LinuxWorld: Unilever moving to Linux for global operations

NEW YORK -- After years of running a complex tangle of Unix operating systems in its global IT server operations, consumer products company The Unilever Group is committing its technological future to Linux.

The company, which sells food products including Ragu spaghetti sauce, Hellman's mayonnaise and Bertolli olive oil as well as personal hygiene brands such as Dove soaps and skin creams, plans to adopt Linux for its IT systems in all 80 countries where it operates. The company made the announcement here at the LinuxWorld Conference & Expo yesterday in the Jacob Javits Convention Center.

"We believe ... that it will deliver all of our computing needs in the eight- to 10-year time frame," said Colin Hope-Murray, chief technology officer at Unilever, which is based in London and Rotterdam, Netherlands. "We want to be able to cookie-cut our systems and deliver them around the world" without having to worry about operating system compatibility issues, he said. The company today runs systems with the HP-UX, AIX and Tru64 versions of Unix.

Hope-Murray said Unilever will make the migration from Unix to Linux to simplify and standardize its IT architecture as well as to duplicate the lower 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 bolsters its expectations, he 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."

Why make the move now? Because the cost savings and performance gains answered any concerns about whether the operating system could help business, Hope-Murray said. In addition, the expected release later this year of the Linux 2.6 kernel will introduce new features, including real-time threading and improved journaling, that offer the tools needed for the transition.

Unilever is making its move in a very vocal way, he said, to encourage independent software vendors to bring out needed enterprise business applications for Linux.

"It's not really a leap of faith," Hope-Murray said, noting that Unilever's two largest IT suppliers, Hewlett-Packard Co. 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 the company's top executives to commit to the strategy took time. "It wasn't overnight," he said. "If it wasn't for the twin support [from IBM and HP], we probably wouldn't have gotten the buy-in."

The company, which had global revenue of $52 billion in 2001 and employs about 265,000 people, hopes to conduct internal testing with Linux versions based on the upcoming new kernel by the end of this year. It's also applying for membership in the nonprofit Open Source Development Lab 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.

Desktop computers throughout Unilever will remain Windows-based, Hope-Murray said, though the company will monitor the possibility of Linux on the desktop in the future.

Hope-Murray said he's been seeking alternatives to the three-operating-system infrastructure inside the company 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 Hope-Murray said is needed for Unilever to move its heavy-duty database, customer relationship management (CRM) and enterprise resource planning (ERP) applications to Linux. That assumes, of course, that software vendors adopt the operating system for their CRM and ERP products.

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."

Financial services firm Merrill Lynch in New York began its own Linux strategy in 2000, and naysayers at the time thought the IT leaders had lost their minds, Weiss said. That strategy, however, has been successful and is being duplicated across Wall Street today. "Financial services companies led the way, and now there is a second wave coming," he said.

Bill Claybrook, an analyst at Aberdeen Group Inc. in Boston, said Unilever benefits by having a deep past with Unix, which is the model for Linux, and by 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."

In the marketplace, Unilever's very public embrace of Linux could motivate software companies still considering their options. "As soon as the software gets onto Linux, it's going to run," Claybrook said. "As long as there's money to be made, [the independent software vendors] will be over."

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