Is Linux Ready for E-commerce?

SAN MATEO (03/27/2000) - Ask any Linux aficionado if Linux is the best choice for e-commerce, and you'll get an enthusiastic "Yes!" Ask why Linux is best, and too often the answers are more political than practical. But for an IT manager, causes and crusades don't figure into planning. IT managers have budgets; they can afford to pay for their software. They need more than "It's not Windows" to convince them that Linux is the way to go. If you want them to adopt Linux as the platform for their e-commerce solution, tell them that Linux is going to get their e-commerce site running sooner, that it will keep it running no matter what goes wrong, and that they won't wish they had spent my money on a commercial OS a year from now.

That takes a bit more doing. It's easy for a pundit or a fan to haul out a litany of Linux's features and anecdotes to spice up cafeteria conversation.

When it comes down to dollars and reputation, to credit card transactions and thousands of hits per day, would you trust your company's e-commerce strategy to a bevy of PC servers running Linux?

As far as Linux has come, it still has some distance to cover before it can stand toe-to-toe with Solaris, AIX, HP-UX, AS/400, or Windows 2000 and come out the winner. Yet you may be surprised to learn just where Linux stands in the e-commerce field. As you strategize for the coming year, you'd be wise to consider stirring Linux into your mix of e-commerce server candidates. It is rapidly gaining ground on its merits, quite apart from (and perhaps in spite of) its cult magnetism.

Going it alone

With Linux, there are two ways to turn your e-commerce requirements into a solution: Build it or buy it. Rolling your own applications is the only way to be sure you'll get what you want, and it is surely the Linux way of doing things. When you opt to build with Linux, you gain a distinct advantage: An embarrassment of riches in terms of development tools and resources is bundled with the OS, and if you stick with the open-source tools and libraries, you'll pay no license fees or royalties. Those very tools are used to build the OS itself, so they're battle-hardened and more than equal to the task of application development.

You can take your pick of programming languages with confidence that your developers will have reliable and well-documented tools. C and C++ reign supreme among serious Linux programmers, with the Perl scripting language close behind. Perl is easy to learn, executes quickly (for an interpreted language), and open-source Perl libraries implementing everything from date arithmetic to Web servers abound. The same is true for C++. In fact, equipping a commercial OS with function libraries equivalent to those given away with Linux would likely bankrupt you. Even then, your developers wouldn't have the source code to learn from.

On the downside, Linux's standard tools lack the polish and integration found in most commercial development environments. Metrowerks Inc.'s Code Warrior provides Linux C++ developers with an affordable ($124) integrated environment.

And Inprise Corp., just acquired by Linux champion Corel Corp., offers the Foundation version of its Linux JBuilder Java environment for free download.

However, the Foundation release lacks support for enterprise Java features, an area served better by JBuilder Professional ($799) and Enterprise ($2,499) editions.

Soft in the middle

With Windows 2000, Microsoft made enterprise services including transactions, publish/subscribe, brokered objects, and message-oriented middleware part of its OS. Out of the box, Linux makes a great network server, but it lacks essential middle-tier facilities. Ironically, the quickest route to a suite of commercial middleware services for Linux is via Sun Microsystems.

Sun's Java 2, Enterprise Edition (J2EE) includes an impressive set of middleware services. Sun has no great love for Linux -- the company's official Java releases remain limited to Solaris and Windows NT -- but licensees are slowly bringing enterprise Java to Linux. Oracle leads the way with its $6,767 Suite. The Java server components of Oracle's suite are not J2EE compliant, so Suite is a little shy on enterprise services beyond the Oracle8i database.

Lutris Technologies, providers of the open-source Enhydra application server, today shipped Version 3.0 of Enhydra, which includes full J2EE support.

Available for Linux, Unix, and Windows, it pulls in Enterprise JavaBeans (EJB) and CORBA ORB (object request broker) facilities. By April, Lutris will release Enhydra Enterprise, a fully commercial version of Enhydra that will be backed by complete technical support.

Presently, Inprise offers the best deal for full J2EE Linux development. For $2,499, JBuilder Enterprise 3.5 includes a complete Java development environment plus a development-only license for Inprise Application Server 4.

Inprise's appealing Java IDE (integrated development environment) and Inprise Application Server 4's complete set of J2EE services fill the gaps in Linux's development and middleware repertoire.

