Unilever Dumping Unix for Linux in Global Move

Buy-in from HP, IBM key as company embarks on decade-long systems standardization plan

New York—After years of running disparate Unix-based systems in its global IT server operations, Unilever is committing its technological future to Linux.

The $52 billion consumer products company plans to switch to Linux on Intel-standard hardware in all 80 countries where it operates. "We believe ... that it will [meet] all of our computing needs in the eight- to 10-year time frame," said Colin Hope-Murray, CTO of the global infrastructure group at Unilever.

"We want to be able to cookie-cut our systems and deliver them around the world" without having to worry about operating system or hardware compatibility issues, Hope-Murray said. The company currently runs systems with Hewlett-Packard Co.'s Tru64 version of Unix and IBM's AIX, after having already migrated some applications off of HP-UX.

The company, which has dual headquarters in London and Rotterdam, Netherlands, made the announcement here last week at the LinuxWorld Conference & Expo.

Hope-Murray said Unilever will make the migration from Unix to Linux to simplify and standardize its IT architecture as well as to spread the reduced operational costs and increased performance the company has already seen using Linux for Web servers, e-mail servers, proxy servers and firewall applications. So far, the company has no cost-savings numbers to release, but anecdotal evidence is bolstering its expectations, Hope-Murray said.

"We've got an awful lot of proof points," he said, including firewall servers that run three times faster under Linux, with cost savings of up to 40%. "Every time we put in Linux, we are amazed and surprised at its speed and the reliability with which we can run it."

He said Unilever expects to benefit from the expected release later this year of the Linux 2.6 kernel, which will introduce features that offer the tools needed for the transition, including real-time threading and improved journaling.

Unilever is making its move in a very vocal way to encourage independent software vendors to develop needed enterprise business applications for Linux, Hope-Murray said.

"It's not really a leap of faith," he said, noting that Unilever's two largest IT suppliers, HP and IBM, are committed to Linux and are ready to help with the project. "If our partners weren't committed to it, we wouldn't be doing it."

Getting an OK from top executives to commit to the strategy took time. "It wasn't overnight," Hope-Murray said. "If it wasn't for the twin support [from IBM and HP], we probably wouldn't have gotten the buy-in."

The company hopes to conduct internal testing with Linux versions based on the upcoming kernel by the end of this year. It's also applying for membership in the nonprofit Open Source Development Lab Inc. in Beaverton, Ore., which was created to encourage the development of enterprise data center and telecommunications applications for Linux. Unilever would be the first private company to join the group.

Desktops throughout Unilever will remain Windows-based, Hope-Murray said, though the company will monitor the possibility of switching those to Linux in the future.

He said he has been seeking alternatives to the company's infrastructure of three operating systems for more than a decade. In the early 1990s, the Open Systems Foundation, which promised a platform-independent Unix, tried but failed to provide the operating system he needed, he said.

Now, with the integration of the 2.6 kernel, Linux will have the maturity needed to handle Unilever's heavy-duty database, customer relationship management and enterprise resource planning applications, Hope-Murray said. Unilever officials declined to identify their database, CRM or ERP vendors.

Analysts said the confidence Unilever has in Linux has shown up elsewhere.

"That's consistent with other companies I've talked to in the financial industry," said George Weiss, an analyst at Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc. "They're saying [Linux] will be fixed and firm in the future, and they want to be part of the wave."

Bill Claybrook, an analyst at Aberdeen Group Inc. in Boston, said Unilever benefits from having an extensive history with Unix, the model for Linux, and from having partners such as IBM and HP. "If they buy the stuff from IBM and HP, there's not really a big risk," he said. "They're going to get service and support."

Unileveraging Linux

Over the next eight to 10 years, Unilever will move its server infrastructure from three versions of Unix to Linux. Its plans include:

Pushing CRM and ERP vendors to build their applications to support Linux in large enterprises.

Joining the Open Source Development Lab to encourage high-end Linux application development.

Testing the new Linux 2.6 kernel to ensure increased flexibility.


Copyright © 2003 IDG Communications, Inc.

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