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Linux makes headway

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Linux proponents have something to prove to chief information officers: Anything commercial operating systems can do, Linux can do better.

Linux backers say the technology's low cost and flexibility have earned it a bigger role in enterprise networks. But because many IS higher-ups are skeptical about the technology's stability, security and support options, Linux has largely been sneaked in corporate back doors and then relegated to use in low-profile applications and networks.

It appears, though, that this Unix variant may finally be ready to come out into the open at more companies. Linux supporters are now becoming bolder, empowered in part by recent Linux endorsements by companies such as IBM and Oracle, as well as by solid commercial versions of the technology from companies such as Caldera Systems and Red Hat Software.

There are also a growing number of companies that have put Linux to the test and have been satisfied with the results.

Linux on the right track

The Canadian National Railway is one organization that is already using Linux for all sorts of applications.

The railway started using Linux several years ago to give a small group of end users inexpensive, simple access to the Internet. Since then, the railway's Linux installation has ballooned to 80 servers handling more than 4,000 SendMail messages daily and providing 8,000 end users access to the Internet through a series of Web, File Transfer Protocol, news and proxy services.

"We looked at all the PC-based Unix systems out there, and we get the bang for the buck we need from Linux," says DonLafontaine, senior systems programmer at the railway.

The railway is now in the process of installing a Linux-based Web site through which customers can do everything from book trains to track cargo. The site will also rely on a few Solaris boxes for mainframe connectivity - a job Lafontaine says could be handled just as well by Linux machines. But "that's not my call," he adds abruptly.

Rockefeller University's Sali Lab in New York is another Linux supporter. The lab is using a cluster of Linux PCs and Silicon Graphics, Inc. boxes running SGI's proprietary Unix derivative to produce 3-D renderings of human proteins.

Assistant Professor Andrej Sali, who heads up the human genetics lab, says this configuration churns out computation jobs in a matter of days rather than weeks, and minutes instead of days. Sali has secured funding to purchase a new 64-way Intel processor-based server that will run TurboLinux, a commercial version of Linux packaged by Pacific HiTech with 24-hour service and support. Sali decided to expand the cluster's Intel/Linux component because he could get more computing power for his money.

"A 400-MHz Pentium II computer costs $1,500 and is as fast for our computations as a $20,000 Silicon Graphics workstation with a 175-MHz R10000 processor," Sali says.

Flexing Linux muscle

If Linux's price fails to sway large organizations, its flexibility could. Texas Tech University has found the technology holds up well in its heterogeneous network environment, says Lee Burnside, a systems administrator at the Lubbock,Texas, school.

Burnside runs a network anchored by three Linux servers and one NT Server box. The network serves about 130 client machines running a mix of desktop operating systems and handling applications ranging from word processing to serious scientific number crunching.

"We use Samba Unix software for NT file serving to turn our Linux box into a far better NT server than NT Server is," Burnside says. Likewise, he says a Linux machine configured as an AppleTalk workgroup server processes data noticeably faster than a native Apple workgroup server. And the Linux server handles TCP/IP traffic 25% faster than any of the proprietary Unix software Burnside has tested.

It may be the TCP/IP support that is making Linux a favorite among mid-size companies setting up Web sites. More and more companies are combining Linux with free Web servers, such as Apache, to support their Web sites.

"If companies are looking for a cheap, easy way to set up a Web site, then the free model works pretty well," says John Parkinson, chief e-business technologist for Ernst & Young, which has an Internet consulting arm that tracks operating systems used by corporate Web sites.

The Alexandria, Va.-based publishing wing of the U.S. Army is using four Red Hat Linux servers to run free Web server software built by engineers at Northwestern University.

The Web site hosts more than 3,000 Army publications and handles up to 6,500 hits per day. Army systems administrator Joe Klemmer says his reasons for going the Linux route are pretty consistent with the Linux community's party line.

"It's all about cost, performance and having as little downtime as possible," he says. "Isn't that what everybody is looking for, regardless of your size?"

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