Friends in high places help Linux catch mainstream wave

Rising out of obscurity and dusting off its image as a fringe underdog, Linux is mounting a stiff challenge for Windows and other operating systems in the enterprise. As the application support of industry giants and enthusiasm strengthens behind the open source OS, business and IT managers alike are taking notice. EVE EPSTEIN reportsDamian Ivereigh has been running Cisco's printing system worldwide using Linux for about four years. He runs all Cisco's print operations from Sydney, and started using Linux because he had used it at home and decided it was a good bet for the company. Among other things, Linux was "screaming cheap" - about $1000 per low-volume server to install - and at that time, Cisco was growing so fast that Ivereigh's boss couldn't micro-manage his decision to go the open-source route.

Now, the setting for this familiar tale - a common plight for IT managers everywhere - has changed. Recent surveys and market activity point to the fact that for many companies, upper management's resistance to Linux appears to be eroding. The story of how Ivereigh integrated the open-source system into his company sheds light on how Linux is shedding its cult status and going mainstream.

Today, the Linux system Ivereigh installed runs 3000 printers worldwide, and about 150 print servers - all managed remotely by five people. This system handles an average of 120,000 print jobs a day, including everything from accounting's sales reports to orders at the manufacturing level to faxing, which also links into the system.

The big test for Ivereigh's Linux-based system came three years ago when a power grid failed, Cisco's generator system failed, and a slew of systems crashed, including printing. At that time, the printing system wasn't wholly reliant on Linux: it also included some Sparc clones. Those never came back up.

That's when a Cisco vice president started asking questions. Ivereigh pointed out that Linux, installed for about a year at that point, was still working.

"That's what did it," Ivereigh says. "It's really sort of since then that the Linux system had enough momentum that people really couldn't argue with it."

Out from the fringe

According to a recently released survey, that momentum is growing. Survey.com asked more than 2000 companies about their use of OSU (Open Source Unix). The survey was designed to try and weed out the open-source zealots and focus on key IT decision makers in companies, according to Dave Trowbridge, a senior analyst at Survey.com. Some 69 per cent of respondents said they either have deployed, will deploy, or are considering deploying OSU, and only 31 per cent said they won't. So is Windows waning in the enterprise after all?

"This is not a Windows killer," says Trowbridge, who combed through the survey results. "The way I would characterise it is that Windows cannot expect to have a majority of the servers out there. They can expect to have the servers out there. They can expect to have a plurality."

Dwight Davis, a service director at Summit Strategies, a market strategy and consulting company in the US, says he doesn't think Microsoft is running scared yet. But he added that Linux "clearly has a growing presence in the market".

The result of this increased competition will ultimately be better for IT professionals managing these critical business systems.

"It's going to keep [Microsoft] on its toes," Trowbridge says. "It is really going to have to concentrate on making a good product because it doesn't have a monopoly any more."

Now business and IT leaders are taking notice. With all the publicity about recent stellar Linux IPOs, and with the product support of big-name players such as IBM - which recently announced it is developing Internet-based software around Linux - CIOs and other high-level business managers are starting to feel more comfortable with the whole idea.

Many top managers are starting to ask about Linux as an option, and in some instances, they're finding out their IT managers may have already gone the Linux route for some applications.

"I think what's happening now is CEOs are reading about Linux in the press, so they're asking about it, and they're hearing that actually, they are already using it," Ivereigh says. "That's where it takes off."

Baby steps

But the favourable reaction is still new. Lack of application and technical support are the main reasons why company managers told Survey.com that they would hesitate to go with Linux, Trowbridge says.

Harry Duffey, a senior systems programmer for the $US10 billion-a-year oil and gas company Amerada Hess in the US, faced a certain amount of scepticism when he first proposed Linux. Duffey replaced a $US2.5 million IBM supercomputer system to process seismic data with 128 Dell PCs - all running on Linux - for about $US500,000. There were some managers who questioned his decision.

But now Duffey says upper management is enthusiastic, and the same manager who said a year ago, "I can't believe you're promoting that", is now asking Duffey what other systems the company might run well on Linux.

Duffey says that in the year he's been running Linux for Amerada Hess, he's seen how reliable and flexible it is. There's no maintenance or additional cost for the new Linux system.

"So for a half million dollars, we have three to four times the computing power that we had before," Duffey says.

In addition, installing new machines from scratch to the point where they are fully configured takes only about five minutes.

"You cannot install any other OS in five minutes," Duffey says.

Duffey, who left Amerada Hess in mid-January to start his own network integration company for smaller companies that can't afford a full-time IT staff, is hardly a Linux zealot. He is trained to install Windows NT and expects that task will be a substantial part of his new business. But he also thinks Linux will play an important role in the future.

"I can't say that Linux is the wave of the future; I can say that open source is a big part of the wave of the future," Duffey says. "You're going to see more people use it because it's very reliable, very stable," as well as easy to administer remotely.

Application gaps remain

But there are limits to Linux use, mainly because applications aren't available for everything. According to Survey.com's report, Oracle, Netscape, and IBM are the three top vendors whose application support would be important to survey respondents.

But Linux is slowly and surely making inroads into the business applications arena. Gary Calvin, a systems integration specialist, uses Red Hat Linux to run the company's accounting software.

