LINUX: the Power and the Passion: Part II

With two factors guaranteed to stir an IT manager's interest - price and performance - underpinning its push into the enterprise, Linux is capturing some heavy-duty fans. In this final of a two-part series, Sue Bushell talks to those who put it to work.

Ask any Linux enthusiast if their favourite operating system belongs in the enterprise and you'll get a resounding "Yes".

You'll most likely also hear fervent praise of Linux's reliability, openness, flexibility and price, probably with some savage censure of proprietary systems thrown in. For many in the Linux community, the prevailing attitude is not so much "Us versus Them" as "Us versus Microsoft". Terms like "Evil Empire" and "the dark side" frequently get bandied about.

Of course to IT managers reassured by big installed bases and operating under the old "No one ever got sacked for buying IBM" mentality, such rhetoric holds little sway. Nor are they turned on by the notion of "free" software - after all there's always enough in the budget to pay for whatever operating system they desire. On the other hand, Linux could soon have enough of an installed base to offer boundless reassurance to such wary IT managers.

And once those IT managers hear that Linux is going to get their applications up and running faster, that they will then keep running almost forever and at speeds they'd never achieve with any other operating system, they start to see the enthusiasts' point.

Certainly even the keenest of Linux devotees will concede Linux has some way to go before it fully meets the platform needs of the high-end enterprise. It still has nothing like the graphical user sophistication of a Windows environment, for instance, nor can it yet boast the enterprise robustness of a server HP-UX environment.

But things are starting to change. IDC senior analyst software Natasha David says until recently there has been insufficient focus in the Linux environment on memory and access - the main reason Linux servers still aren't being deployed for mission-critical business apps like enterprise resource planning and data mining.

"Over time IDC expects that to be less of a problem as Linux becomes more integrated with the IT environment," David says.

More high-performance uses of Linux are becoming increasingly possible, she says. This is especially shown by two initiatives announced earlier this year of systems allowing clustering of Linux servers. David says both the announcement of Beowulf clustering and the release of IBM's Los Lobos prototype system, which created a cluster of Netfinity servers running Red Hat Linux and capable of performing several hundred billion operations per second, shows Linux is getting ready to meet enterprise high-performance needs.

And she says organisations will find comfort in the growing success of vendors like TurboLinux Red Hat and Suse.

"What an enterprise environment is looking for is not just deployment of technology, but also someone who can manage the lifecycle of the product or a particular deployment. The growth of these vendors who give support and also supply ancillary products to these systems is going to help Linux win more acceptance within the enterprise," she says.

But despite the limitations, a random sample shows it is being used in some surprising places in Australia. Very few of those users admit to having much to complain about.

National Library of Australia

Half a dozen servers running Linux, typically for network-based services, are giving the National Library of Australia a cost-effective way of achieving tight control over an environment and the performance of a service.

Director of IT business systems Mark Corbould says NLA uses Linux for such things as FTP and mail gateways, for secure encrypted access to some systems, and for proxy and access control of PCs in public reading areas. Cost was one major reason for its selection; the ability to recruit affordable staff was another.

"We're finding there's a good range of people out there in the marketplace with those skills, and compared with some of the more esoteric systems you might encounter, the costs of those staff for their ability appears to be quite reasonable," Corbould says.

The library uses Oracle extensively and is now evaluating the quality of Oracle's implementation under Linux, but has no plans to use the open source system for large business-style applications.

"We run Linux on the Intel platform, whereas we tend to run most of our larger business systems on either AIX or Solaris RISC-style platforms," Corbould says. "There is no particular cost advantage there for us to run Linux, and the level of support we would get for those services is currently less than we would receive from those mainstream server vendors."

GrowZone OnLine

A community not-for-profit ISP serving more than 45 towns in Southern Inland Queensland, GrowZone Development Network is building a massive network as part of a regional community-based Networking the Nation project.

With more than 40 points of presence GrowZone OnLine will be one of the largest private networks (intranets) and Internet service providers in Australia, offering all the services of a professional ISP network. The entire network is running on Linux, with Linux servers scattered all over southern Queensland.

The ISP's long-term vision is to get the entire region online, communicating and trading with each other and with the world outside the region. To this end it's developing online communication applications, regional information resource databases and commercial transaction 'warehouses' (with full e-commerce facilities) and plans to link the network to the Internet with a broadband connection from Telstra BigPond Direct.

System administrator Tony Nugent concedes Linux lacks ease of use on the desktop and may take years to become the popular choice of desktop users.

But in a corporate environment, he says, Linux shines brightly.

"It does everything, and better - much, much better - than anything that runs on Windows. It is a powerful network server, it is a powerful workhorse, it is reliable, it is highly manageable, it doesn't need constant rebooting, it is a fantastic router/firewall, and so on and so on."

On the downside, he says, in a corporate environment, Linux needs to be set up by people who really know what they are doing.

TAB Queensland

With a PC running Linux in every one of its 500-plus agencies, sub-agencies and pub TABs in the state, TAB Queensland could be said to be putting Linux to mission-critical use.

After all, says Telebet project co-ordinator Lindsay Taylor, those PCs control everything that goes on in each of those offices, from receiving input from betting terminals, to generating TV data and running printouts.

The organisation is also experimenting with using Linux as a display system running a Macromedia Flash application that works well for sports betting, and uses Linux in the branch controllers that run in agencies. And it runs Linux boxes as telephone betting terminals in 350-odd call centres.

