Valuing diversity

It's the week after LinuxWorld Conference & Expo, and perhaps you are finding yourself seriously considering a Linux solution. But will it strain your IT staff? Will adding Linux to the datacenter bring unneeded complexity to your operations?

If you already have commercial Unix systems on board, making the transition to Linux is quick and fairly painless from a system administration perspective. And even if you don't run Unix in your datacenter, you are very likely to find that many members of your IT staffare running Linux at home.

But will the addition of Linux bring unwanted complexity to your operation? Actually, it might bring some sorely needed diversity.

In living systems, monocultures are vulnerable entities. When every entity in an organic community is identical, a single flaw can be catastrophic. One potent infectioncan destroy the entire community.

This same theory holds true for computer networks. In IT, though, we call it "single point of failure." If you think the same software on multiple machines cannot be considered a single point of failure, just ask any system administrator who has had to shut down an entiree-mail system for hours because a virus ran the network into the ground. Until the virus can be isolated and destroyed, it can run amok in the network, constantly infecting and reinfecting vulnerable machines.

Open source actually offers a natural defense against this problem: diversity. Not only are there multiple versions of Linux but also multiple similar open-source operating systems. It is entirely possible to have your Web servers running FreeBSD, your Internet name servers running OpenBSD, your older proprietary hardware running NetBSD, and everything else running Linux.

Now I can hear some people reading and crying out in disbelief, "No way! We can't deal with all these different operating systems! There would be too much confusion!"

Well, relax. You don't need to use them all. But you could use two or three, as makes sense for your situation. And it is easier than you might think.

Although Linux and BSD OSes may use different kernels and drivers, they can be handled similarly, thanks to common user interfaces and utilities. Because of this, an administrator versed in one of these OSes can quickly learn another without much effort. This allows you to capitalize on the individual strengths of each OS without going insane trying to manage them.

You could use the security-hardened OpenBSD to guard servers subject to Internet attacks, the swift network stack of FreeBSD to quickly serve Web pages, and the rich application set of Linux for most other tasks without giving your system administrators a coronary.

Sure, this means that administrators will need to track which OS is running on what server. But they'll have plenty of time for that if they are spending less time battling security violations, handling complaints about slow Web pages, or trying to hunt down e-mail viruses.

And don't forget about the time saved by not having to track and process myriad commercial software licenses when the Business Software Alliance calls.

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