Linux slips slowly into the enterprise realm

Linux and open source software are gaining in pilot projects, in-house customized development efforts and Web applications, where Linux has established a beachhead as a quick-to-implement, inexpensive alternative to proprietary operating systems.

Network professionals are using the Linux operating system to support Web and e-commerce applications and relying on programs such as Apache, Samba and the open source network management package BigBrother, or languages such as PHP: the Hypertext Preprocessor, because they are inexpensive and can be quickly deployed in situations in which an approved budget isn't available.

In addition, the big server vendors now support the Linux operating system in a big way. IBM, Compaq Computer, Dell Computer and Hewlett-Packard sell Linux preinstalled on Intel-based boxes and offer technical support for the operating system. Major enterprise software vendors, such as Oracle and SAP AG, have ported their premier database and enterprise resource planning (ERP) applications to the platform.

"Linux is already in the enterprise, being used within the system infrastructure," says Dan Kuznetsky, an analyst with market research firm IDC. "It's being brought in by system [administrators] who need to get a job done for the lowest possible cost."

Kuznetsky says Linux is usually running a Web server, database or messaging software, and "often the corporate IT department doesn't even know it's there. Linux is coming in [the back door] - the same way PCs did in the early '80s."

Resistance to Linux within the CIO's office, although waning, is still high. Evans Research Group numbers show nearly one-third of companies it surveyed did not look favorably on open source development last year. In 1999, almost one-half of those users said Linux development was forbidden in their companies.

Despite that, Linux had a 27 percent market share in 2000, according to IDC.

While IDC estimates that Linux and the xBSD operating systems (BSDi, NetBSD and BSD) will move into the No. 2 position behind Microsoft Windows by the end of 2004, Evans is more skeptical about its general use.

Based on a fall 2000 survey of Linux developers, Evans concluded that only 12.5 percent would use open source to build enterprisewide applications. The company's research indicated that developers' open source needs were focused elsewhere - 21 percent would use open source predominantly to create Web applications, and 19 percent would use it for small, ad hoc applications for their departments or workgroups.

Most users confirm that open source has netted them advantages they wouldn't have with proprietary operating systems or applications.

"We're using [Linux] to develop Web-based applications using PHP and MySQL," says J.E. Martin, technology coordinator for the nonprofit Educational Talent Search at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. "One of my projects is to make our student database available via MySQL and PHP instead of via Microsoft Access. Others [applications] are simpler things like online polls and contests." PHP is a HTML-embedded server-side scripting language.

Orlando Andaco, a system administrator and developer for Mosaic Communications, the first and largest ISP in the Philippines, has used open source to customize Web and messaging utilities and protocols.

"We've modified [Remote Authentication Dial-In User Service], [Post Office Protocol] 3 and the [Internet Message Access Protocol]," Andaco says.

That Linux would be used primarily for Web applications is no surprise, says NetCraft. The research firm shows that more than 58 percent of active Web sites run the freely downloadable Apache Web server. Microsoft's Internet Information Server follows with 19 percent, and Netscape's iPlanet server has a 6 percent market share.

As versions of enterprise applications such as databases, customer relationship management and ERP applications become available on Linux from vendors such as Oracle, SAP and IBM, CIO resistance to Linux is shrinking, IDC's Kuznetsky says.

He says Linux is showing up in healthcare, finance, banking and retail where identical sites and servers are being built.

"They build it once and then chop it up and distribute it," Kuznetsky says. "If you were doing this for 2,000 sites using SCO UnixWare at US$4,500 per license, it would cost $9 million for just the system software." He says Windows would cost $8 million, but with Linux a user can get off for $180 if they buy Red Hat Linux. And they can replicate it as many times as they want.

While IT managers say they typically use Linux and open source tools for first- and second-tier Web applications and replicated sites, they see little hope it will ever replace a back-end Oracle database. At least, not just yet.

"We had a bad experience [with] data corruption [and] bad concurrency with MySQL, and my boss has gotten really allergic to open source databases," Andaco says. "In any case, Oracle works fine, so we're not fixing what isn't broken."

Of all companies, IBM has been most vocal about introducing commercial-grade Linux server applications to organizations. IBM points to companies such as Grede Foundries, which has successfully installed Linux systems as front ends for IBM's System/390 mainframes.

"I've been using Linux for a little more than a year [as a pilot project]," says Rich Smrcina, data center manager for Grede in Milwaukee. "I was able to download source code off the Internet that was written for the Intel platform and compile it on Linux for System/390 and run it without any problems." He downloaded products such as the Apache Web server and Samba, a program that lets Linux look like a Windows NT server.

"I got Apache and Samba running in a couple of weeks," Smrcina says. "I wanted to use Samba to provide online manuals to our programming staff. Users didn't know the difference." He has four Linux servers attached to his S/390, and is running two DNS servers and BigBrother.

IBM's early success in Linux, its port of its DB2 database to Linux, and the amount of money the firm is throwing at the open source market may yet prompt recalcitrant CIOs to deploy Linux in greater numbers.

Support also appears to be a selling point for IT. CIOs aren't keen on depending on Usenet groups or ad hoc support efforts. IBM, Red Hat and Caldera realized this and instituted services and support programs that rival those available for proprietary software. IDC estimates that while the Linux support market is not large now - $56 million this year - it will grow to $285 million in 2004.

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