Linux barrels deeper into the enterprise
By now the Linux story is well-known: A university student's computer project evolves into Internet-based software development phenomenon, the software becomes a legitimate Microsoft/Unix threat, is overhyped by industry watchers and overvalued by Wall Street. Then reality sets in, and small companies that had invested heavily in the technology crash along with the rest of the high-tech world.
End of story? No, really only the beginning.
Despite the hype and the fears, Linux and other open source software have made serious gains in corporate IT shops. The strength of the technology is real, enterprise users and analysts proclaim, and vendor giants such as IBM, Hewlett-Packard and Compaq are betting heavily on Linux and investing billions of dollars in open source software development to make it even stronger. And more is on the way, from the enterprise-class products coming at this week's LinuxWorld show (see related story, page 1) to improved symmetric multiprocessing (SMP) support that could come in the next year.
The potential to save money is a driving factor behind companies' plans to implement Linux, or at least evaluate it as an alternative to Unix-based enterprise servers. A recent IDC study shows that a company with 1,000 users can save around $307 per year, per seat by running Web, intranet and extranet applications on Intel-based Linux servers over Unix servers based on Reduced Instruction Set Chip (RISC) processors - such as HP's PA architecture or IBM's RS6000.
The research firm says that companies can see even bigger savings - $1,142 per user, per year - by migrating from Unix to Linux when running collaborative applications, such as groupware programs or custom-developed enterprise applications. IDC says customers making the switch to Linux could see savings in hardware costs (because Intel-based servers are less expensive than RISC-based machines) and software licensing costs (because Linux doesn't have any).
And real-world savings are showing up on corporations' bottom lines when moves are made from proprietary to open source.
Amazon.com recently reported in Securities and Exchange Commission documents that it cut its IT expenses from $71 million to $54 million by switching out its Unix-based Web infrastructure with servers running Linux and Apache Web server. This 25% IT cost savings could be seen as one factor that helped the online retailer to see its first net profit ever - $5 million for the fourth quarter - which it reported last week.
Cost savings aside, the real strength of Linux and open source software, others say, is the solidness of the code.
"Linux is very stable and reliable," says Bill Claybrook, an analyst with Aberdeen Group. "That's been the biggest selling point for it. Cost was really down the list for many users when it comes to Linux."
Apparently many customers agree, as data from the Netcraft Internet research site in December shows that 56% of the Web sites on the Internet use the open source Apache Web server vs. 29% run by Microsoft's Internet Information Server (IIS) and 3.5% running AOL's/Sun's iPlanet server.
As far as replacing NetWare or Windows NT servers on the low end, Claybrook says the hardware savings users would see in a Linux migration would be nil, because Intel architecture is the predominant platform for low-end and midrange systems.
Reliability is what gives open source software such as Linux, Apache and the e-mail program Sendmail a good reputation, says Patrick Olson, CIO of Menlo College in Atherton, Calif.
"I have no problem with Microsoft on the client side," Olson says, "but in the server room they don't have a good reputation and never have. Everyone who runs servers knows this."
Olson has been pleased with the migration from a Microsoft-based e-mail server to Linux and Sendmail. He adds that open source software seems to be less susceptible to viruses, such as the Code Red worm, which targeted IIS Web servers last summer.
One development that has been the most promising sign for the success of enterprise open source software is the chummy relationship that has evolved between Linux and IBM. The company last year ported Linux to every line of server it makes, from single-processor Intel boxes to the S/390 mainframe. In fact, 11% of IBM's mainframe million-instructions-per-second processor shipments last quarter were for Linux-based systems. Big Blue has spent more than $1 billion developing Linux, focusing on the areas of software development, such as expanding and strengthening Linux support for all of IBM's server hardware platforms and contributing to Linux kernel improvements.
"If you look at 2001 from last January to now, we saw Linux in the enterprise go from proof of concept to production," says Dan Frye, director of IBM's Linux technology center. "We have close to 300 people working in open source at IBM." He says that number has grown quickly from the group of 10 Linux people he had two years ago.
Some analysts have criticized IBM's perceived overzealous embrace of all things open source, saying the IT behemoth could risk alienating the open source community on which it relies by trying to make Linux its own vehicle for selling hardware. This could also be said for Linux server vendors - including Dell, Compaq and HP - which have become the hardest-charging Linux backers over the past few years.
This vendor enthusiasm for Linux has helped to make it a viable enterprise technology, where smaller firms such as VA Linux Systems, Red Hat and Caldera failed in that effort.
Part of the increased interest in Linux as an enterprise platform is because of improvements made in the operating system's kernel - or core software components - which were released last year, according to Michael Tiemann, Red Hat's CTO. Among the improvements were expanded SMP support to eight processors, a boost in the amount of memory a Linux processor can handle (now 2G bytes) and the addition of a journaling file system, a feature common on large Unix systems that can prevent the loss of data in the event of a server crash.
Tiemann says SMP scaling must be improved further. For this, work on the kernel continues at Red Hat and in the open source community that could result in great leaps in Linux SMP support in the next six to 12 months. Part of the effort is the development of a new kernel scheduler (the piece of code that controls what jobs an operating system does, and when), which could allow exponential jumps in SMP support, Tiemann says.
"I'm bullish that some of the things we're doing will let Linux go from eight, to 32 to 64 processors in a machine," he says.