Linux looks for new worlds to conquer

In 2004, focus shifts from technical advancements to building ISV support, making inroads on the desktop and spreading to types of new devices.

It's now obvious. Linux is an established force for low-cost, reliable computing power in data center and edge server deployments. Now the penguin has other fish to fry.

It's now obvious. Linux is an established force for low-cost, reliable computing power in data center and edge server deployments. Now the penguin has other fish to fry.

Attacking the desktop, winning support of independent software vendors (ISV) and embedding itself inside a myriad of new consumer and enterprise devices are among the challenges facing Linux in 2004.

"The big story around Linux in 2004 will be less about technological evolution," says Brian Stevens, vice president of operating systems development at Red Hat. He says the biggest development in Linux will be a continuation of the "snowball effect" - more customers deploying, and creating more successful references, which will beget more customer deployments. "The things holding back enterprises in the past" - particularly, the lack of references - "are just not an issues anymore," he says.

Linux has never been more popular. It was the No. 2 server operating system in the world last year, behind Windows, according to IDC. A survey SG Cowen conducted in November found that 80% of the 500 IT professionals surveyed used Linux in some fashion in their networks. The survey also found that two-thirds of the users had plans to bring more Linux software into the mix over the next two years.

Among enterprise Linux users, server applications were the overwhelming choice for deployment: 72% of respondents said they run Linux on servers; only 15% run Linux on desktops. For companies not using Linux, the major reason was a perceived lack of application support.

"We spent a lot of time and money enabling Linux to run on our hardware and to get our middleware to run on Linux," says Jim Stallings, IBM's general manager for Linux. "The next big inflection point is getting more applications running on Linux."

Stallings says there are about 5,000 enterprise applications for Linux in IBM's database. "That's not nearly enough," he says. "We need the number of applications to be in the 20,000 range." Recent commitments by SAP and Oracle around Linux have helped bolster this effort, he says.

According to Red Hat's Stevens, "it's always been a chicken-and-egg issue," where ISVs have held back on Linux development because of a perceived lack of Linux adoption. "Linux is now at a critical mass where it's relevant enough for ISVs to invest dollars in Linux software," he says. Major announcements of Linux support last year came from vendors such as Documentum, Informix, PeopleSoft and Sun.

"This year will be about blocking and tackling in terms of getting more ISVs on board with Linux and maintaining relationships with customers," Stevens adds.

Dan Kusnetzky, IDC's vice president of system software research, agrees. This year will see major progress in Linux's evolution, but on the business side more than technical. "Linux is going through the same evolutionary process that other operating systems did when they were emerging from an early-adopter phase to a more mainstream kind of tool," Kusnetzky says.

He says many of the technical doubts about Linux's capabilities have been assuaged by the latest kernel technology and by mainstream vendor support offerings. The campaign now for Linux companies is to convince high-level IT executives that Linux is the most economical platform for deploying applications.

"Applications are what's important," Kusnetzky says. "Do companies care that a certain application is running on top of Solaris or Linux or Windows? Maybe at some point in the decision-making process, but the big decision for an enterprise is the applications, such as an IBM or Oracle [database, middleware and ERP] stack."

He says discussions with customers about Linux, which have traditionally been conducted with technical-level system administrators, need to go to the next level.

"Don't talk about features and functions [of Linux]; that will get you sent to talk to Dilbert," Kusnetzky says, adding that Linux companies "should be talking to Dilbert's boss or Dilbert's boss' boss instead."

Attacking the desktop

Another big story for Linux in 2004 could revolve around the desktop - traditionally a weak spot for Linux in corporations.

While Windows still dominates the desktop with more than 90% market share worldwide, "lots of enterprises are asking questions about Linux on the desktop, in certain areas," Stallings says.

Companies that pick their spots carefully, and don't migrate desktops just to spite Microsoft, could see success, analysts say.

"An enterprise also must examine its application portfolio and understand its user base to identify the populations that can most effectively use Linux," said Michael Silver, an analyst with Gartner, in a 2003 report. "Enterprises whose users require a narrow range of applications, such as data entry workers and some structured-task workers, will have far lower migration costs to move from Windows to Linux."

This movement has been popular overseas, where governments in Brazil, China and Germany have begun moving to Linux as they look to rely less on U.S.-based Microsoft as a primary software supplier. Many of these countries also are developing their own software around Linux.

Research firm Evans Data Group surveyed 1,000 application developers in China last year and found that 44% had written code for the Linux operating system. Meanwhile 65% said they expected to write a Linux application in the next year.

Consolidation of the Linux industry will help software makers focus on making products for the desktop.

Novell kicked off this trend in the fall of 2003 with its purchase of German Linux distributor SuSe. The move brought what many consider to be the No. 2 Linux distribution into Novell's product line. Last year Novell also acquired Ximian, which makes Linux management and desktop GUI software. "One thing the industry needs to do is rally around the developer community," says Jeff Hawkins, vice president, office of the CTO, at Novell. "Right now the development community has too many choices."

