Penguins in suits?

The message was clear at last week's LinuxWorld Expo in New York: The Penguin is ready for prime time. With the freshly minted Version 2.4 of the Linux kernel available, vendors showed off the latest advances in open-source computing as industry leaders expressed their confidence in Linux as a mission-critical operating system.

"Linux is coming of age, and what's the next frontier? We think it's the data centre," said Will Swope, general manager of Intel's solutions enabling group.

And yet despite the big-name hoopla, lingering doubts remain about the long-term viability of some key Linux players.

Much of that doubt swirls around whether top Linux operating system distributors can build a business model that consistently generates revenue.

Many of these companies, such as Red Hat, Caldera Systems, and others, have centred their financial hopes on either giving away the operating system or selling it cheaply and making money from product services and support.

One or two distributors have generated added revenue from service and support, but the vast majority has failed to nail down lucrative service contracts with corporate accounts, according to observers.

Most users who have adopted Linux on server and desktop systems prefer getting support from business associates and friends in the Linux community.

"I could never understand why so many thought they could build a business model around services and support," said Derek Burney, president and CEO of Corel. Last month Corel announced it was selling off its Linux operating systems business but would continue investing in its Linux versions of WordPerfect.

"We have Linux stuff deployed side by side with Windows and other proprietary platforms, but if I have an integration issue to be addressed with all that, I'll call in one of the other vendors to come in, not the Linux [OS] guys," said Bill Thompson, senior systems analyst at a large bank in New York.

Some Linux-based OS vendors hope to generate more revenue by bundling their product with another company's hardware or software. IBM bundles its industrial-strength MQSeries and CICS middleware applications with its distributions of Linux; Dell Computer is offering preconfigured servers that include Red Hat Linux along with Oracle software.

Although it is still too early to tell, Red Hat stands to earn more from shipping its Linux OS with high-volume Dell hardware, rather than on its own as a purchase option, most observers agree.

Similarly, IBM late last year signed deals with a few key Linux distributors, including Red Hat, to bundle several of Big Blue's Linux-compatible products. However, not enough of a track record has been established to determine if those deals are directly generating significantly more money for either IBM or the Linux distributors.

Teaming with other companies may also help Linux vendors ramp up service offerings. IBM bolstered the services business for Linux when it announced it would dedicate $US300 million to the cause in the next three years. The funding will enable its Global Services business to offer additional or better services to help users bootstrap a Linux environment or to better integrate it with their existing ones.

Vendors serve up a plateful of Linux

Proof of Linux's readiness for mission-critical environments was demonstrated by some of the industry's bigwigs at the LinuxWorld Expo in New York last week.

Hewlett-Packard introduced a number of Linux management solutions. One, Service Control Manager, will offer a fivefold increase in performance when managing a Linux network, HP officials claimed.

Showing off Linux's scalability, Compaq demonstrated the stability of the operating system running on a cluster of its ProLiant servers.

Meanwhile, addressing the dependability of Linux in a mission-critical environment, Dell Computer demonstrated an IA-64 stack running a data-intensive banking application on Linux, which required the use of Java on a 64-bit Itanium processor. The demo was created in conjunction with Tower Technology, a maker of high-performance Java solutions.

IBM was also on hand to show that Linux has a bright future in high-end computing, announcing at the show that it will soon deliver a 64-way Intel-based server with its NUMA-Q technology layered on top. The system, called the eServer x430, runs the new Linux Application Environment, which is designed to meet enterprises' demand for Linux applications scaled to handle growing e-commerce business.

Finally, Transmeta, maker of the Crusoe processor, was also at the show to discuss improvements in the Mobile Linux OS and Crusoe's capability of operating without a hard drive.

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