LINUXWORLD: Is Linux really ready for the enterprise?

The sales claims from Linux vendors here at the LinuxWorld Conference & Expo are compelling: The upstart operating system is a truly viable, reliable and cost-effective option that's ready right now for use in large business operations.

The reactions from potential customers, however, are mixed.

For the Federal Aviation Administration, Linux could possibly play an important role in the future, depending on the results of a testbed project being carried out at the FAA's Atlantic City Technical Center in New Jersey, according to computer specialist Craig Gerace.

For the FAA, he said, the promise of Linux includes an all-important reduction in costs over its existing Unix-based LynxOS, which runs the center's flight tracking backbone for a 64-mile radius. Linux would allow easier portability of applications and easier network driver availability, he said.

And Linux could increase the system's backbone from an existing 10MB network to a Gigabit network, which would result in an increase in capacity and performance at less cost.

"You've got to move with the times," Gerace said. "With the skies getting more full than ever, you've got to expand."

Since applications used by the center have already been cross-compiled for Linux and are running on the testbed -- a PowerPC system operating alongside the existing LynxOS system to monitor the performance, stability and reliability of Linux -- a future transition would be simple. (The testbed concept was born two years ago and will continue for another two years.) "We've already gotten everything ready," Gerace said. So far, the system shows promise and could eventually be expanded to FAA facilities across the nation if the testing is successful, he said.

"It's going to happen. It will be [running] Linux in a few years," he said.

While the promise of Linux looms large, questions remain, said Daniel Killingsworth, a local-area network manager for paper products company SCA North America in Eddystone, Pa. Killingsworth said his company is looking to improve its backbone services, including a possible move away from Microsoft Exchange Server because of security concerns and targeting by hackers.

"The company hasn't made any formal commitments to move," he said. "There are really strong arguments on both sides. There needs to be real business reasons to make the change -- cost savings, what we are getting for our money."

A real problem, though, is that while some Linux options seem compelling, deeper digging shows some missing elements, he said. When checking into IBM's WebSphere application, Killingsworth said he asked about creating a portal for customers to order paper products. What he wanted to do was to create a portal that could be integrated with the company's back-end system. Products would automatically be shipped from the factories if warehouses were out of stock.

It could be done through customization, the vendor told him. But the development tools to do the job won't be available until May or so. Not good enough, Killingsworth said.

"It's a little disappointing that it's not here right now," he said. "I do see it as needing some more polish."

Thomas Re, a technical assistant at Nassau Community College in Garden City, N.Y., said that while Linux offers cost savings at the college through continued deployments and the reuse of older Intel-based hardware for desktop servers, niggling issues remain.

One is the need to install Linux security patches individually, instead of as a package, something that's possible under Sun Microsystems Inc.'s Solaris 8. When there are a lot of machines to patch, the process can be time consuming, he said.

Steven Rinaldi, a senior systems engineer at Windsor, Conn.-based Alstom Power, which engineers and builds power plants, said his company is already using Linux in parallel computing configurations for design and flow analysis, while it continues to look for new ways to cut costs and increase efficiencies.

"There's a lot of things that we're seeing that over time we'd like to see implemented," including disk management systems that would allow them to change disks on the fly, he said.

Nonetheless, the transition at some businesses toward Linux has been intriguing, he said.

"If IBM has its way," the operating system and its hardware and applications will continue their rise, Rinaldi said. "It's amazing."

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