Linux, the open-source operating system that for the past few years has been quietly gaining ground throughout the commercial world, has established a beachhead in the federal market and is poised to take over responsibility for some government mission-critical applications, according to industry and government experts.
In one of the first public pronouncements by a government official of the advantages of Linux, Przemek Klosowski, a scientist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, said the history of Linux -- a 1960s-vintage operating system -- shows that it has made a "sneaky entry" into the government.
Although no agency has made a large contract award for a Linux-based system, several agencies are using Linux for a variety of computing needs, Klosowski told an audience gathered for a Linux symposium sponsored by Silicon Graphics Inc. in Washington, D.C.
In the first known case of Linux being sanctioned for use in a major project, the Energy Department's Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Chicago uses Linux "as an officially supported research platform" to support data visualization, large-scale data storage clusters and high-end numerical processing, Klosowski said.
DOE's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory also uses a very large Linux-based system cluster that amounts to the 315th-largest computer in the world, Klosowski said. Other pockets of Linux use exist in the U.S. Postal Service, NASA, NIST and the National Institutes of Health, he said.
"The open-source nature of Linux enables people who have nonstandard needs to mold it to their requirements," said Klosowski, adding that Linux is often the operating system of choice for start-up "skunk works" projects in government that are short on funding.
Linux is a Unix-like open-source operating system that enables developers who use it to access and customize the source code.
The Linux kernel is composed of roughly 1.5 million lines of code that users can study and improve. Enhancements are distributed throughout the Linux community and subjected to a strict peer review process that examines the code changes for bugs and flaws.
"With Linux, problems are addressed quickly," Klosowski said. "Time-to-solution is measured literally in hours. No commercial vendor can match that."
In addition, Linux enables government agencies avoid the "upgrade mill" associated with proprietary commercial operating systems, he said.
Although there are "much [fewer] mysterious failures" with Linux, Klosowski said, there is still development work that needs to be done for it to be ready for widespread government use. For example, the current version of Linux has not yet passed testing for Posix compliance -- the key standard for open systems -- which has caused some agencies to avoid large-scale contracts involving Linux-based systems, he said.
"It's a big problem," Klosowski said. "[Vendors] who want to sell to the government have to address this issue."
Robert Hart, director of technical alliances for Linux developer Red Hat Software Inc., said although Linux is not accepted fully by government agencies, it is quickly becoming so. "They will be forced to go with Linux because of cost issues," he said. "But it will take a while before Linux reaches the government's comfort zone."
Hart referred to Linux as the "great stealth operating system" because it is being used in the government and elsewhere, and people just do not realize it.
The key benefits, according to Hart, are Linux's low cost and the control it gives to the user. "You don't have to license Linux for every machine on which you need to run it," Hart said. "You control your OS environment, not your OS vendor."
Anthony Robbins, vice president of SGI's Federal Systems Area, said his company has been "amazed at the Linux revolution" that is now under way. SGI, which has made a corporate commitment to providing Linux on all of its Intel Corp.-based products, also plans to help spearhead the adoption of Linux throughout the Defense Department, particularly in the area of command and control, Robbins said.
Through various common operating environment initiatives, "DOD attempted to make Unix vanilla," Robbins said. "Now, we believe Linux is in operational play in these areas. I think they have to take a hard look at Linux."