With software makers focused on a few core Linux platforms, application development could flourish. "This will largely be done by market forces," Hawkins says. "There won't be any one vendor driving or pushing it."

Linux inside

Look inside the latest smart cell phone, set-top box or network appliance, and it becomes clear that Linux is in more places than you think.

Companies are finding that embedded Linux technology is a useful secret weapon for adding fast, secure and reliable computing power to products at a low cost. While many established embedded or real-time operating systems exist, developing applications for these systems has been expensive because of high licensing costs and esoteric programming language requirements, industry observers say.

Freely available Linux source code and the worldwide network of open source contributors has allowed Linux to be ported to almost every conceivable computing platform - from the IBM mainframe to PCs, PDAs and wristwatches.

MontaVista Software is a leader in embedded Linux technology. The company's Linux product is a hardened version of the Linux kernel, stripped down to a size that lets it run on small devices such as cell phones, PDAs and home entertainment gadgets.

MontaVista sees great promise for embedded Linux in the smart phone and next-generation cell phone markets.

"As mobile phones become similar to routers, there's more of a need to do complex routing - especially as service providers move to carrying data over 3G, Bluetooth and 802.11-based networks," says Bill Weinberg, director of marketing at MontaVista.

"Phones will need to talk to all of these networks, and this plays right into the networking strengths of Linux," he says.

There are also political reasons handset makers are interested in Linux. "Most handset vendors want to have control over their destiny and not be beholden to a single supplier," Weinberg says. "They want to have insight into how the software works down to the source code."

While the cell phone market might hold great promise for Linux, the platform will not just walk in and take over, says Neil Strother, a senior analyst with InStat/MDR.

"It's a crowded field," Strother says of the smart phone market. "Linux could struggle just because it has some formidable foes against it. That's not to say it has no future."

Linux will have to go up against Symbian, the leading operating system for cell phones and smart phones. Linux also is going up against established PDA vendors Microsoft and Palm in the smart phone market.

According to InStat estimates, Symbian was the operating system on 69% of the 11.6 million smart phones shipped in 2004. Palm had 13% of the market and Microsoft had 7%. Linux is included in the 11% "other" category.

Strother says there is Linux interest among cell phone makers because of potential cost savings. "Linux has basically no licensing costs, unlike Symbian, or the other top [smart phone] operating systems," he says. "Another key with Linux is that you get the benefit of this global open source development community."

Strother says Motorola and Samsung have released Linux-based smart phones in Asia and that U.S. consumers should expect to see more Linux on phones this year.

Linux is also a popular platform in the security appliance market. For years, many companies have run Linux boxes as simple firewalls or intrusion-detection boxes. Vendors have tapped into this by offering souped-up Linux-based appliances that can perform these functions faster, they say.

"The real-time performance of Linux is excellent," says Mat Mathews, director of product management at Crossbeam Systems, which makes Linux-based security switches that can run Check Point firewall and VPN software, Snort IDS and other security software. Unlike companies that might run homegrown Linux firewalls, Crossbeam says it streamlines Linux to run more efficiently.

The difference is in the hardening of the operating system, Mathews says. "We start with a standard distribution from Red Hat, then go through a series of configuration changes." This includes taking out packages such as file, print or e-mail serving, and closing ports that won't be used on a firewall or VPN box.

"What we end up with is a platform that's extremely secure and fast," he says.

Linux also has taken off in the enterprise IP telephony market as a platform for servers that are replacing traditional PBXs.

In 2002, Avaya introduced its S8700 Media Server, a Linux server running Avaya's call control software.

"Linux is much easier to encapsulate and make into an embedded system," says Lawrence Byrd, Avaya's convergence strategist. "We don't show Linux to the end user. Most users don't even have to know the root password for theirs; it's invisible."

Another advantage is security.

"We find it massively more secure," Byrd says. "You can spend a whole day with a Windows server that goes down due to SQL Slammer or Nimda. That's not acceptable with a telephone system."

IP PBX start-up Zultys also uses Linux on its call servers and on its phones. The company's ZIP4x4 IP phone runs a real-time Linux kernel.

"Running Linux on the phone provides advanced security and the ability to download more applications to the device," says Iain Milnes, founder and CEO of Zultys. Because IP Security and Secure Sockets Layer are included in Linux, these can be applied to the Zultys phone for securing VoIP traffic. Linux also makes it easier for users and developers to write custom software for the phones, such as Web- and XML-based messaging applications.

Network-enabled and computer-based products beyond cell phones and enterprise equipment also are ripe fields for Linux. Home entertainment products such as digital video recorders are basically Linux black boxes with hard drives and software that controls device functions. High-definition television (HDTV) is another potential Linux opportunity, some say.

"Once you have the computing horsepower to decode HDTV, you might as well put it to use," MontaVista's Weinberg says. He adds that future TVs could act as central home computing entertainment systems, letting users control multiple networked gadgets with one remote.

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