"It's highly reliable," Calvin says, but he's not about to use Linux for everything. "I'm running an NT workstation for my desktop platform. We're not interested in being pioneers for the sake of being pioneers. We use [Linux] where it makes sense."

For Eric McKinney, CIO at the $US15 million-a-year US architectural firm Gordon H Chong & Partners, Linux doesn't make sense yet. McKinney is familiar with Linux (he has it on his personal laptop and uses it in a very limited way for some security tests of his company's systems).

But beyond that, McKinney says Linux can't run the applications he needs. The company relies heavily on AutoCAD, a Windows NT application for architectural drawings.

"The No 1 reason [we wouldn't use Linux] is application support," McKinney says. Another reason: switching would make a lot of current files outdated.

"What you end up with in terms of our organisation is a lot of AutoCAD files that then become a legacy object, so even changing versions of the software can be problematic, let alone bringing in other types of software," McKinney says.

But McKinney hasn't ruled out Linux altogether for the future.

"It's something we kind of keep our eyes on because the cost factor of running NT on every work station is significant," he says.

Dollars and sense

Cost is what drove the city of Garden Grove in the US to Linux in 1995. The Californian city, with a population of about 153,000, uses Linux to run its entire network. Robert Shingledecker, the city's network manager, pushed for open source after a consultant recommended a system that was far too expensive for the city, which was still reeling from an Orange County fiscal debacle.

"Since we already had a Unix machine, I went on the Internet to see what systems managers were doing," Shingledecker says.

That's where he found out about running Samba on Linux.

Shingledecker had his share of opposition. The police department wanted to set up a $US100,000 IBM system, but he fought them, pushing for Samba-Linux, which cost less than $US10,000.

"I won, partly because of the tight times," Shingledecker says.

In 1996, Garden Grove added another Linux server to get the city on the Web and set up e-mail.

"It's been fantastic," Shingledecker says. "I have no hesitation recommending [Linux] to anyone. It's been fast and easy to set up."

In the end, cost savings may be the big thing that grabs corporate management's attention when it comes to Linux. But IT managers should tread cautiously here: Linux can take time to set up because you're tailoring the system to fit a company's needs instead of relying on an OS manufacturer to come up with solutions. For some, those initial labour costs can outweigh the savings.

Others say it's worth the effort.

"I think where Linux really wins is in its flexibility," says Cisco's Ivereigh. "It takes a little more creativity than the prepackaged solutions."

IT managers say their bosses are also extremely concerned about support, although those who have used Linux are enthusiastic about the support they've received online in the open-source community.

Ivereigh felt pressured about support availability at first.

"At one point, we considered getting a support contract from Red Hat, just to keep people who wanted a support system happy," Ivereigh says. "We didn't need it, but we figured it would keep them happy."

Eventually, he convinced the doubters. Shingledecker has also stayed away from support contracts. He found that support on the Internet was fine, although "the reality was the Linux environment was so robust we had very little need to go to the Internet," he says.

For the moment, it appears many IT managers are making sensible decisions about integrating Linux: Where it works, they're either using it or looking into giving it a try.

Ultimately, the true value of the sky-high Linux IPOs may be that it will make IT managers' jobs easier when it comes to weighing their operating systems options impartially. The Wall Street headlines have grabbed top management's attention, so making decisions based on company needs may continue to become easier for IT managers who want to explore the open-source path.

Enterprise apps give Linux a shot in the armENTERPRISE companies may soon have reason to take a closer look at Linux, because pending releases from Novell and Tripwire will bring security and directory applications to the operating system.

Currently, a dearth of applications, combined with scalability issues and the lack of trust among companies in Linux as a platform for business applications, are hindering enterprise-scale Linux deployments.

Al Gillen, research manager for server infrastructure software at IDC, said: "A lot of vendors are moving very quickly to put applications on Linux, but until you have all the different applications that would be available for Unix or [Windows] NT, it's not going to be an equal choice."

However, Gillen believes these factors are not fatal flaws for Linux.

"Linux has to pay its dues and be around long enough to establish a track record and credibility, gain the apps support, and such - and it's happening, probably more quickly for Linux than for any other environment in the last few years," he said.

A first half of 2000 release date for NDS for Linux will be "met easily", according to Novell officials, who added that the product is in closed beta and will skip an open beta to head directly to shipping. Both NDS eDirectory and NDS Corporate Edition will be available for Linux.

The Linux version will be virtually the same as the NDS versions on other platforms such as NetWare and Sun Solaris in terms of implementation, schemas, and setup and configuration, company officials said.

Meanwhile, mainstream security companies eyeing the potential return of serving the Linux and open-source communities are realising solid support from the Linux vendor space, as well.

Tripwire has announced its adoption of the open-source model for its flagship Tripwire product. Major Linux vendors Caldera Systems, Red Hat, and SGI will partner with Tripwire and integrate the integrity assessment software into their Linux-based server products, said Tripwire CEO Wyatt Stearns.

Tripwire security will appear in each of the three vendors' upcoming Linux releases.

Expected to go live around mid-year, users will be able to download the free Tripwire open-source product at www.tripwire.org. Plans call for the Web site to evolve as a portal on which open-source communities can collaborate.

Tripwire can be reached at www.tripwire.com. Novell can be reached at www.novell.com.

-- Stephanie Sanborn and Brian Fonseca

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