Focus on Linux - Cover story

No longer stuck in the shadow of big brother Unix, Linux is finally coming of age. But while Linux has street cred and a groovy mascot, does it make the grade when it comes to e-commerce? What are the implications of the rise of Linux for IT professionals and educators? Caitlin Fitzsimmons reports.

Perhaps best known for its cute penguin mascot, Linux attracts a loyal breed of devotees who are unanimous in their support for its reliability and open source properties. Already well-known and liked in the education sector, Linux is rising in popularity among IT professionals and the corporate world, as Unix users make the switch to Linux.

Anthony Rumble, managing director of Linux reseller Everything Linux, says the advantages of Linux are its reliability and the choice of vendors and cost savings that come with open source software.

"Linux is ready now for most vertical markets requiring back-end e-commerce," Rumble says. "Because it's based on Unix, it's much more robust than the offerings from the Microsoft camp. The main difference between Linux and other Unix operating systems is that the others are commercial and proprietary, while Linux is an open system. This gives the user control of the code and a choice of vendors. With a closed system, the vendors could disappear leaving you with no product support. It's like buying a car with the hood welded shut."

With Linux, the user has a choice of vendors and can easily terminate the relationship if there are any problems. In a worst case scenario, the user can contract a Linux programmer to fix the problem, while in a proprietary relationship they are completely dependent on a single vendor. Paul Rushton, managing director of Linux manufacturer SGI, says Linux is well-known for its stability and efficient use of memory. "Some people literally never reboot," Rushton explains. "It's not a burdensome system to operate."

Linux also offers a financial advantage, as the software itself is basically free and the only charge is for people's time.

Most significant software is already being ported to Linux, offering a great deal of choice and capability. For example, the freely available Star Office enables the user to read and prepare Microsoft-compatible documents within Linux, eliminating the main reason for running Windows.

Both Rumble and Rushton claim that Linux is already widely used in the e-commerce arena with great success.

Everything Linux's Rumble was involved in helping set up the back-end of the Corporate Express e-commerce site, which sells office supplies and stationery over the Web. Corporate Express uses Linux for its EDI systems and Web-based e-commerce, and Rumble estimates the system handles a current turnover of close to $10 million per month. "It was all built from the bottom up. Because they had control of the code, they could get going much faster than other vendors, and they gained a competitive advantage," Rumble says.

Rumble says Linux usually sits alongside the main system. With the Corporate Express site, the e-commerce systems are all Linux-based, while the back end uses Master Pack Universe AIX IBM RS6000.

SGI's Rushston points to Linux's traditional strength in Web serving as an indicator of its potential in e-commerce hosting, although he concedes the leap is "not a trivial one". He adds that all major vendors are porting their e-commerce software to Linux, including IBM's WebSphere platform and Mercantec, which SGI resells.

"Linux is very strong in the Internet space and is common in Web servers," says Rushton. "The leap from straightforward Web serving to e-commerce is not a trivial one, as you need to be able to conduct business, not just put up Web pages. Leading e-commerce sites are adopting Linux."

Rushton says most of the disadvantages are actually perceived disadvantages: "People ask, ‘who can I sue if it all goes wrong?' That's flawed thinking… who really goes and sues Microsoft? You have control of the source code, so at the worst case scenario you hire a programmer to fix the problem."

"The operating system itself is getting there," Rushton continues. "I probably wouldn't use it to run the financial enterprise system of a computer with several hundred thousand people. But that's not an operating system problem, that's a hardware problem - you wouldn't be using a PC, you'd be using a mainframe."

Keith Whyte, technical manager at value-added reseller and integrator Avnet Integrand, believes Linux is brimming with potential, but he is "not convinced" that it is ready to meet the demands of e-commerce.

"Linux will be capable of dealing with e-commerce, but I'm not convinced it's there yet," Whyte explains. "It's like saying [Windows] NT is a full enterprise solution. There's a lot of going for it, and it will be, but it's not there yet. There are a lot of Linux vendors and they've all got their own little quirks. It's not as close as NT at this time, but I wouldn't underestimate Linux. It will make its presence known."

