Linux role in enterprise debated at forum

Even corporate users who don't want anything to do with open source can find at least one use for operating systems juggernaut Linux.

"Get a little Linux in your shop," Jonathan Eunice, president of research firm Illuminata Inc., advised the most skeptical among the attendees of this week's Enterprise Linux Forum in Boston. "It never hurts to let your suppliers know you have alternatives. Linux is a great thing to have for vendor management."

However, it was apparent that for most people at the conference, Linux is clearly being considered for uses other than reminding proprietary IT vendors who is paying their bills. While Linux's advantages in reliability and security were broadly touted at the forum, it is the financial squeeze that vendors are putting on cost-constrained IT departments that is the primary motivator for many companies to look seriously at Linux and other open-source software.

While acknowledging that at the moment he is "just looking" at Linux, one attendee, a systems architect at a Massachusetts financial services firm, said that the potential for cost savings is what is bringing upper management at his company around to considering the Linux platform. And like numerous others at the show, the architect is trying to figure out where the best place to initially apply Linux will be.

For network manager Tony Karakashian of Rochester Midland Corp. in Rochester, New York, Linux was a great fit for use in a VPN (virtual private network). Because Karakashian preferred not to use a commercial version of Linux, the software was free -- he "started playing with Red Hat as a firewall, but there's too much stuff in there," he said during a conference presentation. He simply built firewalls for the company's 15 remote locations using old Pentium-class systems that his company already had, and installed in each a US$700 WAN (wide area network) card. Lest anyone have the perception that an open-source solution lacks support, he pointed out that although he relied on a mailing list of peers for support, helpful responses to questions he posed via email to the list usually came back in under an hour -- a far better record than many vendors can claim.

Indeed, network services and network infrastructure are areas where Linux "does a fabulous job," said Illuminata's Eunice. "This is important because enterprise computing is increasingly becoming network computing," he added. He also sees great potential for Linux in analytics and decision support, applications where IT offers corporate managers demonstrable competitive advantage. "That's where IT is going, not transaction processing, where it's been," he said.

Data warehousing is an application being considered by another conference attendee who said he was "looking for a place to start piloting" Linux in his organization, SimplexGrinnell LP. The Westminster, Massachusetts, manufacturing and services company, which makes sprinkler systems and security monitoring equipment, is attracted to the cost, scalability and performance of Linux-based systems, according to E.J. McIlwaine, director of IT operations and integration. Currently, the company's data warehouse is a "trouble spot" of slow performance as it is running Oracle9i on an older IBM Corp. AIX server that is also carrying other applications. If it could be replaced by two Dell Computer Corp. servers running Red Hat Linux, McIlwaine hopes that performance of Oracle9i would be equal or better, and he would gain the option of scalability, and a degree of failover.

Like IT professionals considering Linux in other corporate environments, McIlwaine is facing the "traditional questions" from his chief financial officer. But he said that he's able to point to the increasing number of Fortune 500 companies using Linux.

Indeed, while talks on how to combat Linux-bashing, Microsoft Corp.-inspired FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) and myths about open source peppered the forum's agenda, it seems that many of the attendees are already heeding Eunice's parting advice: "Ignore the religious war -- focus on the business."

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