Linux continues to make highly visible inroads into IT infrastructure, with IDC reporting 14 consecutive quarters of double-digit growth in Linux server shipments through the third quarter of last year. Less visible to both IT professionals and casual observers alike is the equally impressive penetration of Linux in a wide range of client devices, from routers to firewalls, from private branch exchanges to voice-over-IP phones, from printers to imaging devices and from thin clients to smart mobile phones.
In earlier embedded applications, end users had no reason to care what sort of software came deployed in devices: Systems and peripherals either functioned well or did not, and the embedded operating system and applications that powered them remained out of sight and out of mind. In the past three years, however, underlying Linux and open-source deployment in intelligent IT infrastructure devices has grown to levels equaling or surpassing server-side use.
According to Venture Development, 29 percent of embedded 32- and 64-bit application designs were built using Linux in 2005, with communications being the top application area. This ubiquitous adoption opens new avenues for IT professionals to control and customize formerly fixed-function devices in their fleets, with tangible benefits realizable in performance, security and manageability.
The open-source operating system is everywhere; unlike its proprietary predecessors, it is no longer hidden away deep inside devices. IT professionals -- from systems administrators to IT directors to CIOs -- can leverage the increasing use of Linux in intelligent devices as part of their strategies for enterprise application and service delivery.
The emergence of standards-based technologies, such as TCP/IP and HTTP, has eased the task of acquiring, integrating, provisioning, deploying and maintaining all classes of devices. Before such protocols, each class of device -- indeed, each device itself -- was likely to use unique and incompatible interfaces, creating complexity for IT professionals and raising costs throughout the life cycle.
The introduction of standards-based equipment has contributed greatly to simplifying IT infrastructure, but embedded platform fragmentation -- for example, CPUs, architectures, operating systems -- combined with attempts to "add value" by extending and modifying protocols, preserves interdevice "babble" and complicates IT operations.
Even devices ostensibly built on the same proprietary operating system technology, such as Windows XP or Windows CE, or even devices from the same manufacturer, can exhibit idiosyncrasies that limit interoperability. The increasing use of Linux across IT greatly reduces incompatibilities among hardware types.
Even across Linux distributions and CPU ports, the open-source operating system deploys identical versions of the same TCP/IP stack, leverages the same standard Web browsers and builds on the same file-sharing protocols (NFS [Network File System] and Samba).
This continuity makes life easier for systems administrators and other IT staffers. Ditto for comparable command shells, scripting languages, open document formats and the like. And, when and if incompatibilities appear, IT managers don't have to depend on slim documentation or overtaxed, underpowered support lines. They can peruse the underlying code themselves to discover the cause.
Even if a heterogeneous setup of servers, desktops and dedicated devices works seamlessly, IT teams must still deal with interface issues that affect provisioning, configuration and management. With increasing deployment of underlying Linux, IT managers can choose from a range of common supported management interfaces (HTTP, FTP, SNMP, SSH, Telnet) and expect comparable behaviors from devices that use the same management protocols, especially the Simple Network Management Protocol, under Linux.
Moreover, provisioning and management tools from third parties (like OpenCountry) further simplify and unify these chores, both with underlying Linux hosts and even in some cases on other platforms.