Focus on Linux - Inching Nearer to the Data Centre

Even ardent supporters of Linux concede that the open-source operating system isn't quite ready to take on big database loads and mission-critical applications. But that hasn't prevented some users from pushing Linux into roles beyond its niche as an Internet infrastructure platform.

Internet service provider 1stUp.com Corp. in San Francisco is a typical Linux user, with about 70 Linux servers, but Vice President of Engineering Ric O'Connell also uses Linux to run Oracle8i for the company's online transaction processing (OLTP) database and its data warehouse - thus avoiding the need to support multiple server operating systems.

What allows companies like 1stUp.com to move Linux into new areas is the increasing availability of enterprise-class commercial software. Vendors such as Oracle and SAP are leading the charge. SAP claims that 400 customers are running its enterprise resource planning (ERP) software on Linux.

One of them is Massachusetts-based Siemens Business Services LLC (SBS), the 22,000-employee information technology services arm of German electronics giant Siemens AG.

Michael Gebauer, senior system engineer, said 16 of the company's 350 SAP R/3 servers are now running Linux, and more will be added. "We had experience with Linux from running Web servers, Sendmail and so on," said Gebauer.

Savings Are Key

But a chance to save money was the key incentive. "Replacing a big server every 18 months is very expensive, so [you save money] if you can have cheaper nodes running the application side," Gebauer said.

However, SBS is keeping the databases for its SAP applications on proprietary Unix servers, including HP-UX and Solaris, because they offer better I/O capacity and support more CPUs in one box.

Most Linux users face the same bottlenecks. "Given the absence of a journaling file system and other technical limitations, Linux at present lacks the maturity to support high-end transaction databases," said Stacey Quandt, an analyst at Giga Information Group in California.

Other features Linux users clamour for are high-availability software, native support for Fibre Channel and better system management software. Several products - open-source and commercial - exist or are under development to add such features to Linux. But many users are waiting until it's clear which of those technologies will be supported in the standard Linux kernel.

Another factor holding back Linux is the hardware: Linux is most popular on commodity Intel-based platforms, which rarely scale beyond four processors and have limited I/O capacity. New servers based on Intel's forthcoming Itanium processor may help address that by year's end.

Those bottlenecks don't prevent smaller companies from moving more of their systems over to Linux. Gene Christian, technical operations manager at office furniture dealer Goldsmith's Inc. in Wichita, Kansas, is running Lotus Domino on Linux and is considering moving his company's main application - a vertical system for furniture dealers - to Linux from SCO OpenServer.

Running Applications

"I see Linux today as a great way to get applications up and running," said Arthur Tyde, founder and executive vice president of Linuxcare, a Linux services company in San Francisco. "When it's time to scale, Linux may be ready - or there's plenty of options, like Solaris."

"There are lots of good, robust Unixes to run your database on," said Mike Prince, vice president and CIO at Burlington Coat Factory Warehouse in New Jersey, a vocal Linux advocate. "You'd have to ask how it makes sense to push the curve by trying to run Linux in an environment where it's not ready yet." But Prince said he wouldn't hesitate to run an ERP system on Linux.

"We're pushing the limits of Linux in OLTP and data warehousing," acknowledges 1stUp.com's O'Connell, who said he may soon be forced to move his growing database onto a proprietary Unix platform. But in the long run, he said, "I am convinced Linux will be an enterprise-class operating system."

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