recalled similar debates, dating back to the 1980s at events like the old National Computer Conference (NCC), where open-source Unix idealists were challenging the mainframe establishment. But on this go-round, Weiss sees at least one critical difference. “Linux is spreading faster because of communications channels like the Internet,” he noted.

The little OS that might
Having been around in one form or another since 1991, Linux is maturing gradually. In some regions, Linux acceptance is growing faster than others. “By geography, Europe is ahead of other regions by around two years,” observed Manfred Stein, product manager of LinuxLab and Unix platforms at SAP AG, Walldorf, Germany.

The obvious attraction is cost. At Auto Trade Center, an online site for wholesale trading of vehicles for auto dealers in Mesa, Ariz., the story is pretty typical. As business climbed, the service provider was looking at adding high availability to its four-way Sun 420 server. That would have dictated upgrades to more expensive Sun V480 or 880 models. Instead, they bought a cluster of two four-way, HP Proliant D580 Xeon machines and chopped their acquisition costs by 60%.

Linux is actually a combination of a standard kernel plus vendor-developed extensions, such as software installation shells. The kernel, which confines itself to basic services -- including a hardware abstraction layer, a file system, core multitasking, load balancing, network support and security enforcement -- is managed by Linux creator Linus Torvalds. Although commercial Linux distributions add their own technologies, they must conform to the published APIs of the kernel to prevent the forking to proprietary flavors that happened with Unix.

“Linus had done a good job of herding the cats,” observed Dave Gallaher, director of information technology for Jefferson County, Colo., whose group has made Linux their primary deployment platform.

And for IT shops that know Unix, migrating to Linux has been a relative no-brainer because of their strong resemblance. “Since we have been doing Unix for years, doing Linux was a cakewalk,” said Gallaher. What is interesting, though, is that when migrations are discussed, they are usually from Unix rather than Windows because Linux is likely to be unfamiliar terrain to Windows administrators.

“You don’t do Linux to get rid of Microsoft,” Gallaher remarked.

Linux on the edge
According to the Gartner CIO survey, in 2004 up to 30% of Linux installs will support core line-of-business applications. Consequently, scenarios such as that at Boscov’s Department Stores, a regional chain that has moved more than 40 Windows- and Unix-based edge systems and business applications onto virtualized Linux partitions on the mainframe, are likely to grow more common.

Harry Roberts, Boscov’s CIO, said Linux came to the store through serendipity. There was some spare capacity available on a newly upgraded mainframe, and the IT group had the necessary experience with VM to handle the job of operating mainframe partitions. At the time, the retailer was adding one extra systems administrator each year to handle its proliferating PC server farms. For now, the firm’s experience is the exception that proves the rule.

According to Roger Luca, senior vice president of systems sales at Tallahassee, Fla.-based Mainline Information Systems, a large IBM zSeries business partner serving mid-sized businesses, most of the action is modernizing existing host apps and exposing them to the Web via WebSphere residing in Linux partitions.

For instance, at Huhtamaki Americas, a manufacturer of packaging materials in De Soto, Kan., Linux remains centered on Web servers and DNS servers that have been centralized onto IBM xSeries and iSeries servers.

“My biggest concern as an industrial manufacturing customer is that we’ve yet to see a ‘killer app’ come out for Linux,” said Brendan Carlton, system manager. “Since our existing Linux deployment is simple ‘edge’ applications, we haven’t dealt with ISVs.”

The picture is similar at Auto Trade Center, which used the Linux on Intel (“Lintel”) architecture that has become the more popular path for deploying Linux. While the firm actively embraces Lintel for deploying its Web-facing applications for its core business, in the back office it continues to use Windows for internal Siebel, Great Plains and Microsoft Exchange systems.

“ISV commitment is varied,” said Auto Trade Center’s Weiss. “Some say there’s not enough demand [to port to Linux], while others, like Oracle and SAP, have the strength and depth to do full Linux support.”

According to Weiss’ estimates, there are roughly 3,500 Linux applications in IBM’s partner catalog and 650 apps certified by Red Hat. By comparison, Weiss guesses that there are 10,000 to 15,000 third-party Unix apps and up to 40,000 for Windows.

For instance, Oracle and BEA are making Linux their reference Unix platform from which they can port new versions of their software to Solaris, AIX and HP-UX. However, below first-tier brands, ISVs are just feeling their way with Linux.

Jefferson County’s Gallaher recounts some experiences with the new Linux versions of several existing apps. The documentation for the Linux version of ESRI, a geographic information system (GIS), was far less polished than that for Windows. For example, the documentation failed to specify which versions of Tomcat (an open-source Java servlet container) were supported. And then there was the difficulty of finding somebody at Cognos who knew the new Linux version. “If we had gone with Windows, they probably would have had more people familiar with that,” Gallaher said.

Temporary speed bumps
The flip side of commercial ISV support is the virtually endless array of Linux tools and utilities floating around the open-source community. “While it can be a nightmare to manage thousands of small toolkits, you get good at determining which ones will be supported six weeks from now,” noted Jim Willis, director of e-government and information technology for the state of Rhode Island.

In determining whether a tool is viable, Willis analyzes the level of activity on the tool’s news group as well as the popularity of its downloads on Source Forge. In deciding whether to go out on a limb and use a brand new tool, Willis engages in a bout of risk management that starts with him analyzing whether the tools are to be used on a mission-critical application or not.

“If we’re going to write a one-off app, we won’t lose any sleep if these six developers [of the tool] go off and get married. But if state financials are involved, we’re going to take a closer look at the community that supports that tool,” he said.

Beyond application support are the pesky nuts-and-bolts issues of getting the necessary compilers, libraries and drivers taken for granted in the Unix world. For instance, at the British Columbia Genome Sciences Center there were problems getting a Linux driver for the research organization’s storage area network, said Asim Siddiqui, bio-informatics group leader.

In some cases, spotty availability of particular drivers and utilities can be showstoppers. According to a development manager for a major financial services firm, that is exactly why their Linux deployment, for now, does not venture beyond development systems. But for others, like Siddiqui, they are simply transitional annoyances.

“This has not been a big issue for us,” Siddiqui said.

Speed bumps notwithstanding, adopters such as Boscov’s are growing convinced that Linux is steadily becoming ready for prime time. While the department store found that a third-party system on Linux had poor floating point support, they regarded the issue as just another routine software and platform tuning challenge. But when they successfully migrated a Unix-based, homegrown invoicing app that fed roughly 1.4 million invoices annually to PeopleSoft, CIO Roberts concluded that “virtually anything was possible.”

Please see the following related stories: “The paradox of open source” by Tony Baer

“Who goes there?” by Tony Baer

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