A decade ago, Linux was just a twinkle in the eye of its inventor, Linus Torvalds, a college student who wanted to create a better operating system for his own use. Today, Linux is gaining a growing share of the server market, expanding its presence in science and education and slowly making its way into mission-critical business computing.

Once just a cult operating system used by researchers, scientists and students because it could be freely modified to fit their needs, Linux is increasingly being seen as a realistic option for business computing. Among its business benefits is that same flexibility, which lets developers make changes ranging from altering core code to fit corporate needs to modifying its on-screen appearance to satisfy users.

So, where does Linux stand today? And what's still to come?

In 1999, Microsoft Corp.'s Windows accounted for 38% of server operating system shipments, compared with 24% for Linux, according to IDC in Framingham, Mass. Last year, Windows' share increased to 42%, and Linux's increased to 27%, both at the expense of Unix, Novell Inc.'s NetWare and others. Linux is the fastest-growing server operating system in terms of shipments, according to IDC.

Linux use soared during the dot-com frenzy in the late 1990s, as start-ups with big dreams needed to get online quickly and reliably. Because Linux was either free or sold by companies that added their own features, support, manuals and simplified install routines, it was a perfect Web server platform for start-ups that needed high-tech capabilities at low cost.

Linux start-ups like Red Hat Inc. and Turbolinux Inc. took off, fueling what became a torrent of reliable, robust and relatively cheap Linux e-commerce deployments.

Meanwhile, Linux supporters believed there was still more in Linux's future than the three primary uses that were established at that point: for Web servers, file servers and print servers.

Backing for that view arrived in a big way when IBM announced a $1 billion investment this year for the continued development of the operating system. Compaq Computer Corp. and Hewlett-Packard Co. have also been strong Linux advocates, offering the operating system on wide segments of their server product lines. Such developments have given Linux wider credibility in the marketplace among IT decision-makers.

More Business Use

An increasing number of companies, from New York-based Cendant Corp. to Burlington, N.J.-based Burlington Coat Factory Warehouse Corp., have adopted Linux for their core operations. Cendant, which franchises more than 6,500 hotels, including the Howard Johnson International Inc. chain, uses Linux for its property management system, while Burlington Coat Factory uses it for its retail store operations.

Linux is also being increasingly used in high-performance scientific and research projects, including supercomputer clusters for oil and gas exploration, as well as medical and drug research.

A continuing criticism of Linux is that there's a shortage of business applications for it. While Microsoft Office isn't available, there are similar applications, such as Corel Corp.'s WordPerfect, Applix Inc.'s Applixware Office and Sun Microsystems Inc.'s StarOffice suite.

Linux's future got a lift in January when vendor-funded Open Source Development Lab Inc. opened in Oregon. The lab was established to help prepare Linux for expanded high-performance corporate data center use by working to fulfill key needs, such as improving the scalability of Linux to 16 processors or more, up from the four to eight possible today.

Last January, Torvalds released the long-awaited Version 2.4 kernel for Linux, adding a host of new features, including support for additional processors and a built-in logical volume manager to let all hard drives be seen as one seamless drive. Also included were power management and Universal Serial Bus support improvements.

Because there are different brands of Linux, from vendors such as Caldera International Inc., MandrakeSoft SA and SuSE Inc., the Linux Standard Base was formed last year to create compatibility standards to ensure that applications will be able to run on any distribution.

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