Why We Love Linux


Linux has managed to grow from having a few devout followers to becoming an institution. And now solution providers are discovering they can build a viable business around it.

Almost three years ago, a large Japanese engineering firm came to Fly-By-Day Consulting, an Atlanta-based solution provider specializing in Linux-based security solutions, looking for integration services for its e-mail server, which ran on the open-source OS. Bob Toxen, founder of Fly-By-Day, configured the Linux server for the Japanese enterprise, and Toxen believed he had roped in a major Linux customer. However, more than two years elapsed before the engineering firm followed up with Toxen, and he assumed that the customer had simply dropped Linux in favor of a more mainstream operating environment.

He was wrong. The client came back for more Linux last September because its e-mail server needed to be reconfigured,for the first time in two years. Toxen said the elapsed time between engagements with the customer was actually a testament to the stability of Linux. "I just assumed that they finally converted to [Microsoft Exchange because they primarily used Windows," Toxen says. "Now they're one of my largest customers."

Critics and Linux supporters alike formerly believed that most enterprise customers had already settled on their infrastructures and weren't willing to rip out and replace their Unix or Windows systems in favor of experimental, open-source software, especially in these uncertain times. They were mistaken. Enterprises such as Home Depot, Shell and Cisco Systems are embracing the open-source OS and technology firms such as IBM, which pledged $1 billion to build its Linux business, have started to support the movement in earnest. Now, Linux servers have penetrated the ranks of corporate America's servers. Analyst firm IDC says Linux is poised for "a breakout year" and has become a viable alternative for the enterprise. IDC analyst Mark Melenovsky says Linux has become the second-largest OS for new Intel-based server deployments, replacing Novell's NetWare. "Three or four years ago, Linux was a hard sell, [but now it's really taking server business away from Microsoft and Unix," Toxen says. "Microsoft products just aren't as reliable, secure or cost-effective as Linux."

The Server Switch

Mike Prince knows how much things have changed for Linux. As CIO of Burlington Coat Factory Warehouse, a clothing retailer with more than 300 stores, Prince made the decision three years ago to install Dell servers and PCs running Red Hat Linux for the company's gift registry, inventory control and receiving functions. Prince and his staff found Linux so easy to use they performed most of the integration work themselves, and the technology exceeded their expectations. "In a retail operation, you want your OS to be stable and bug-free, and we've got that with Linux, Prince says. "We have well over 2,000 systems running Linux today, and that number is going to grow."

Now that more IT companies are supporting the open-source OS, Burlington is expanding its investment in Linux past simple point-of-sale systems. The retailer is in the process of rolling out systems running Oracle's human-resource software on Linux, and is looking to deploy Oracle 9i database clusters for Linux to power more critical back-end systems.

Today, Linux can be found on high-end servers, databases, security systems, wireless devices, game systems and even desktops. Perhaps the biggest reason cited by enterprise customers for moving to Linux-based systems is server consolidation, and the timing couldn't have been better for the shift. With the current recession, more and more companies are looking to reduce the number of high-priced, high-maintenance servers in their businesses.

On the heels of reporting record sales and its first-ever profit in January, Amazon.com says it saved $17 million in its quarterly budget by migrating to HP servers running Linux. CitiGroup also decided to consolidate its servers and chose Linux on IBM mainframes last year to reduce costs and also simplify its data centers. Bill Zeitler, senior vice president and group executive of IBM Server Group, says several financial services customers, such as Salomon Smith Barney, have moved to Linux for server consolidation and cost-saving efforts. "By now it's clear companies of every type are using Linux," Zeitler says.

Enterprises are also drawn to the flexibility of open-source technology. E*Trade decided to replace its Sun Microsystems servers running Solaris with a variety of servers running Linux from Dell, Compaq, Fujitsu and IBM. Joshua Levine, CTO of E*Trade, says the online financial services firm wanted to migrate from a closed-server platform to an open-source one to get enhanced Web-site performance and stability and three times the user capacity of its current infrastructure. Levine says during the next year, E*Trade,with the help of IBM Global Services,will replace more than 300 customer-facing Web, database and middleware servers. "Time marches on, and if you don't keep up with technology, you'll fall behind," Levine says. "We want to provide more features and functions, and we don't want to have to keep replicating our infrastructure."

Aberdeen Group recently predicted that Linux will dominate most segments of high-performance computing (HPC) by 2004. Bill Claybrook, research director at Aberdeen, wrote that interest is growing rapidly around Linux clusters for hosting HPC applications because of their considerable price/performance advantages over proprietary systems.

Linux Lovers In the Channel

Hardware and software vendors both know the growth of the Linux-based server business will require a hand from the channel. Solution providers fill a critical need by developing software for the open-source OS, porting applications typically used for Windows and Unix. While the Linux channel is still in its infancy, vendors are focusing on developing partnerships to meet the demand for integration and Linux solutions. Islandia, N.Y.-based Computer Associates (CA), for one, says the channel will be crucial to its strategy for deploying its software solutions for Linux.

"From a platform point of view, there are way more partners out there that know Windows NT and Unix than are familiar with Linux," says Sanjay Kumar, president and CEO at CA. "There needs to be more Linux solution providers that can handle open-source platforms, which is critical for us if we're going to reach a higher class of enterprises with Linux."

Apache Digital, a Red Hat Linux reseller and OEM manufacturer based in Dorango, Colo., has been selling Linux servers and other hardware since 1995. Sheryl Andrews, director of operations, says the company first sold Linux products to individual software developers and technology aficionados but soon branched out to enterprises and bigger clients in the education market, including Penn State and UCLA. As Linux matured, solution providers like Apache Digital were able to develop solutions for more complex tasks, such as server clustering and parallel processing.

