Ford explores switch to Linux-based servers

Ford Motor Co. in the US is poised to join the ranks of large corporations that are exploring the use of Linux to replace some of their Unix-based servers, company officials confirmed last week.

Ford currently uses versions of Unix from Sun Microsystems Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co. and IBM Corp. But it's considering more widespread use of Linux on Intel Corp. hardware for some of its server-based applications, primarily because of the potential cost benefits, said George Surdu, director of global IT infrastructure at Ford.

"Do we believe Linux will have a home in Ford Motor Co.? The answer is absolutely yes," said Surdu. "Will it be the be-all, end-all for Ford Motor Co.? No way. But we are very encouraged and pretty excited about Linux in certain spaces."

Ford has no plans, however, to move to Linux on the desktop. The company recently signed a new three-year enterprise agreement with Microsoft Corp. covering its desktop operating system, Office applications and other collaborative technologies, according to Ford officials.

A Ford spokeswoman said it's possible that the company may look into open-source on the desktop at some point in time, but she said it won't happen in the "foreseeable future."

In the meantime, Surdu said he thinks Linux is "absolutely ready for prime time" for selected server-based applications. He said decisions will be based on application type and transaction, architecture and design requirements.

Surdu said the exploration of Linux is being done as part of an aggressive worldwide program by Ford to simplify and standardize its infrastructure. He estimated the work could take three to five years and noted that Ford has accumulated over time "just about every flavor of everything."

"I believe we are not too different from many companies in that we have this one-in-a-row syndrome. Every new solution is a new architecture and a different type of technology, and that requires a tremendous amount of integration," Surdu said, adding that the wide range of technologies has become cumbersome and difficult to manage.

Ford certainly isn't the only large corporation expected to test the Linux waters in a bigger way in the server environment. In a Forrester Research Inc. survey of 75 IT executives at companies with at least US$500 million in annual revenue, 24 percent of the respondents said they were likely or very likely to adopt Linux during the next year for infrastructure purposes, according to Ted Schadler, an analyst at the Cambridge, Mass.-based firm.

Among that group, 17 percent said they were likely to use Linux for application serving, and 15 percent said they were likely to run databases and engineering workstations on Linux. But only one company said it was likely to move to Linux desktops during the coming year, Schadler said.

Although Ford is looking at Linux in new and different scenarios, the open-source operating system isn't entirely new to Ford, Surdu noted. The company for several years has used Beowulf Linux clusters for engineering applications, and it has also used Linux for some of its file and print servers, he said.

Ford is advertising for a systems administrator to participate in developing its global Red Hat Inc. Advanced Server 2.1 Linux load, according to an ad in LinuxBusinessWeek.

The position is advertised as a long-term contract that will run more than one year. According to the ad, responsibilities include developing and testing the Ford Linux load, packaging and distributing the load for global implementation and preparing complete installation documentation and test procedures.

Ford also has a contract with SuSE Linux AG, according to a spokeswoman for the automaker.

Dan Kusnetzky, an analyst at IDC, said his company tracks about 140 Linux vendors. He said Linux commands a very small percentage of the overall market for desktop operating systems. "The strength of Linux right now can be found in server operating environment shipments," Kusnetzky said. "The primary use is for infrastructure: Web services, file services, print services, basic network services."

An IDC survey of 1,000 IT decision-makers in North America and Europe showed that the top reasons why their companies are deploying Linux are the initial cost of the software, a perception that the software is reliable and highly available, lower ongoing cost of operations, the availability of applications on Linux and their general approval of the open-source model. Some also indicated that they have looked to Linux because of issues they have had with Microsoft licensing or business practices.

About a third of the companies polled had fewer than 100 employees, and a third had more than 1,000, Kusnetzky said.

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