Whyte says that very few of Avnet Integrand's customers are currently using Linux for high-end applications, although some are using it on their desktop. "I don't know why for certain, but my guess is that it hasn't really come to maturity yet, in that there are lots of different versions out there. At the moment it's still classed as a bit of a freebie solution."

Rolf Jester, principal analyst at Gartner, says that Linux is already being used in certain e-commerce applications and is doing a "workmanlike job" in a couple of niche areas.

There are two segments of the marketplace where Linux is already widely used, according to Jester: infrastructure servers, and application servers.

Linux is being deployed in small infrastructure servers that manage some aspect of the e-commerce system, including gateways, name servers and intranet servers. Linux also fills a very specific single purpose functionality inside application servers, or ‘black boxes', which embed Linux inside along with the chips.

"It's just another operating system and just another Unix," Jester says. "It fills two good economic niches. That won't please the fans because they want to take over the world, and it won't please those who hate it because it's doing a good job, but that's reality. The hype is over and the reality is it's doing a workmanlike job in a couple of instances."

SGI's Rushton says there is a lot of interest in Linux from the technical community, but ultimate success depends on the business decision-makers becoming more confident. He predicts that Linux will be adopted more and more as people build out of Web serving into e-commerce.

According to both Rumble and Rushton, Linux professionals are not hard to find, because Unix professionals find it very easy to reskill and cross over to Linux. "You have to remember that a Unix professional is about five minutes away from being a Linux professional," says Rumble from Everything Linux. "The concepts are the same, but the semantics change slightly. All you need is a refresher or a day course. There's about a 90 per cent crossover in skills."

A teaching tool

Linux is well liked by IT educators at universities, not only because the freeware is friendly to their tight budgets, but more particularly because the source code is open and can be used as a teaching tool.

Jerry Vochteloo, a lecturer in the IT faculty at Sydney's University of Technology (UTS), says he uses Linux extensively in his course, because it's a system students can fully explore, with no hidden proprietary code.

"I teach operating systems and networks and the course uses Linux extensively in its technical aspects," Vochteloo expands. "When you're teaching people, it's important to be hands on. With most commercial operating systems you can't get to the source code and it's a fight to see the internals, but with Linux I can explain something and then show the piece of code. My aim is to eventually let them sit down and modify the code and see what happens. It gives them a concrete idea of how it all works, which is nice from a teaching point of view."

IT students at UTS are split between those studying Information Systems (IS), which is more business-oriented, and those studying Computer Science, which is more technical.

"The student reaction is reasonably bipolar," Vochteloo says. "The IS students tend to stay away from the technical stuff, but those who are into the more technical aspects love Linux, because the stuff they learn in lectures, they can try out at home. They can download Linux onto their home PC and play around with it. Some of their skills are amazingly high level."

Vochteloo says he is seeing an increasing demand for Linux skills and training in the wider community.

Because of the high level of skill overlap, Unix educators can easily cross over to become Linux educators. Indeed, Linux recently replaced Unix in the curriculum of the UTS Continuing Education program, in response to popular demand.

"We're offering a Continuing Education course to the general public," Vochteloo explains. "It used to be a Unix course, but now it's Linux. The fact that it's free and you can do anything you want with it, is very appealing. Also the quality of software rivals anything out there, including Microsoft. Just about anything you might want to do, you can do it on Linux."

As well as a high level of Linux acceptance in the university sector, there are also a growing number of organisations providing Linux training and certification.

Vochteloo says he is increasingly striking more commercial Linux certification companies at events such as graduate recruitment seminars, an observation confirmed by Rumble from Everything Linux.

"There are a number of organisations providing Linux training and this is growing," Rumble says. "It's looking up in the training space, because people teaching Unix find it easy to cross over."

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