"More businesses are looking at Linux now because it's no longer considered experimental software," Andrews says. "We also resell Microsoft, but at this point, we're selling 20 Linux servers for every Windows server."

Essex Technology Group, an IBM business partner based in Rochelle Park, N.J., had been a longtime reseller of both IBM hardware and software, including Lotus, Tivoli and WebSphere. Previously, Essex specialized in Unix, Windows NT and AS/400 environments but now has begun selling IBM servers running Linux. Bill Conwell, vice president of development at Essex, sees enormous potential in Linux for solution providers and says the conversion to Linux from Unix is easier than most people think. "Until eight months ago, the channel overall didn't see much value in Linux, but that's changed," Conwell says. "The switch from Unix to Linux is a snap. It takes us about two or three days to port a Unix application for AIX to Linux."

Linux is also working its way down the hardware chain from servers to workstations and even PCs. Caldera International, an Orem, Utah-based Linux software-maker, is also looking beyond the server with its OpenLinux 64 enterprise OS, which now offers configurations for workstations and desktops. Caldera is also courting new software vendors to build around its Linux versions. The company recently teamed with Borland to integrate its OpenLinux workstation version with Borland's Kylix 2 rapid application-development software to enable the deployment of Linux-based applications, Web services and middleware. Hence, Caldera has reshaped its partner program to focus more on developing point solutions for customers.

"Our partners have said they don't want to sell technology, they want to sell Linux solutions," Caldera president and CEO Ransom Love says. "Solution providers have come to love Linux because its flexibility and open standards give them so much more to work with."

Perhaps most important, solution providers are discovering they can build a viable business around Linux in various areas instead of simply dabbling with open source. Toxen has focused his consulting business around security and network management, and Fly-By-Day now specializes in Linux-based firewalls, mixed OS network management and managed security solutions for Linux customers. Toxen says the security advancements in Linux during the past few years have propelled it beyond Windows and, in some cases, Unix. In addition, the customizable nature of Linux allows Toxen to develop security solutions for a number of different Linux versions.

Sunset Systems, a solution provider based in Sacramento, Calif., specializes in Linux configuration and development while reselling hardware from leading motherboard manufacturers such as ASUS and SuperMicro. Sunset founder Rod Roark worked extensively with MS-DOS and Windows in the past but embraced Linux and open-source software in 1998. Today, Roark says he sees the most interest in Linux from network-oriented companies, such as Internet service providers who view Apache Web server technology as the most cost-effective, stable and high-performing software.

Roark also foresees potential for Linux PC solutions with the emergence of KDE technology, a free desktop environment for Linux that could be the next phase of Linux's growth. KDE 3.0 was recently released by the KDE Project, a group of several hundred software developers. It includes an integrated software development environment and API to improve application use of Linux. "People say Linux isn't ready for the desktop because there aren't enough applications for it," Roark says, "but with KDE, you can use Linux for just about anything now."

Stimulating the Software

Hardware vendors such as IBM and HP have blitzed the market with dedicated Linux products, but the software market has yet to match that level of support. The number of application vendors offering Linux products is still relatively low. Experts say that represents one of the largest obstacles for Linux's growth. Still, a handful of vendors are taking the initiative on the software front, mostly in the area of systems management.

CA recently introduced 23 new Linux-based solutions for its eTrust security, BrightStor storage management and Unicenter network and systems-management software. The company has been closely following the server trend with its Linux solutions; after IBM sold CitiGroup on its zSeries mainframes, CA swooped in and delivered its infrastructure-management solutions for Linux.

"In the past year, we've seen some real high-end customers on the mainframe side who normally wouldn't associate with Linux come to us and ask for our solutions ported to Linux systems," Kumar says. "Eventually, for Linux to move to the next level with the enterprise, the application vendors need to get on Linux."

CA rival BMC Software recently updated its flagship enterprise-management software to include support for Linux. Responding to customer demand, BMC's Patrol 7 supports Linux versions from leading distributors such as Red Hat and SuSE Linux. "We have a number of large customers throughout the United States and Europe excited about [Patrol for Linux," says Sean Duclaux, director of product marketing at BMC. "Now, with this release, customers are becoming even more aggressive with adopting Linux solutions."

Platform Computing, a software company based in Toronto, recently unveiled an integrated Linux cluster-management solution, dubbed Platform Clusterware, designed to help enterprise customers deploy Linux clusters and integrate them with existing applications. "Server consolidation has created tremendous opportunities for Linux clusters," says Songian Zhou, co-founder and CTO of Platform Computing.

Again, some Linux supporters see strengthening the ties between Unix and Linux as the key to increased enterprise adoption. Caldera is focusing on bridging Unix and Linux on the Intel platform to bolster Linux applications with its Volution Manager 1.1, a Web-based management and administration solution that supports the latest versions of Linux and Caldera Unix products. Love says it's much easier now to migrate Unix applications to Linux; the real challenge is developing standards for Linux, which have evolved rapidly and produced a number of disparate OS versions. However, the Linux Standard Base (LSB), an industry consortium composed of leading Linux distributors such as Caldera, Red Hat and SuSE Linux and major vendors like IBM, HP and Oracle, has made some progress in developing standards. "The LSB is just the first step," Love says. "Standards will help Linux enormously by making it easier for ISVs to get on board."

It's clear a shift is taking place in the way vendors and enterprises view Linux, and solution providers are taking note. According to VARBusiness' 2002 State of the Market research, 41 percent of solution providers surveyed say they support and deploy Linux as a server and/or client-server OS. While 97 percent say they work with Windows, just 26 percent work with Windows XP (in addition, 26 percent say they work with Unix). What started at the software-development level has now surged to high-end computing and beyond. So don't let nature fool you. Penguin or not, Linux is flying. n