Linux: Ready For Prime Time?

The pieces are starting to fall together for Linux to play a central role in the corporate data center.

Corporate IT has fully embraced Linux and other open-source products as standard elements in its Internet infrastructure, but most information technology managers haven't deployed Linux inside the data center and say they are unlikely to do so in the coming year.

So just what will it take for Linux to gain access to the corporate data center? Right now, Linux lacks several things. The open-source platform needs the multiprocessor support and large RAM capacity necessary for major data center operations. It needs better development tools and packaged applications (those available today pale in comparison with what's available for Windows and Unix). And top management needs to warm to the idea that the open-source operating system can step into a central role in the enterprise.

Until that happens, users and analysts say, Linux will remain a profound technology asset for the Internet but not the enterprise.

Linux roared into the spring of this year. Framingham, Mass.-based International Data Corp.'s (IDC) study last year of server operating system market share showed Linux with nearly 25% of the market, up from practically nothing in 1998. With the perpetual delay of Windows 2000 last year, corporate users had plenty of time to experiment and get comfortable with Linux.

This year looked like it would be another great one for Linux, but it turned into a time of crisis for most of the Linux-only players. When the dot-com stock bubble burst in April, the nascent Linux investors took a financial bath. The big three Linux vendors - Caldera Systems Inc., Red Hat Inc. and VA Linux Systems Inc. - plummeted between 80% and 90% in value.

Others suffered more than paper setbacks. Linuxcare Inc. in San Francisco jettisoned its CEO and some employees, scrapped its initial public offering (IPO) and revised its business plan. A very hot prospect, Brisbane, Calif.-based TurboLinux Inc., slashed its year 2000 workforce in half, replaced its CEO and had to pull back from the IPO arena.

Linux's reputation also suffered outside of vendors' business woes. Technically, the operating system lagged its competitors in key technology areas. The current Linux kernel can't manage more than four Intel processors - barely an entry-level system in today's data center. The next release, Version 2.4, is said to be able to handle eight-way Intel systems. That's impressive, but it's still well behind Unix and Windows 2000. Memory capacity will also get a bump up from its paltry 4GB limit to a competitive 64GB. But the release is running late, which is slowing Linux's momentum.

It also doesn't help that Linux lacks broader application support. IDC analyst Dan Kuznetsky puts it bluntly: "Linux simply needs more packaged apps."

Finally, Linux lost much of IT managers' attention this year as Microsoft Corp. finally released its new flagship operating system piecemeal throughout the year. According to Kuznetsky, during the next two to three years, fitting Windows 2000 into the enterprise will be a more pressing matter to IT managers than experimenting with Linux.

That said, Kuznetsky adds that he believes Linux "is making it in the corporate world." He points to its increasing IT workload as the operating system for Web, firewall, page caching and other Internet-related servers. He says he doesn't expect to see many companies the size of Burlington Coat Factory Warehouse Corp. deploying the operating system so pervasively as the retailer has in its Burlington, N.J., headquarters and its hundreds of stores. But Linux, Kuznetsky says, doesn't need that kind of support to grow. Indeed, with its solid foothold in IT, Linux today is well positioned to gradually take on greater responsibilities in the data center.

Making Inroads

Linux is a big hit with Milwaukee-based Grede Foundries Inc. The $600 million iron and steel manufacturer has shifted the lion's share of its Internet infrastructure to Linux running on an IBM S/390 mainframe. Linux currently handles domain-name server functions for the corporate virtual private network, runs sendmail for company e-mail, supports Apache Web servers and monitors some network tasks.

Grede's manager of operations, Rich Smrcina, says bringing these services onto the mainframe helps with his company's ongoing server consolidation strategy by saving hardware costs and data center real estate. But the company isn't ready to port business or manufacturing applications to Linux yet. Even at Grede Foundries, where Linux is a demonstrable success, top executives remain on the fence.

"The jury is still out inside [IT] here," Smrcina says. "Not everyone is completely sold yet."