"I think we did our first Linux projects back in 1995, and it was a case of just choosing the best tool for the job," Taylor says. "We did a big evaluation of Windows 95, Windows NT, OS/2 and a couple of different Unixes; we even seriously considered embedding the system, and Linux won out.

"From the point of view of competing with other Unixes its big strength was completeness and cost. It was just as complete as all the others and it was free." Taylor says as a personal Linux user there are areas where he would like to see advances, but for Queensland TAB's purposes, Linux has no weaknesses.

Muli Management

A privately owned Australian company formed in 1981, initially as a building contractor with a number of construction management projects, Muli Management developed its own computer package to achieve satisfactory cashflow and timely client reporting.

After investing hundreds of thousands of dollars and thousands of work hours Muli ultimately developed a project and financial management system that is now used throughout Australia and recently in Asia (where its flexible program will accommodate local currencies and handle projects to a value of 9,999,999,999,999,999).

The Muli Project Management and Financial Management now provides professional management support for companies with turnover from $500,000 to well over $200 million.

The system was originally developed in the Unix environment because total source code was available. Today all sites are in a Linux software environment, which provides all the services of bigger-name operating systems without the high costs.

Muli Project Financial Management software solution incorporates the graphical Xwindows-based interface and provides more than 600 individual application programs targeted to project-oriented businesses, such as construction and contract-oriented businesses. MD Ron Skeoch says from his point of view the main limitation associated with Linux is its non-acceptance by the commercial sector, which makes selling his product more difficult than it otherwise might be.

"We see a number of major advantages, the biggest one being stability and another the ability to plot our conversion from what was essentially a character-based environment into a graphical-based environment, and the fact that we could then get into X."

Bitscream Design

Linux is playing a vital role in Bitscream Design's development of Pubsonline, planned as a no-frills portal for all hotels, bars, taverns, pubs, inns and so on, in the Southern Pacific region.

Bitscream managing director Phil Robinson says Pubsonline hopes to establish itself as a model for sensible, affordable and eloquent application of Internet technologies for business marketing and communications.

"We believe that the Internet should be about getting useful information and getting it easily, not being 'entertained' and subjected to frivolous facts and bandwidth-choking, mediocre multimedia," he says.

"We also believe in making a site useful from the word Go. That means, come the launch date of our site, it will be useful and consistent to anyone who browses it."

For those purposes Linux has proved an ideal tool. Bitscream is currently using Linux as the backend for the Web site, and relies heavily on the free software packaged with the Linux operating system, which Robinson says has been useful in filtering and formatting of data using basic tools such as the 'vi' editor and simple C programs.

"Even before implementation of popular scripting and query languages such as 'perl' and 'mysql' that are also freely available for the Linux platform , standard tools that come with a Unix operating system have proven useful and effective," he says.

Robinson's first version of Linux was downloaded over a 2400 baud modem and ran on a 486 clone machine. His first Linux network ran over a Bidirectional Parallel cable.

He's never experienced a Linux machine crash.

Pick Linux Computing

Pick Linux Computing is specifically targeting smaller businesses that have previously chosen to delay implementation of IT solutions, because the return on investment has not outweighed the cost of the implementation.

Director Graham Clark says a Linux solution is one of the most reliable and versatile operating systems in the world today, appealing to IT managers and financial controllers for its cost effectiveness.

"No longer do organisations need to invest in tens of thousands of dollars to implement 'super-servers' to run the popular commercial alternatives. Rather the Linux operating system costs next to nothing and will even run on an old 486 PC if that's what you have spare," he says.

"Linux is in its infancy in Australia, but in the next couple of years Linux may become the preferred server operating system for Australian IT managers."

Meanwhile software company International Software Laboratories has built several large systems on Linux platforms.

Although one has just been converted to a Solaris platform the company still uses distributed Linux workstations in the warehouse.

"We also have nine retail chains using Linux for merchandising and 70-80 stores using Linux for Point of Sale," says managing director Rick Marshall.

"We use Linux exclusively to get sales figures from the shops to a Web site where suppliers can view them next morning."

According to Scirocco Linux Systems managing director Charles Hodgson, there are two major factors promoting growing corporate use of Linux.

The first is the significant corporate backing Linux has now received from organisations like IBM, HP, Dell, Compaq, Oracle, Sybase and Informix.

He notes IBM has even demonstrated Linux running on everything from a wrist watch through to an S/390 mainframe. But he says Linux is also being promoted by growing corporate unease over the future of Microsoft in the wake of the adverse US Department of Justice ruling, coupled with a general and earnest desire to find credible alternatives to the Microsoft platforms.

"Two years ago if an IT manager suggested to senior management that he was looking at deploying Linux he may well have been laughed out of the room.

"Now I think the climate has changed," Hodgson says. "While it would be ludicrous to suggest that Microsoft-based infrastructure should or could be replaced en masse overnight, there are now good reasons for looking at utilising Linux based machines in a company's IT infrastructure."

He says Linux's heritage and affinity with the Internet make it a prime candidate for use in the new economy, with Web, e-mail, FTP, DNS, DHCP and database servers, gateways, firewalls and specialist appliances all natural applications for Linux.

"Linux also has excellent file and print sharing support with existing Microsoft, Mac, Unix and Unix-like operating systems," he says.

"I don't think there is much question on the cost, reliability or performance of Linux. What business needs now from the promoters of Linux is comfort.

Comfort that the commercial applications are here or are coming. Comfort that there will be professional technical support for Linux. Comfort that they will be able to rely upon Linux to deliver business solutions.

Business will evaluate Linux with its head and not its heart. Just because it's the new kid on the block won't mean it will receive any special favours."

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