Don't lift a finger

It isn't easy to find all-in-one, "just add products" e-commerce solutions for Linux. Miva is a major player with its Merchant e-commerce server. At $495 per domain, Miva Merchant is affordable, easy to install and manage, and its cross-platform support means you won't be married to Linux. Merchant is targeted primarily at ISPs, ASPs (application service providers), and Web hosting companies. However, its extremely appealing licensing terms make it worth considering even for a single storefront.

One of the most complete cross-platform e-commerce solutions is IBM WebSphere Commerce Suite Pro Edition 4.1 (WCS), which starts at $38,000. IBM is a friend to Linux, and the base WebSphere server does run on Linux. Unfortunately, IBM has not yet announced WCS support for Linux. Likewise, SilverStream Application Server 3, a J2EE server with a jaw-dropping e-commerce demo (from which many good ideas and techniques can be lifted), seems to run on everything but Linux.

For now.

Vendors are waiting to see if Linux customers will spend big money for high-end packaged solutions. Linux is a price-sensitive market, and many in the core Linux community regard for-profit and non-open-source software as anathema.

Other considerations

Sun just threw enterprise Linux a curve by announcing that Solaris 8 will cost $75 for any Sparc or Intel server with as many as eight processors. This is meant to thwart Linux's advance toward Sun's well-protected stronghold in e-commerce. Sun also means to make it hard for Microsoft to justify Windows 2000's costly and confusing licenses. Unlike Microsoft, Novell, and most Linux vendors, Sun can subsidize an OS loss leader with hardware revenues. Sun is also clinging to ownership of Java, no doubt counting on royalties from J2EE and other enterprise-class Java software.

Linux vendors are just as driven by capitalistic motives. Red Hat charges $55,000 per year for an around-the-clock phone support contract. Most of the larger Linux vendors sell support, and some offer consulting and system integration services as well. Remember to include service costs when comparing Linux to commercial alternatives.

Linux's leagues of devoted hobbyists have not stocked the job market with qualified administrators. Few Linux dabblers, hackers, and students possess the skills needed to keep a Linux server running constantly in the hypervigilant style that e-commerce demands. You should undertake a thorough search for skilled IS staff early, before you're committed to Linux. Keep in mind, however, that aptitude within Solaris, AIX, or HP-UX administration doesn't automatically translate into equivalent Linux skills. Linux is loaded with quirks that require specific experience to understand and overcome. Red Hat is spearheading an effort to certify Linux professionals. Until the value of such certification is known, plan to spend considerable time shopping for Linux talent.

Finally, although Linux is renowned for its temperate consumption of resources, its hardware requirements spike sharply with demanding applications. A Linux e-commerce server needs the same CPU, RAM, redundancy, and data protection required by any enterprise OS. If you cut corners on hardware because of Linux's reputation for being cheap, you will regret it when it comes time to scale or recover from a failure.

Linux is a well-written, affordable PC operating system. It deserves respect, and will eventually receive the widespread recognition it deserves. Even so, overlooking Linux's limitations because it is free, or because you don't like Microsoft, or because open source agrees with your politics is no favor to your business or to the future of Linux.

In the months and years to come, Linux's cachet in enterprise applications will rise. As this happens, more serious users will conclude that Linux deserves consideration alongside traditional operating systems.

Tom Yager is an InfoWorld senior analyst. His book, Windows 2000 Web Applications Guide, is due in April from Prentice Hall PTR. He can reached at

Resources for doing e-commerce on Linux

For more information on open source and commercial e-commerce products for Linux, see one or more of the following links.



****************** www.metrowerks.comTHE BOTTOM LINELinux as e-commerce platformBusiness Case: Linux cannot win by cost alone; Sun has seen to that. The enterprise services and applications Linux needs for e-commerce are on the way.

Until then it's best to wait, watch, and assess Linux's suitability using the same frank measures you apply to all enterprise software.

Technology Case: J2EE promises to solve Linux's middleware crisis. That lays the foundation for in-house e-commerce development. If you wait a while longer, packaged e-commerce solutions (such as IBM's WebSphere Commerce Suite) will likely migrate to Linux.


+ Solid overall design

+ Impressive array of standard network services+ Low core deployment and development costsCons:

- Lacks integration with major ERP (enterprise resource planning) systems- Still gaining enterprise maturity- Some education needed for developers and administrators regarding Linux's capabilities.

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