At New York-based Amerada Hess Corp., where cutting costs is a corporate constant, Jeff Davis says he believes Linux is a perfect tool. The company had ported its own proprietary seismic-data analysis application to Unix before beginning a migration to Linux two years ago. As a result, the senior systems programmer for the $10 billion energy giant's exploration division says his group replaced $3 million to $4 million worth of leased Unix systems with a $700,000 Linux cluster of 200 two-processor Intel machines.

"Not only did we save money, which everyone around here really likes, but we got 10 times the capacity," Davis says. Still, mainstream business applications remain on non-Linux systems.

Linux has even more momentum outside the U.S., particularly among fast-growing Internet companies. In Germany, the best-known public dot-com business is Web.de AG in Karlsruhe. According to CEO Matthias Greve, the company chose Linux to run its Web-based business because it kept hardware costs down.

Each of Web.de's 200 Linux boxes is equipped with 1GB of RAM and 70GB drives. Its database server, which handles more than 5 million unique users per month, runs Oracle Corp. software and has terabytes of storage online.

Greve says his Linux data center cost less than one-fourth of what it would have had he ordered similarly configured Unix systems from Sun Microsystems Inc. However, had Sun's RISC hardware been more affordable, his company might be running Solaris and not Linux, he says, suggesting that costs drive business decisions to work with Linux rather than any inherent advantage of the operating system.

If Not Now, When?

Linux is a heavyweight operating system for Internet operations. But some wonder when, if ever, it will transcend the inherent problems that have kept it primarily in that niche.

According to Dennis Powell, an author and contributor to LinuxPlanet.com in Darien, Conn., "Linux got a bad rap that it was harder to use than Windows." Worse, Powell says, are the battles among the various distributions that can create version incompatibilities and cause concern and confusion among IT planners.

"Linux is too amorphous for corporate strategists," says Harve Tannenbaum, an analyst at Boston-based Summit Strategies Inc.

Broader acceptance may have to wait for more enterprise-class applications to arrive. Burlington Coat Factory CIO Mike Prince's experience underlines this problem. He says that until recently, there has been a "time lag" between when vendors release applications for other platforms and when they arrive for Linux. But now, he claims, companies like Oracle and PeopleSoft Inc. release Linux versions on the same schedule as other platforms.

This is true for Linux running on Intel-based systems. But users running Linux on other processors aren't as well off. Although Smrcina says he's quite happy to run Internet operations on Linux inside his S/390, he wants to do more. But he must wait until IBM releases its middleware for Linux on mainframes. He says he expects to be experimenting with DB2 and MQSeries products when IBM ships Linux versions early next year.

Big-Time Backers

Despite Smrcina's impatience, he says he's been impressed with IBM's and other vendors' commitments to Linux. When IBM rolled out its new 64-bit Z900 mainframe last month, he says, Linux "got equal billing to other environments." Prince concurs, adding that Oracle's latest product introduction featured Linux on the same footing as Unix and Windows.

The marquee list of companies that have lined up behind Linux is impressive. All of the major systems makers offer technical support for Linux on their machines. And Linux companies that were drowning in red ink earlier in the year have been given significant cash infusions by industry giants.

Linux is also leveraging its position as the operating system for server appliances, says Tannenbaum. Like LANs and PCs, he says, "Linux is getting into corporate America through the back door."

And Linux isn't limited to large IT shops with strong internal technical support, according to Kuznetsky. In the small and medium-size business market, value-added resellers have been shedding themselves of Novell Inc.'s NetWare, The Santa Cruz Operation Inc.'s systems and other platforms in favor of Linux, while Windows continues to hold its own, Kuznetsky says. And major developers such as Oracle have jettisoned marginal platforms, such as NetWare, for Linux.

So next year is beginning to look like a good one for Linux. Will it be the big year that Linux makes inroads into the data center? Probably not. But it might just be the year that all the pieces come together.

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Copyright © 2000 IDG Communications, Inc.

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